Ask anyone familiar with Dayton, Ohio -- even those that live there -- what they think of the city, and you're likely to get a response ranging from indifference to straight up loathing. "There's not much to do", "Not much going on", or simply "Meh" aren't uncommon descriptions and for the most part, they're accurate. Dayton just doesn't have much to brag about.
Sure, there are some bright spots: there's the stellar National Museum of the US Air Force, a so-so arts and entertainment hub in the Oregon District, and having the honor of recently being named as the most affordable city in the country. But negative perceptions remain due in large part to the city's poor job market. Like other cities in the rust belt, the great recession practically evaporated Dayton's key automotive manufacturing sector and the city has taken a dive because of it. And adding insult to injury, North Carolina continues to wage a campaign to steal the only thunder the Dayton has ever really had: the birth of flight.
But despite all of that, Dayton does have one thing going for it: an incredibly vibrant soccer community. While only 841,000 residents call the Miami Valley region home, that's more than enough to sustain over 500 youth teams. There's also a thriving amateur adult league, boasting co-ed, women's and two men's divisions, something that the larger, near-by Cincinnati-metro area hasn't been able to regularly maintain. All five of the city’s indoor soccer facilities are packed year round with youth and adult leagues. There's even a fully professional side in the USL-Pro's Dayton Dutch Lions... some else the neighbors to the South can't boast.
Now most of those are things that probably half a dozen other cities in the Midwest can claim, if not more. But there is one thing that Dayton offers the soccer community that very few -- if any -- other city can.
I first caught wind of the Hagdome in high school while playing my club soccer in Dayton. My coaches whispered of pickup games that were said to be fast-paced, skillful and intense. They talked of the facility being a who's who of the Dayton soccer scene. So by the time I finally received an invite to play there myself in the months following my junior season in college, I knew it was a privilege just to be summoned. But with plenty of other city's boasting secret soccer societies – where only the best of the best are allowed to play –what exactly is it that makes the "Hagdome" so unique? As is the case with most treasured secret spots, it all comes down to location.
You see the Hagdome is a privately-owned indoor soccer field… built on the back of a man's house.
Nestled at the end of a half-mile long winding and wooded driveway on the Southern outskirts of Dayton’s suburbs, the Hagdome is owned by one Dr. William Hagerty, DDS. When looked at sitting adjacent to Hagerty's plush estate, the building itself looks like nothing more than a nice barn. But when you walk inside, you quickly realize this is no ordinary barn: a driveway-level mezzanine overlooks an old-school Astroturf playing field 15 feet below. After descending the stairs to field level, you'll find small goals, four feet by six, at each end of the pitch. The far end is enclosed with boards like a traditional indoor field, while the near end line sits in front of a long tumbling trampoline and mat – remnants of Hagerty’s eldest daughter’s gymnastics career. And it is in this space where some of the best soccer the city has to offer has taken place.
Affectionately known as Billy, Hagerty is a Dayton native and lifelong fan of the beautiful game. He played his high school soccer at city-power Archbishop Alter, and followed that up with a four year career at Notre Dame. After finishing dental school at Ohio State, Bill returned to Dayton where he eventually established his dental practice... and continued playing as much footie as he could muster. It was from this desire to continue playing that the idea of the Hagdome was spawned.
"We played pickup games for 20 years two times a week in spite of 100 degree temperatures, rain, snow, past dusk and into the dark of night where we would have to turn our car lights on to have enough light to finish our games,” Billy told me. “For years, I promised that the next house I built, I’d put in an indoor soccer field to alleviate those problems. Of course after 20 years, no one really believed that I would do it. But in 1998, I began construction and the field was completed within a year. Finally, we could play year-round pickup games and not have to battle the elements.”
And as the saying goes, “If you build it, they will come.”
Within months of its completion, the Hagdome was regularly hosting pickup games representing the best of Dayton's soccer scene: local college talent, coaches from the local clubs/schools, expats in the area, veteran players from around town and the occasional professional or two. The old and wise regularly mixing with the young and exuberant. The general rule of thumb? In order to get an invite, at least one person has to think you're decent enough to be there. And while it might be over-exaggeration to always call the football there "elite", the standard of play is rarely ever poor.
The house rules are simple enough: six-a-side without goal keepers, call your own fouls, first team to five wins. For the next few hours, all that matters is the football. Afterwards, it’s not unusual for a few rounds of beers to be shared, and debates and discussions to be held had spanning the width of the soccer spectrum.
These days, the Hagdome isn’t quite as exclusive as it used to be. But you can still find a game there a few times a week. As players have aged or moved away, younger players have come in to fill the void and get touches with old guard. Billy has also opened up his doors to local youth teams to use the facility due to the shortage of indoor space throughout the winter months. Even though it’s no longer the secret it once was, the privately-owned Hagdome continues to foster Dayton soccer like no other facility around.
But even with the exclusivity on the wane, that hasn’t changed the atmosphere the Hagdome provides. Nearly twenty years after hosting its first pickup game, it’s still a place that those in the know flock to on a regular basis. Not only is the Hagdome a Mecca where soccer can be had on a rainy day or cold night, but also a place that binds together the city’s various generations of players. As Hagerty puts it, “It’s a place where kids and adults can get together and have fun playing with balls of every size and play an assortment of games limited only by their own imagination.”
That seems a fitting description, considering it was Billy’s imagination that got us here in the first place. And thanks to his generosity and love for the game, the Hagdome will likely continue to give the Dayton soccer community a spiritual home for years to come.