Obituary: Merle Utchel / Led effort to establish soccer's foothold in Western Pa.
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Over the past year, Pittsburgh watched as a brand-new soccer stadium was built in Station Square and there was talk of staging a premier European match at Heinz Field.
Long before that, though, the city needed a foundation for the sport, and few men were as integral to establishing the roots of soccer in Pittsburgh than Merle Utchel. First as a player, then as a coach and mentor, Mr. Utchel made his mark on the soccer community of Pittsburgh.
Mr. Utchel, formerly of Heidelberg, died Monday in Indialantic, Fla. He was 85.
Mr. Utchel started playing the game as a boy and fell in love with it.
"He'd often tell us he'd go out at recess to kick the soccer ball and he wouldn't come back into class," said Joyce Ballack, Mr. Utchel's daughter.
Childhood friend Chester Krawczynski said he would play with Mr. Utchel almost every day after the two got out of school. It became apparent very early that Mr. Utchel had a special talent for the game.
"I mean, he could play any position," Mr. Krawczynski said. "He could head a ball as far as somebody could kick it."
From there, Mr. Utchel's ability flourished. He was invited to play for Heidelberg's senior club at the age of 16, a team usually made up of players in their early 20s.
In 1951, Mr. Utchel played for Heidelberg Soccer Club in what is now known as the U.S. Open Cup, the country's oldest soccer competition. He scored three goals in the final series, but his club fell to New York German-Hungarian Soccer Club by a combined two-game score of 8-6.
The next year, Mr. Utchel joined the Harmarville Hurricanes and again made the U.S. Open Cup finals. This time, his squad came out victorious and claimed the trophy.
After his playing career ended, Mr. Utchel stayed involved with soccer. His wife, Lottie, died in 1969, and the sport helped him cope with his loss.
"His friends rallied with him to coach soccer," Mrs. Ballack said.
At the same time, Mr. Utchel had to support three children as a single father. Mr. Krawczynski said he took a second job selling copies of The Pittsburgh Press to raise money for his children's college funds.
Mrs. Ballack said her father's paternal nature also translated to his coaching, where he took a special interest in every child who took the field for him. He eventually helped organize youth leagues in Heidelberg and the surrounding areas.
"Merle was the guy that really championed the youth program for Heidelberg down there," said Mike Wissel, secretary of the Heidelberg Soccer Club. "He started the program. He got every kid in the whole neighborhood playing."
The organization that Mr. Utchel started eventually linked with other local youth soccer initiatives and is now part of the Pennsylvania West State Soccer Association, a group that boasts more than 60,000 youth players.
"I don't think he ever thought it would be expanded the way it did," Mr. Wissel said. "He was kind of amazed."
In addition to Mrs. Ballack, Mr. Utchel is survived by his sons, Joseph and David, and seven grandchildren.
Arrangements were handled by the Szafranski-Eberlein Funeral Home in Carnegie. A funeral Mass is scheduled for noon today at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, Carnegie.
First Published February 2, 2013 12:00 am