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Soccer’s popularity creates acute need for more fields in St. Paul

USA Cup in Blaine
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Last week, more than 15,000 kids from more than 20 countries gathered at the NSC in Blaine to participate in the Target USA Cup, the country’s largest youth soccer tournament.

It’s taken a while for the world’s most popular sport to take deep root in St. Paul, but this summer it’s happening with abandon. Even as the new Minnesota United MLS stadium packs in tens of thousands for every game, and the U.S. victory in the Women’s World Cup was an inspiration for kids and adults alike, the city’s soccer fields are booked at all hours of the day. Thanks to demographics and changing tastes, the demand for soccer means that youth soccer clubs in St. Paul and Minneapolis sometimes have to travel to distant suburbs to find a playable pitch for their ostensible home games.

“As an urban club we have the same difficulties that all the Twin Cities’ urban clubs have,” explained Rob Spence, the marketing director for the nonprofit St. Paul Blackhawks youth soccer club. The Blackhawks, like the Minneapolis United club to the west, runs teams and programs for kids of nearly every age. And the diversity of the teams epitomizes the city’s intersecting trends of soccer fandom and multicultural camaraderie.

“We’re bringing all those kids and families together and we have kids from the Karen community, the Somali community, the Hmong community, the Hispanic community. It’s really a rainbow of kids and a rainbow of families that are part of our organization,” said Spence. “[But] right now everything is scattered to the winds. We’re spending home games out in Blaine or all the way to Rosemount because we can’t find a space in St. Paul.”

A stark contrast from Blaine NSC

The fields of St. Paul and Minneapolis display a stark contrast with the scene at the National Sports Center in Blaine, 15 miles to the north, where you find the largest youth athletic complex anywhere. Last week, more than 15,000 kids from more than 20 countries gathered at the NSC to participate in the Target USA Cup, the country’s largest youth soccer tournament. For a few days, it seemed like every child on the continent was there wearing a uniform, and everywhere you looked there was either a soccer field or a parking lot, surrounded by food trucks and port-a-johns.

The NSC’s unique soccer metropolis makes it perfect for an epic event like the USA Cup, but also highlights the acute need for a smaller scale set of fields in the urban core, where despite the demand from the city’s kids, youth clubs struggle to find space.

Changes in park design

Compared to past generations, demand for soccer fields is up. According to a recent study, St. Paul has enough unmet demand for soccer to justify 11 full-size soccer fields, but currently has only four or five that work for regular play (depending on how you count them). That leaves quite a gap for area kids, and it’s one the city’s Parks and Recreation Department has been trying to remedy for a while.

“The number one facility need for our park system is high quality athletic fields,” explained Mike Hahm, the director of the St. Paul Parks and Recreation Department. “We’ve made a lot of progress on it, but we want to continue to pursue high quality athletic fields [because] a lot of our immigrant populations and newer populations are ones where the soccer and field sport actives are very popular. We have a facility plan that guides where we should be looking to convert park space.”

An image from the 2015 Hmong J4 festival at McMurray Field in St. Paul.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
An image from the 2015 Hmong J4 festival at McMurray Field in St. Paul.
If you look at many of the parks in St. Paul and Minneapolis, you’re likely to find underused grass and ballparks that reflect the pastimes of a different generation. As Hahm describes, the typical neighborhood park has some grass cornered by a few baseball diamonds with chain link backstops, or a pair of little-used tennis courts or two. If you’re really lucky, you might find a well-used set of basketball hoops, but a playable soccer pitch is a rarity in the city.

“The traditional rec enter would have backstops with infields in every corner of the property and then we’d plop a hockey rink or skating rink in the middle [during] the winter,” explained Hahm. “There may have been a school there too, and [then it would] get a super high amount of intense use. Those places were expected to be the baseball field, the football field, the hockey rink, everything basically, but there was nothing of significant quality at all.”

Those kinds of parks don’t fit well with the demands of sports clubs today, and that’s especially true when it comes to soccer.

“If you go to the suburbs and you see Blaine or Woodbury or Edina, they’ll have a set of fields that are all together, where there are four to six fields on one piece of land,” said Spence, who has spent years helping the Blackhawks find places to play.

The dream: a complex of several fields

His dream for the kids in the city club would be a complex of three or four fields located together, so that they could have the teams of different ages all in one place and learning from each other.

“[St. Paul] Parks and Rec is a partner with us, and they’ve been helpful, but their resources in the soccer realm are limited,” explained Spence. “As opposed to softball and baseball fields, which are in abundant supply. … I don’t like to drive a wedge between us and other sports, but when resources are limited I see a resource sitting there not being used. It’s a little bit frustrating when I know if that if [a park space] was a soccer field, it would get used 10 times as much.”

Currently, the best set of soccer fields in the St. Paul area are the three (and a half) fields at McMurray, just north of Como Park. As you might expect, they are in high demand. When the city first installed them, they tried natural grass. But with the heavy use from soccer clubs and others, it did not last long.

