Soccer league fights for field

A monthlong battle over the West River Memorial Park soccer field has gotten personal.

Citing claims of discrimination, members of the New Haven Soccer League have protested the city’s choice to move the league from West River Park — their home turf of 20 years — to three separate fields across the city, from West Haven to near the Yale Bowl. After the city awarded the field to a coed Ecuadorean league based in Fair Haven, members of the 25-team New Haven league have claimed that the city’s decision will cause a rift in community relations. City officials, though, stand by their decision.

“It was a challenge making the decision, but the city’s plans are now set in stone,” New Haven Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts said in an interview Monday.

But as evidenced by recent protests and extensive complaints, Smuts conceded: “We did not foresee the New Haven Soccer League’s attachment to the field.”

Smuts said the city’s refusal to renew the New Haven league access to the two fields along Ella T. Grasso Boulevard was not a political choice, but one largely due to concern that the league has outgrown the venue: a “matter of utilization,” Smuts said. The impact of illegal parking, unlicensed food vendors, public drinking during weekend soccer meets, and increasing wear-and-tear on the grass were the primary reasons behind its decision to offer the fields to a smaller 16-team Ecuadorean soccer league, he said. The Ecuadorean league had been applying for rights to the field for the past three years.

“It is a case of one league having outgrown its venue after many years and another league which has outgrown its location,” Smuts said. “We want to allow both leagues to grow and have enough space.”

Oliver Goodridge, manager of the United Nations Soccer Club of New Haven, a member of the New Haven Soccer League, said the decision discriminates against a league of New Haven residents and players who ought to be given priority access to the conveniently located field.

For Alberto Bustos, president of the New Haven Soccer League, the struggle over West River Park is more than simply a question of optimal utilization of New Haven’s sporting fields. Calling the city’s decision “unfair,” Bustos said the plan to move the soccer league to three separate fields threatens the community bonds that have formed over the past two decades. He said the decision will negatively impact relations between local ethnic groups.

“Our league is composed of members from all backgrounds — there are Africans, Mexicans, Italians and Portuguese. A move to three separate fields is going to break this sense of community and cause logistical problems,” Bustos said.

Goodridge said the New Haven Soccer League finds itself frustrated in its dealings with city officials. He said that while Smuts and city parks director Robert Levine have cooperated closely with the league for a number of years, the “abrupt ultimatum” to boot the league off the West River Park field proved immensely disappointing.

“The city did not give the president Alberto Bustos enough time to address its concerns over drinking, illegal parking and unlicensed food vendors,” Goodridge said. “And when we did come up with solutions to the problems, they had already made up their mind and were not willing to listen.”

Indeed, Bustos said a meeting with city aldermen last Thursday, at which league members complained about the decision, made little progress as Smuts and Levine upheld the city’s position. The protests staged outside City Hall by over 20 soccer players last Friday were also met with stubborn silence, he said.

Smuts said though all soccer leagues may apply for access to the West River Park again next year, this year’s decision is final. The league plays from May to September.

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