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20 years ago, Hershey had its shining moment in the international soccer spotlight

Two decades ago, a star-studded USMNT U23 team qualified for the Olympics at Hersheypark Stadium

Steve Cherundolo (L) of the US and Junior Izaguirre (R) of the Honduras chase the ball in the Championship Game of the CONCACAF 2000 Olympic Qualifying Tournament held in Hershey, Pennsylvania, 30 April 2000.
Photo by TOM MIHALEK/AFP via Getty Images

Travis and Brandon Smith grew up playing soccer in Hershey, Pennsylvania in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and were fortunate to both get an opportunity as teenagers to get an intimate behind the scenes view of professional soccer.

The Smith brothers served as locker room attendants for the Hershey Wildcats A-League team that called Hersheypark Stadium home from 1997-2001 and both went on to play at Lehigh University.

But it was the experiences they had in their hometown 20 years ago that have stuck with them as a highlight of their lives in and around the beautiful game.

“Really the only thing I ever saw rival those soccer crowds was a Big 33 crowd (high school football all-star game),” Travis Smith said in a recent interview. “It was surely a once in a lifetime event. The town of Hershey could probably never get something that big again so that will always be something I fondly remember.”

Travis is currently a teacher and soccer coach at Episcopal High School in Houston, Texas. His younger brother, Brandon Smith, is a co-owner of Dewey Beer Company in southern Delaware.

While Travis was home from college to witness sold out games in the final leg of men’s soccer qualifying for the Sydney Olympics — featuring six teams played out from April 21-30 — Brandon had a more intimate view of the action working as a locker room attendant.

“I just remember being in awe of seeing DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan and a local guy like Ben Olsen being there,” Brandon recalled. “That was our backyard because we grew up there and we went to big time concerts there but I had never seen it that packed. It felt like something really different, something really special.”

Brandon was given a jersey and socks and a jacket and was able to snap photos from the event from his vantage point on the sidelines. He brought a poster of the event with the current D.C. United head coach on it to his dorm room when he moved into college the following fall at Lehigh.

Olsen, who grew up in nearby Middletown, Pa., wasn’t the only local player on the star-studded U.S. Under-23 roster. Philadelphia native and current Philadelphia Union technical director Chris Albright was on the squad as well and recorded a brace in the U.S. team’s first game on April 21 against Honduras.

“It was surreal that we were in myself and Benny’s backyards on this huge international stage,” Albright said. “I had known Benny’s family so they were like a second family to me and my whole family was there and we had a such a distinct home field advantage by being in a small market like Hershey.”

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Chris Albright playing for the U.S. against Chile in the Bronze medal game in Sydney

Philadelphia Union original Danny Califf was on the team as well. He was a rookie at the time with the LA Galaxy.

“Just being part of that group was incredible, (head coach) Clive Charles was one of the coaches I look back on in my career who was really influential,” Califf said. “The quality that they brought in and the core of ‘77s they already had there was an interesting mix and it was a really cool thing to step into.”

Califf doesn’t remember a lot about the games but he does remember going to a team dinner at the Olsen house in Middletown, the trainings at nearby Lebanon Valley College and the environment at the stadium with crowds north of 10,000.

Olympic Soccer
Danny Califf at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney
Photo by Gary M. Prior/Getty Images

Albright specifically recalled going to Middletown the night after the team qualified on April 28 with a 4-0 win over Guatemala. Albright two assists on the night.

“We got after it in Middletown as much as you can,” Albright said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

The team in Hershey also included the likes of Tim Howard, Steve Cherundolo, John O’Brien, former Union forward Conor Casey and Austin FC head coach Josh Wolff. Former Union forward Carlos Ruiz was also part of the tournament as a member of the Guatemalan team.

Pittsburgh Riverhounds head coach Bob Lilley was coaching the Wildcats at the time and had a chance to scrimmage the U.S. team at LVC as part of their preparations. His friend and former teammate at George Mason and the Harrisburg Heat — Mark Pulisic — was the head coach of the LVC men’s soccer team at the time. Mark’s son Christian Pulisic was just 19 months old.

“That was certainly a talented team to watch and it was exciting to kind of be a part of that experience,” Lilley said. “We were awarded it because we did have one of the better fields in the entire country and our field was immaculate. It was probably the perfect sized venue because at that point you weren’t gonna get 30,000 people in a stadium to watch a soccer tournament.”

The excitement and the crowds for the five doubleheaders staged as part of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament didn’t lead to much a bump in attendance for the Wildcats, Lilley recalled.

A year later, a few days after the Wildcats lost the A-League final, Lilley was told that Hershey Entertainment and Resorts would no longer fund the team. The Wildcats went from league runner-ups to a defunct team in a matter of days.

“It was really, really disappointing and frustrating,” Lilley recalled.

The Harrisburg City Islanders would bring pro outdoor soccer back to the region in 2004 and had a similar track record of success before the team was put on hiatus two seasons ago. The legacy of soccer in central Pennsylvania that dates back to a Harrisburg Heat indoor team Lilley, Pulisic, former City Islanders head coach Bill Becher all played for remains with the continued impact players from that region of the state have had on the game.

The Olympic qualifying tournament in Hershey remains as a historical marker of that fact.

A decade before MLS finally came to town, Hershey was the epicenter of soccer not only in Pennsylvania but in the country, if only for those five nights that saw the U.S. come up short in the final but still qualify for the Olympics, something they’ve done only once since. The team made it to the semifinals in Sydney, falling to Spain in the semifinal.

“That was honestly one of the coolest experiences of my career,” Albright said. “I’d probably put the Olympics at one for me because I didn’t play at the World Cup. The World Cup would be two and qualifying third because of where it was and the amount of family that was able to be at the games.”