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FC Edmonton's Stadium Drama Takes a Turn for the Diamond

FC Edmonton's stadium drama doesn't know how to end.

It was expected they would have announced Clarke Park as their new home by now. Clarke Park is the former Clarke Stadium; once a big Canadian Football League building, now a 1,500-seat community field a stone's throw from Commonwealth Stadium and its nearby transit. Clarke would require additional seating and has permanent Canadian football lines (although at least the soccer lines are yellow rather than blue), but it has a better location, a better surface, and better facilities than FC Edmonton's old home at Foote Field. I don't know anybody in Edmonton who wouldn't view Clarke as an upgrade.

However, a few weeks ago, the Edmonton Capitals announced they would skip the 2012 baseball season after they ran out of regional rivals; their league has one team in Hawaii, one in California, one in Arizona, and the rest in Texas. The door is open for a return in 2013, particularly with a Fort McMurray-based team and the return of a team from Fullerton, California. However, it leaves Telus Field in Edmonton's picturesque Rossdale neighbourhood without a tenant for the summer of 2012.

And FC Edmonton still waits., the seminal site for FC Edmonton coverage, ran an article last week suggesting FC Edmonton was looking to Telus Field as a possible home. Soccer's been played at Telus Field before and the proportions fit. It's not like NASL games at a baseball diamond would be new. With a capacity of 10,000 it has plenty of room. It is also a delightful park in a nice location; a bit of a hike up the river valley to the nearest LRT station but not too bad.

It's a fine place to spend a summer's evening. So, with all sincerity, FC Edmonton, stay the hell away from Telus Field.

An unmodified baseball diamond is never a nice place for soccer. It's not unheard of in the NASL (I'm looking at you, Tampa Bay Rowdies) but the annoyance of throwball lines at Clarke Park doesn't compare to the annoyance of basepaths at Telus Field. The sight lines are always bad, although not as bad at Telus Field as elsewhere: the stadium at least has bleachers running down one foul line/field boundary.

Besides, Telus would need field work to make it suitable for soccer. On account of Edmonton's climate, the park has an unusual configuration: the infield is FieldTurf (second-rate but better than Foote Field) and the outfield is natural grass. To my knowledge, playing professional soccer on such a combined surface would be unprecedented. All-grass would work, all-FieldTurf would work, a blend of the two would be an unwelcome novelty.

Any improvements to make Telus Field more practical for soccer would probably be temporary. As I mentioned above, the Edmonton Capitals are leaving the door open for a return. The Capitals are owned by Rexall Sports, which you'll recognize as the owners of the Western Hockey League's Edmonton Oil Kings and the National Hockey League's Edmonton Oilers. Some Oil Kings front office operations are actually run out of Telus Field by a combined staff which used to work on the Capitals in the summer. Katz pulls a lot of water in the Edmonton sports community and if he wants Telus Field for purely baseball purposes in the future he'll get it. FC Edmonton could well be stuck with another single-season home and, potentially, some wasted investments.

So what if the Capitals are dead for good and the City of Edmonton (owners of Telus Field) support transforming it into a venue FC Edmonton can enjoy? I'd still stay away.

We soccer fans like to bemoan how few suitable stadiums there are for professional soccer in Canada, but actually, Edmonton has decent choice: Foote Field, Clarke Park, even Commonwealth Stadium, and modest improvements to any of a few good community fields like those at the Victoria Soccer Club. Telus Field is Edmonton's only baseball stadium of any significance.

From a community standpoint, jeopardizing the future of baseball at Telus Field would be a serious blow: the site has been the spiritual home of Edmonton baseball for some eighty years. The Edmonton Capitals attendance wasn't spectacular but it also wasn't much below what FC Edmonton did, and back when Edmonton had a good minor-league team in the Trappers it wasn't unheard of to sell out those 10,000 seats. Baseball still has plenty of friends in Edmonton and far more history than soccer does. And from a sentimental standpoint, Telus Field is renowned as one of the very best ballparks at its level in North America. Turning it into a sub-par soccer field is like using the Mona Lisa for a napkin.

What about modest alterations to make Telus Field into a good multi-use facility like Royal Athletic Park in Victoria? Such designs always involve serious compromises: Victoria soccer fans spent the winter fighting a proposal that would have made Royal Athletic Park baseball-only for that reason. Moreover, given the level of investment required to do it, why not put that money into Clarke Park? Leave a baseball diamond for baseball and invest in a stadium that has a good location, loads of parking, and which is at least the right shape.

If we're talking about a home for FC Edmonton until a new soccer-specific stadium can be built, there are better options which would be workable with a few thousand bucks worth of steel bleachers and a willingness to tolerate football lines. If we're talking about a long-term home then any strategy which doesn't involve accepting a crappy stadium involves investing a tonne of money to either kill professional baseball in Edmonton or endure waste and unpleasantness when professional baseball comes back.

Just go to Clarke Park, guys. Don't get fancy.