Instead, the gold standard for youth sports fields is called field turf, an artificial grass product that, unlike the natural stuff, does not require expensive and extensive maintenance. The catch is that field turf is more expensive when it’s installed, and a good full-size field turf pitch can cost upwards of $1 million.

“Resources are the issue for implementation,” admitted Hahm. “We have to do [new fields] when resources are available. [And it’s] not that we want to eliminate baseball fields, but want those to be high quality and then want to convert our inventory to these multi-use fields for soccer and field sports.”

According to Hahm, the current fields at McMurray are nearly always booked by competing soccer teams or other field sports like lacrosse and youth football. That leaves the city trying to figure out where and how to build new fields.

“We have two projects that are coming online or are under construction right now,” said Hahm. “There’s a new field at Frogtown and one at Sylvan [Rec Center], where we are creating synthetic multi-use turf fields that are going to  be very popular for soccer. Also in the CIB process, we’re hopeful we’re going to have funding to replace the turf at McMurray, which is over 12 years old.”

The "futsal" court at the West 7th Rec Center.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
The "futsal" court at the West 7th Rec Center.
One tantalizing possibility for the city’s soccer future is that the underused Highland 9 Municipal Golf Course might become a home for new soccer pitches, that is, if the Parks and Recreation Department can find some money to convert the course. The city has recently done some brainstorming about ways to rethink the underused links, and many of them involve installing new soccer fields for area kids like the Blackhawks.

Concept D
Concept D imagines reusing the existing 9-hole golf course to construct five full-size soccer fields, and would be a game changer for youth soccer in St. Paul. Click image to enlarge.
Having better and more affordable fields is important because the higher the costs in time and money for city families, the more soccer becomes an elitist activity. One of the more troubling trends in youth sports is the increasing inequality between the haves and the have-nots; participation is seeing overall declines where wealthier “traveling” teams tend to filter out kids who cannot afford to participate.

Without new fields in the city, the high cost of renting space elsewhere will continue to challenge urban clubs like the St. Paul Blackhawks and Minneapolis United. Every dollar they spend on renting space in the suburbs is one less dollar they have to help kids and parents with scholarships.

“We give away over $200,000 a year in free soccer to kids that need financial assistance,” explained Spence. “That’s part of our mission, to be a part of the community, and it’s a real drag on that mission when we are spending a lot of our resources, time and money finding spaces to play.”

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by tom kendrick on 07/24/2019 - 12:10 pm.

    There must be found a way to convert at least part of the ever-flooding Hiawatha Golf Course into soccer fields for urban kids. The clientele for golf are white and aging, and the have many other option for playing their sport, and with both the influx of immigrants and the explosion of interest and participation in soccer among youth, this dysfunctional golf course could be reborn to serve not a narrow slice of our population but the largest swath: children.

  2. Submitted by Betsy Larey on 07/24/2019 - 02:58 pm.

    Would there be a way to use land as multipurpose space? Where I live in Florida, we have a great complex that includes a large field easily striped for soccer or lacrosse. With two baseball diamonds on the outskirts.
    Lacrosse is one of the fastest growing sports in the country. Surely the soccer folks would be willing to share the fields. The problem is everybody wants the fields at the same time. Think hockey. Historically, schools have provided athletic fields. Unless the city has spare land lying around, the cost to purchase will be astronomical. But a nice complex in some of the lower income areas would be most welcome by all the residents i’m sure.

  3. Submitted by Pat Terry on 07/24/2019 - 03:34 pm.

    Yes to every word of this.

  4. Submitted by Laurie Krivitz on 07/24/2019 - 03:54 pm.

    What was the final decision something going in at the Highland reservoir site?

    • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 07/26/2019 - 10:19 am.

      It’s on hold pending changes in funding.

    • Submitted by Rob Spence on 08/03/2019 - 03:20 pm.

      The St. Paul Water Commission has agreed to let the City and County work it out between them. Most likely result is it will become a parking lot and an additional ice rink. Maybe a miniature soccer field or futsal court will be incorporated. But neither entity has the $ to do anything at the moment.

  5. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 07/24/2019 - 04:34 pm.

    On top of the demand for youth soccer, as these young people become adults, their desire to play does not go away, so when planning for fields, add even a little more for adults. Any adult who chooses to play soccer achieves high level fitness at affordable cost. The same thing could be said for another field sport – lacrosse. For these sports to have more participation in the city, both need facilities. The Twins have contributed significant dollars to fund baseball and softball fields. Particularly in St. Paul, Minnesota United should be doing the same. And given its Native American origins, those tribes with highly profitable gambling operations could built bridges by helping to establish lacrosse fields throughout the state. Identifying the need is not enough. Champions are needed.

  6. Submitted by April King on 07/27/2019 - 08:11 am.

    I play in adult women’s soccer, and the demand for fields in Saint Paul is so high that I usually have travel over 30 minutes from Midway to find a field to play.

    There are multiple leagues and hundreds of soccer teams in the Twin Cities, and essentially every field is booked constantly on the evenings and weekends. We are nowhere close to meeting the demand for fields, which is especially frustrating given that almost every city park has an unused baseball field.

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