* This article originally appeared in the Stonington Times on May 3rd, 2007.
When Portuguese immigrants arrived in Stonington they brought with them a vibrant part of their culture that still suffuses the town today: soccer. Talk to anyone about the most influential players and coaches in the area and you will get an earful of slick-sounding Portuguese names: Mendonca, Pinto, Ponte, Souza, DeCastro, Cruz. Most of these families came from soccer-crazy towns in the Azores in the mid-20th century.
One can trace the trajectory of soccer in Stonington through Joe Mendonca, who emigrated from the Azores in 1967. In his youth, Mendonca brought his island-grown flare to the local fields. Now 54, he gets animated like a teenager when talking about the growth of soccer in Stonington.
“I came over here in ’67,” Mendonca said. “And they had just started soccer here. So I came in and played a little bit, and I was like, ‘what is this?’ They were whacking people left and right. I was like, ‘Give me the ball, I just want to run.’”
In 1967, Richard Woodworth and his friend, Ed Harrison, who both played at UConn, started a recreational youth soccer league with the help of the Frank Turek and Stonington and Mystic Community Centers. It was called the Mystic Valley Soccer League.
“The first year we had about 30 to 35 boys involved, mostly (of) Portuguese decent. And by the next fall we had over one hundred kids in the league … after a couple years we had close to 45 teams with a few thousand kids involved.”
The league served as one of the few places that kids from southeastern Connecticut could play competitive soccer. It drew teams from Groton, New London, Waterford, and Norwich.
“It was a hotbed of soccer here in southeastern Connecticut,” Mendonca, who was one of the first 35 boys running around on the Mystic and Stonington fields, said.
“The league grew quick … but it became too competitive for some people. You had scores of like 18-0.”
As the popularity of the sport increased and the talent gap between teams widened, other towns started to form their own recreational soccer leagues, and numbers leaked out of the Mystic Valley League.
Although the league doesn’t have the same level of competition it once had, it still runs strong in the town.
“We have 350 to 400 kids sign up from Stonington and Pawcatuck every Fall,” Tim Cieplik, the athletic director at the Stonington Community Center, said.
The league still serves as a way for youths to get exposure to the game and play for fun against teams from other recreational leagues in the area.
While the youth Mystic Valley League waned a little in the 1970’s, an adult league picked up strength.
This league, loosely referred to as the tri-state league, started in the first half of the 20th century in Massachusetts. Benjamin Souza, who worked in the Velvet Mill, introduced a team of primarily Portuguese co-workers from Stonington to this league in the early 1960’s.
“At the time I think they were the only team from Connecticut in the league,” Dennis Souza, Benjamin’s son, said.
Portuguese-American players dominated the league.
“The Portuguese social clubs tended to sponsor the teams,” Fred Souza, Dennis’ brother, said.
Naturally, the Stonington Portuguese Holy Ghost Society sponsored the Stonington team, who played against other ethnic clubs from Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
According to Joe Cruz, who immigrated from the Azores in 1964 and became a mainstay in the Stonington soccer scene ever since, 1968 marked the first year that this Stonington team qualified for the prestigious “Luso” league, as it was known among the Portuguese, which represented the elite clubs in the tri-state area.
Joe Mendonca latched onto this league in the seventies, when the clubs began to pour more money into their prized teams.
“At one time it was the best in the country,” Mendonca said. “In the seventies and eighties, it was better than the professional leagues. It was all year around … sometimes they would get four or five thousand people at games. And they would pay you … there was money involved, sometimes big money.”
Players on the Stonington team still needed to work. Joe Cruz, who joined the team in 1972, recalls his grueling daily schedule:
“I worked at Pfizer as a chemical operator. I would work all day and get off at midnight. Then I would get up at seven and we would go play a game in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Then I would come back home and go to work for 10 or 12 hours. I did it for 10 years.”
Considered a semi-professional league, the “Lusa” league drew professional caliber talent.
“They had professional teams come down here to play,” Mendonca said, pointing to Owens field. “Right here. Good players. Really good players would come … this was one of the only fields in the league with grass.”
As team’s stretched themselves financially to attract the best talent, and as more outsiders criticized the league’s ethnic solidarity, the “Lusa” league crumbled. It still exists today as a tri-state adult league. But to those like Mendonca, who remember it at the height of its powers, it doesn’t hold the same draw. Stonington no longer consistently enters teams.
Through the ebb and flow of different youth and adult leagues, the local Portuguese influence on the sport has remained a constant.
Groups of talented Portuguese-American kids impacted high level youth club soccer. In the early 1980’s Mendonca put together a group of eleven and twelve year olds from the town that would go on to win state and regional tournaments throughout New England.
When they got to high school this group reached the state championship game for Stonington High in 1989. Another group of Portuguese-American players carried Stonington in the mid-nineties. Stonington shared a state championship in 1994 and then reached the finals again in 1995.
“When Stonington [High] was at its peak it was during a time period when all of the most dominant players on the team were Portuguese,” Pat McCarney, the current coach of the Stonington High soccer team, said.
Names like Ponte, DeCastro, Teixeira, Pinto and Mendonca carried those teams.
“In the seventies, eighties, and nineties the soccer around here was a direct reflection of the Portuguese heritage,” Cieplik said. “You don’t see it as much anymore. But it’s still there.”
Because of a number of factors the Portuguese influence on soccer in Stonington has dwindled. Primarily, immigration slowed. Also, as soccer became more mainstream, it diluted the Portuguese influence on the sport. And a variety of athletic offerings at the school and club level now draw kids to other sports.
But the families that once constituted the core of the sport in the area still give a noticeable Portuguese flavor to soccer leagues and camps. Pontes, Pintos and Mendoncas still battle on a heat-baked Owen field during the six versus six adult summer league. Portuguese names still pepper teams in the Stonington Soccer Club and Premier clubs in the area.
And Joe Mendonca, who still coaches at Wheeler High School, spends afternoons running soccer clinics through the Stonington Community Center with young kids.
“He doesn’t come here for the money,” Cieplik said. “Trust me. He comes here to give back his knowledge and to communicate his passion for the game to the kids.”