No time to waste: soccer space needed now

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'It's a sport that really doesn't have a home'

Soccer clubs in Edmonton and area say there is a desperate need for more training space.

But with the St. Albert Soccer Association (SASA) making slow-but-steady progress on its Field of Dreams initiative, time is of the essence. The problem is the jury is out on a firm timeline for that project.

Craig Cameron, SASA’s program support for the Field of Dreams, says the association is still waiting for the province to decide whether or not to declare a portion of land south of St. Albert as surplus. That process has been going on for almost a year.

“It is a long process and we knew that going into it,” Cameron said. “We’re in for the long haul.”

The land, nestled between 137 Avenue and Sir Winston Churchill Avenue north of the Anthony Henday, is currently split between the province and the City of Edmonton.

As it stands, the Field of Dreams hasn’t changed in scope since a year ago when SASA signed an agreement with Edmonton and St. Albert to consult with stakeholders, secure the land and eventually come up with a business case. The plan is to have a full-sized covered turf and seven outdoor fields.

Cameron says pressures keep mounting. During the 2017-18 year, SASA used 1,386 hours of indoor soccer time at Servus Place; they have also had to cap programs such as the popular U10s for the past two years.

It was really no surprise for him, then – or if anything a pleasant one – when St. Albert’s city council revealed their facility prioritization last month and listed a full-size indoor fieldhouse as the No. 1 need.

“There’s just not enough facility space – and this is outdoor, too, that we’re talking about – to meet that demand,” he said.

Aside from the land, SASA is focused on building relationships elsewhere – meeting with other soccer groups and sports groups that could also use the facility. Cameron said SASA is also drafting up a terms of reference for a non-profit organization to eventually operate the Field of Dreams.

But while SASA waits for the dream to become a reality, Cameron says the association isn’t just sitting idly by. In the past few months, the association has invested in a half-size indoor space at 19 Renault Crescent.

“We see that as an opportunity for our club, but really it’s a short-term solution to the bigger problem,” he said.

Square peg, round hole

Regional soccer groups agree soccer is being pushed into areas that are a bad fit – gymnasiums and boarded centres.

Players find themselves relegated to areas that don’t reflect the actual sport: surfaces that are nothing like actual turf and spaces that are far too small.

“It’s always a struggle for (our members) to find adequate training facilities for practices and games, in particular during the winter months,” said Shaun Lowther, executive director of the Alberta Soccer Association.

“Right now, our players are training in school gyms, and that’s not indicative of the game.”

In St. Albert, soccer players don’t even have that option. Jeff Paulus, the incoming head coach for FC Edmonton and former technical director for SASA, says St. Albert’s soccer community isn’t allowed to use school gyms. That leaves Servus Place for most indoor training.

“It’s a sport that really doesn’t have a home,” he said.

And when athletes can’t train in the proper environment, that makes it harder for them to develop their skills.

Kevin Poissant, technical director for the Edmonton Scottish United Soccer Club, says the situation for soccer is like if we were to ask hockey teams to practise on a parking lot.

“it’s not appropriate for the enjoyment of the sport or the development of the player,” he said, adding more indoor facilities are needed as soon as possible.

Lowther said while Alberta’s soccer clubs do a good job of developing players, the Alberta Soccer Association wants to see things change – and they’re cheering on SASA’s Field of Dreams.

“(Our clubs) are handcuffed in their lack of facilities,” he said.

As for FC Edmonton, Paulus says that group would undoubtedly be interested in becoming a tenant at SASA’s eventual facility.

“The whole game improves when you have a proper facility,” he said.

Falling behind

Part of the problem is Alberta hasn’t kept up with other provinces on indoor soccer space.

Poissant says the greater Winnipeg area has three full-size soccer facilities, while Nova Scotia also has three. By comparison, Alberta only has one, located in Calgary, although there is also the University of Alberta’s Dome at Foote Field, which is open from December to April.

Liz Jepsen, head coach for Pandas Soccer at the U of A, says the addition of that dome has had a big impact on their program. Alberta, she added, is in “catch-up mode” compared to indoor facility space elsewhere.

The Scottish United are also building their own full-size facility, which will open later this year. But Poissant says when the doors open, it will already be almost at capacity.

He has no doubt SASA’s Field of Dreams would see similar action.

“There’s no question it would be fully used. There would be no downtime.”

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April Hudson

April is the editor of the St. Albert Gazette