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By Stephen Press
Hometown Weekly Staff
This Memorial Day weekend, Needhamites will partake in a number of traditions that wouldn't strike you as being especially out of the ordinary. There will be backyard barbecues, of course. Parades and homages to our servicemen and women. Families brought together to relax and laugh. There's another tradition, though - one that's particular to Needham: soccer.
Soccer is working its way deeper into our national consciousness, with luminaries from the Premiership and La Liga, in addition to those in our own domestic league, beamed into our households every weekend. Needham, however, was well ahead of the curve.
This year, the town celebrates the 40th anniversary of its annual Memorial Day Tournament. The Tournament, which traces its lineage back to the summer of '72, began when Coach Don Brock invited four teams from Canada to play local teams from Needham, Wellesley and Winchester.
It's managed to grow a bit since then. A few statistics for perspective:
• There will be 1,128 participating teams this year, hailing from all six New England States, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Canada and England.
• 45,000-50,000 attendees - including players, coaches, family, and referees - are conservatively expected to attend.
• The tournament utilizes 100 fields in roughly 30 communities, private schools and colleges in Boston, including Gillette Stadium.
• There will be over 750 referees from across the globe at the tournament, including a Chinese contingent in 2016.
To say the least, it's a long way from the summer of '72.
"I've grown up in Needham," says Mark Miskin, Tournament Director and Executive Director of the Needham Soccer Club. "I actually played on the early teams of the Needham Soccer Club." Miskin has the unique perspective of having watched both the tournament and Beautiful Game mature.
It was a process, to say the least.
"Most people didn't know how it was played, the rules," he says, reminiscing about the game's salad days in suburban America. "Most parents had to learn while they were coaching their kids. I used to go to a camp at Dean Jr. College. That was the first film I remember watching of soccer. You couldn't get it on TV here."
Here we are, forty years later, and such a situation seems inconceivable. Soccer is a schoolyard mainstay. It’s on television and in video games. Programs and tournaments like Needham's have been in the vanguard of the game's march in the States.
"It's a nice way to look back and I'm able to see where the sport has come," he reflects. "There's been some 'Oh that's soccer, it'll never catch on, it'll never be a major sport in this country.' I look at that and I laugh, and I see where it's come."
"It's here to stay. At the pro level, the high school level, collegiate level. It's heartwarming and puts a smile on my face. It didn't go away, and it's really been fun to watch grow. The growth of the tournament is an indication of how it's grown."
Still, if you press him, Mark will tell that the most satisfying thing about the tournament has nothing to with the teams on the field.
"What makes me feel great is the growth of the marshals [the tournament staffers] that we see," he says. "Some people have been working the event for 10 years. It's something I believe has given them tremendous life skills as they've grown older and moved on to professional careers. They have to interact with coaches, parents, angry parents, weather, scheduling issues - all the operations that come with the weekend."
"To me, it is tremendous watching all these marshals grow older and wiser."
He waxes poetic a few moments more, heaping praise and affection on the myriad individuals who make the tournament possible, before cutting to the chase:
"This tournament is about more than playing soccer," he says. "It's about the community, the partnerships we've developed. It's a partnership all around."