In 2010, after 12 seasons as a professional team at the third division level, Western Mass Pioneers decided to move down to the amateur Premier Development League. Now in the fall of 2014 the club is ready to regain professional status as a founding member of the American Soccer League. Western Mass Pro Soccer, the specific team under the umbrella of WMP, plays its first match this weekend against Mass United FC.
The American Soccer League is an experiment in low-cost professional soccer with a focus on developing professional players. Though the league only boasts 8 teams from New England to the mid-Atlantic, Western Mass Pioneers is more than pleased with what they've seen from the ASL so far.
When I asked the club's Communication Director Brandon Smith why the club decided to start running a professional team now, he responded quite simply, "We believe it is the right time." Smith continued, "The ASL is committed to the development of the US player, regional competition, and a low cost business model that should prove sustainable."
Don't fret, New England soccer fans, Western Mass is evaluating other options if the ASL doesn't survive the growing pains of a start-up league. The ASL season runs from fall through the spring with a break during winter, which leaves the summer open for Western Mass to continue operating a team in USL's PDL. "In addition to the ASL, we continually look to find leagues that fit our model and we want to provide the best fan experience we can," Smith told me. "Our stadium is second to none and we offer a very reasonably priced, safe, fun family experience at Lusitano Stadium."
If you're wondering why the club hasn't jumped back to a professional league sooner, the following comments hold some clues. "Most professional leagues out there are very costly buy ins and there is no regional play, all national play, along with a very big budget to contend with."
This reasoning is very similar to why the club dropped out of the professional game when the USL Second Division ceased to exist during the initial rounds of the fight between the entities that would become USL Pro and the NASL: "Basically a lack of local (regional) competition and a high cost."
"There were a few deciding factors in regard to our self-relegation," Smith explained. "Most teams did not have the financial stability to remain in the professional ranks so they started to drop out of the pros to a more financially feasible PDL. In the final season of our pro USL [USL Second Division] team, we were the only team left in New England. Our closest competitor via plane was Bermuda and by car was Maryland. Travel costs alone made it very difficult to remain in that division."
When the club dropped down to the de facto fourth division of American soccer, Western Mass found some familiar faces. "We competed in the USL PDL against the same teams that we started playing against when we first started as professional! It was simply a regional low cost competitive league." Other teams in PDL's Northeast Division included Seacoast United Phantoms (then New Hampshire Phantoms), Portland Phoenix (now GPS Portland Phoenix), and Vermont Voltage; all of which are former professional clubs and still mainstays on New England soccer in the PDL.
Joining Western Mass as founding members of the ASL are Mass United FC, based in Lynn, MA, and Rhode Island Reds/Oceaneers from Cranston. The farthest trip Western Mass Pro Soccer has this fall is to Maryland to face the Evergreen Diplomats, a distance that was the shortest trip during the club's last season in the USL Second Division.
A standout on Western Mass Pro Soccer's roster is Ludlow native Jay Willis. Willis attended Holyoke Community College, where he was was NJCAA All-American twice, and Southern New Hampshire University, where he was a Division II national runner-up. He turned professional with Western Mass Pioneers in 2005 and also played for the Massachusetts Twisters indoor team. In 2010, Worcester State University hired Willis as the head coach of their men's soccer team after he coached at the Leszek Wrona Soccer Academy in Bristol, Connecticut, and at Ludlow High School. Willis has been ever-present across the New England soccer scene and will now return to the professional game with Western Mass this fall.
"Jay is a hard nosed defender who played in the Pioneers system as a junior, a pro, back to an amateur, and now back to the pros!" Smith told me. In addition to Willis, there will be 15 other players on the Western Mass Pro Soccer roster that have previously played for WMP in the PDL. To further illustrate the club mentality within Western Mass Pioneers both head coach Federico Molinari and assistant coach Mario Monsalves are former players who have joined the club's staff. In the words of the Communication Director, "We have a true developmental system!"
Regardless of how one feels about the American Soccer League in general, Western Mass Pioneers have found a good fit in a circuit that provides regional play, low-entry costs, small budgets, and the opportunity to give chances to local standout players.
When asked about how confident the club is about success on and off the field, Smith called on the club's experience fielding professional teams. With an extensive youth team system, an amateur development team in the PDL, and the functional know-how in the office staff, Western Mass is prepared to hit the ground running. "As long as the league is committed to its franchises with support and resources, the business model is reasonably priced and affordable to maintain."
The five additional home matches this fall, on top of the seven in the summer during the PDL season, may provide significant revenue for the club but perhaps more importantly gives fans more opportunities to see quality soccer locally. "One of the biggest complaints from our fans is that seven games simply are not enough," Smith told me, half-jokingly.
"We believe and hope that our fans will continue on coming to support us as long as we put a good team on the field and keep up our game day experiences here at Lusitano Stadium." Judging from the 13-0 scoreline by which Western Mass dismantled amateur side Greater Lowell United, the team is already half-way there.
Western Mass Pioneers open their season on Saturday, August 30, at home against Mass United FC. The game kicks off from Lusitano Stadium in Ludlow, MA, at 7:00PM.