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.”
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.”
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.
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.”