Today, FC Edmonton is in the news for all the right reasons. North American Soccer League commissioner David Downs and other league boffins are in town, speaking to Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel and Chamber of Commerce officials about getting FC Edmonton a soccer-specific stadium.
Edmonton has never had a serious soccer stadium. This isn't an exaggeration: the NASL and CSL teams of the past shared space with the Edmonton Eskimos and today Edmonton plays at the modern Clarke Park, a cute little 1,200-seat multi-purpose building which isn't at all a bad place to watch soccer but suffers for lack of seating and facilities, a field covered in ghastly lines for a million sports, high community demand, and an iffy neighbourhood.
With the City of Edmontotn ready to spend hundreds of millions to give Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz his own private pleasure dome for a profitable NHL team, a soccer facility that would be shared by FC Edmonton and the community for a fraction of the cost may seem relatively minor. But any use of public cash to help somebody make money is rightly controversial, and one presumes the team owners Tom and Dave Fath would be counted on to chip in part of the cost of any complex.
But let's assume that Downs's visit is the first step in a long road and a soccer specific stadium is coming to Edmonton. What is the best bang for the City's buck?
It must be brand. Spanking. New.
I say this with all apologies to the Edmonton taxpayer, but renovating an existing facility would be penny wise, pound foolish. As I grumbled earlier this year renovating the underused TELUS Field for soccer purposes would probably be surprisingly expensive and would rob Edmonton of both heritage and perhaps western Canada's best baseball field. Foote Field is, rightly, the domain of the University of Alberta; they could not and should not be asked to conform to the needs of a professional club. Clarke Park would be the best option for renovating into being soccer-specific but carries a number of problems: it gets a lot of community use which would be curtailed by the needs of a professional-friendly soccer-specific facility and, of course, while the work was being done FC Edmonton would be without a home.
If it helps, modest soccer-specific stadiums aren't all that expensive. Saputo Stadium, in its original configuration, cost $17 million in 2008 and was considerably more substantial than what Edmonton needs, but on the other hand incorporated a refurbishment of some existing facilities on the Montreal Olympic park.
Approximately 7,000 seats, but expandable
Part of the entire point of a soccer-specific stadium would be to have a manageable stadium which looks and feels full with NASL regular season-sized crowds. That's, obviously, what makes Commonwealth Stadium unworkable for anything (and what made Clarke Park, in spite of its many inadequacies, an extremely fun place to watch a soccer game). A new stadium will obviously increase attendance on its own but expecting Edmonton to do anything in a 10,000-seater but embarrass themselves is rash.
I say 7,000 seats because that keeps room for the playoffs or big Voyageurs Cup games that can be tarped off during the regular season. And, of course, expandability would be key: for example, building a stadium without end zone seating but room to add it. This saves significant amounts of money short-term and, of course, if FC Edmonton is selling out those 7,000 seats every week then paying for expansion becomes a lot less far-fetched.
The NASL minimum stadium size is 5,000 seats; Edmonton has of course received a waiver for the last two years but there's certainly no reason for either the Faths or the city to go nuts building seats that won't be sat in. It sounds weird, but in many ways the stadium itself should be the most modest part of any project: simple, small with room to grow, and intimate rather than impressive.
Willing to either pay top dollar for the pitch or accept artificial turf
The problem with FC Edmonton is that it's in Edmonton. Edmonton gets hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Keeping a natural grass field nicely playable throughout the year is a feat that, to my knowledge, no Edmontonian has ever accomplished: Commonwealth Stadium's old grass pitch was awful. The problems will be worse now that FC Edmonton is facing the possibility of March and November home games, to say nothing if FC Edmonton gets to the late stages of the CONCACAF Champions League.
So Edmonton has two choices. One, they could invest in a modern grass field. Excellent undersoil heating would be obligatory, as would sufficient drainage to handle snow and runoff. The grass itself would have to be hardy, well-laid, and possibly replaced every five years or so. Bear in mind this field will obviously receive community use too. so it will take a beating in awful circumstances.
