A statue of Portuguese soccer legend Eusebio da Silva Ferreira, which stands just inside the gates of Lusitano Stadium. Photo by Cameron Koubek
LUDLOW, Ma. - Just off an inauspicious stretch of the Massachusetts Turnpike sits Lusitano Stadium, one of the lesser-known but more historic grounds in American soccer. The stadium’s website markets it as, “The Soccer Capital of New England,” and given the rich past of the club that calls it home, you’d be hard-pressed to disagree.
During the 20th century, the town of Ludlow attracted growing numbers of Portuguese immigrants. At the turn of the 21st century, the 2000 census showed over half the population was of Portuguese, French or Polish descent. Those Portuguese roots play a massive role in the town’s soccer history as far back as 1922, when members of local recreation club Gremio Lusitano first played on a dirt field across the road from their clubhouse.
98 years later, the club is still playing in the same spot.
“Gremio Lusitano Club, the owners of the Pioneers, has been in existence for nearly 100 years. It’s an incredible history,” said Western Mass Pioneers General Manager Greg Kolodziey. “The soccer tradition in Ludlow connects so many generations. Many families came over from Portugal over the years, so it goes without saying that soccer in Ludlow became a favorite sport.”
Through the 1940’s and 50’s, Lusitano welcomed some of Europe’s biggest teams, such as Everton FC of England and Jönköping FC of Sweden. Though the parent club’s name remains Gremio Lusitano to this day, the team renamed itself the Western Mass Pioneers in 1998 when it joined USISL D3 Pro, a league which became the modern USL just one year later.
The Pioneers won the USISL D3 Pro title in 1999, with the final at Lusitano Stadium played in front of a crowd of 6,000.
The entrance to the Western Mass Pioneers' Lusitano Stadium, with a nod to the club's 1999 USISL D3 Pro title. Photo by Cameron Koubek
Lusitano Stadium is a bit more polished now than it was in those past decades, with well-laid turf installed in 2013, stands on each sideline for spectators, and a clubhouse. But it retains plenty of hallmarks of its original character.
The faded signs by the entrance are evidence of the team’s many years in the community, while the statue of Portuguese soccer legend Eusebio just inside the gates shows its unwavering connection to its roots.
A synthetic surface was installed at Lusitano Stadium in 2013 to help it sustain increasing use by Pioneers' youth soccer programs. Photo by Cameron Koubek
Soccer’s consistent popularity in Ludlow has given the club tremendous resilience, a quality that’s plenty helpful at the moment. The Pioneers and Gremio Lusitano are important community institutions, and even while soccer can’t be played, people still care about them.
“The passion the people have here, the attitude for the games,” said former Pioneers midfielder Maximiliano Viera on what makes the club special in a piece done by USSoccer.com last February. “The town, they do everything for the club, they’re really passionate about it.”
The Pioneers won League Two’s Northeast Division in 2019, and narrowly missed out on winning the Eastern Conference title, falling 1-0 to Reading United in the conference final. They looked poised for another strong run in 2020, but the club has plenty of optimism for what’s to come, and is more than prepared to deal with challenging times.
“It has been a tough season to sit out,” said Kolodziey. “We had a good team coming back, along with an Open Cup bid, so we were obviously excited to get things rolling. But without a doubt, we'll be patient, stay healthy, and get ready for 2021 action.”