Or they could put in first-class artificial turf, no undersoil heating, more limited drainage, put a tarp over it when the weather looks bad and shovel it off when you need to play, and potentially save millions. I know the Cult of Grass will cry foul, but as long as the city has a single pothole it's not worth spending the kind of taxpayer money required to give Edmonton a year-round playable grass field just so some superstitious morons are happy.
We are told this would cost Edmonton Canadian men's national team games. But until the CSA ditches their magical thinking then Edmonton would never get Canadian men's national team games anyway, because it's not Toronto.
Meanwhile, Edmonton would be guaranteed (with care and maintenance, of course) a field as playable in November as it would be in May. And if the best happened and the Eddies made a CCL semi-final, then as long as they were able to get the snow off the plastic it would be possible to play the game in Edmonton rather than trying to do something with a frozen, misshapen, and oh yeah very possibly dead grass pitch. They could play at Commonwealth Stadium, but that would kill any atmosphere, still have a rather sketchy field not designed for all-seasons play, and lead to weeks of suspense where people asked "will the FCE stadium be playable? Will Commonwealth be available?"
Imagine it: FC Edmonton, Santos Laguna, the biggest game in Eddies history... at BC Place. That, alone, is a killer argument for artificial turf.
Accompanied by at least a modest training centre
Let's take the money we save not pleasuring the grass maniacs and put it into something useful. What Edmonton needs is some sort of year-round soccer training facility, not just a stadium for its professionals.
Something along the lines of Winnipeg's Indoor Soccer Complex would be ideal. The Complex was opened in 2008 and offers a full-sized FIFA regulation artificial turf field that can be used rain, shine, snow, or sleet, as well as good ancillary facilities. Cost (over $12 million in 2008) would be a barrier. There would be some community time, but in an ideal world this field is getting serious winter use from Edmonton's academy players, as well as the CSA's Prairie National Training Centre; there just might not be enough hours to go around for this to be palatable from a government perspective.
Outdoor fields would also be required, obviously, and here the community would be able to get plenty of field time. The Whitecaps new training facility cost $32.5 million but Edmonton's can be more modest. A first-class artificial turf field at Newton Athletic Park in 2002 was budgeted at $1.4 million: two of these, two good grass fields, plus a limited clubhouse and a ballpark estimate says $7 million total. Additional fields could obviously be added as community demand required; four pitches would be plenty for FC Edmonton's purposes.
The training ground wouldn't have to be built along with the stadium but it should certainly be considered part of the same project. The stadium site should be chosen and land acquired with this training facility in mind, and with the further idea that this facility will serve far more than Edmonton but, in fact, be the hub of the Canadian prairie soccer community.
Accessible, if not necessarily downtown
While we'd all love a downtown soccer stadium, realistically that's just not going to happen because of the space required and cost of the land. But there are plenty of other accessible spaces which could be used. Land around Southgate or Century Park LRT stations would be ideal; it would need to be acquired but in what is largely light residential neighbourhoods would come reasonably cheaply. Southgate would be accessible both by transit and by Whitemud Drive, while at Century Park the City could potentially combine the stadium with a long-mooted but never-built park-and-ride facility at the LRT station, providing a larger lot to be used by both commuters and soccer fans.
My incredibly ballpark estimate for the costs would be:
- Land: who knows?
- Main stadium: $20 million
- Indoor training facility: $15 million
- Outdoor fields and facilities: $8 million
- Total: $43 million plus land
$43 million wouldn't be a massive investment; it's a ballpark but an aggressive one. And it would get Edmonton the soccer-specific stadium it has so long wanted, possibly Canada's best training ground east of Vancouver and west of Ontario, and room to grow. That's what Edmonton should be aiming for right now: nothing over-the-top, but certainly something serious.