Soccer? Football? Fútbol? While there may not be universal consensus on what to call the sport, I think most can agree that it has become a very popular sport in America. I previously wrote an article called Soccer and Park Planning from my perspective both as a soccer fan and a planner. It seems appropriate now to do a sequel given the continued “soccerization” of land use across cities in the U.S. Essentially, I am referring to the dedication of an increasing amount of land/space for soccer, and the development of additional facilities for both players and fans, including soccer fields and futsal courts at parks as well as soccer-specific stadiums for professional teams.
Here in Los Angeles, there are over 420 soccer fields in parks across the county, as we discovered through the Countywide Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment (see this article for more information about the project). This may appear to be a high number, but it actually does not compare favorably with other cities and states based on data from the Trust for Public Land’s 2015 City Park Facts report. Los Angeles County has about four soccer fields per 1,000 residents, comparing to the State and National Top Cities averages of 13 and 16.7, respectively. It is thus not surprising that as part of the Parks Needs Assessment, many residents expressed support for the development of new soccer fields and/or the refurbishment/replacement of existing fields as priority park projects in a variety of settings, including urban, suburban, and rural communities. This is also consistent with input and feedback I received while managing the development of Community Parks and Recreation Plans for the unincorporated communities of East Los Angeles, East Rancho Dominguez, Lennox, Walnut Park, West Athens-Westmont, and Willowbrook (see this article and video).
While the most obvious way to address the need for more soccer fields may be the creation of new ones at existing and future parks, this is not as simple as it sounds given a variety of factors, such as the general lack of funding for parks, the challenge of finding and acquiring vacant land in urban communities, and the need to address public requests for other types of amenities at existing parks. Thus, as both a researcher and a planner, I have also advocated for less conventional ways to accommodate and support the sport in urban areas with limited vacant land (see my doctoral project or this journal article). One idea is the conversion of existing buildings for recreational use. This has been happening more often and has been carried out by both commercial interests and public agencies. Warehouses, for example, have been converted to sports facilities for indoor soccer. Another idea is the use of vacant or empty lots for recreation purposes (see this article). For example, some of the more urban unincorporated communities in L.A. County are home to numerous small vacant or underused parking lots which have the potential to be used as temporary recreation areas. Specifically, these lots can be made available for recreational use in the evenings and on weekends (or whenever they are not needed for their primary use) for sports such as soccer.
So how exactly can vacant or underused lots be used for soccer? I must confess that my original thought was perhaps overly simplistic when I said that portable soccer goals may just be set up at these locations. I recently learned about a company that has obviously considered this in greater depth than I have and has actually developed a product to promote street soccer. Based in Evanston, Illinois, Mettle Sports offers a portable pitch solution which costs about $35,000 and includes semi-permanent goals, nets, and boards. The pitch can be placed on any surface (asphalt, concrete, grass, or sand) and can be fully set up in 90 to 120 minutes with a four to five-person crew. (The company also offers permanent pitch solutions; check out this brochure and the videos on this site). Mettle Sports is seeking to change the face of soccer in the U.S. with a campaign to place at least 2,000 street soccer pitches across the country in the next three to five years (watch this video). It is doing this by partnering with various municipalities, park districts, schools, colleges and universities, and soccer clubs. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Neal Levin and Jeremy Vannatta with Mettle, and was particularly impressed by their passion and eagerness to provide much needed playing resources in underserved communities in densely populated, urban centers. Also noteworthy is Mettle’s commitment to empower at-risk youth through job opportunities and career development. All of the company’s field and warehouse crew members are selected from not-for-profit programs that serve and support 18 to 25-year old men.
There is perhaps no greater sign of the rise of soccer in the U.S. than the growth of Major League Soccer (MLS) and the competition among cities to join the ranks of the 22 teams in the league now. Los Angeles is home to the LA Galaxy and will soon have a second team when the Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC) starts play in MLS in 2018. The creation of LAFC has resulted in the development of the Banc of California Stadium, the first open-air stadium built in Los Angeles since Dodger Stadium was completed in 1962. Being constructed on the site of the former Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, the privately financed $250 million facility is located next to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and is just south of the campus of the University of Southern California. The Banc of California Stadium is a 22,000-seat soccer-specific venue that will be LEED Silver certified and accessible via the Metro Expo Line. Not only will LAFC have a brand new stadium to play in, the team will also use a new training facility on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles. LAFC is investing $30 million to renovate Cal State LA’s stadium field and construct a state of the art training facility that will serve as home to the club’s players, staff, coaches and youth development team. The new training site and practice facility will feature a natural grass practice field exactly mirroring that of Banc of California Stadium, locker rooms, sports medicine facilities, and office space for LAFC coaches and staff. The two-story training facility will incorporate the campus’ industrial and modernist design style.
While we will have to wait until the 2018 season to know how the team will fare on the field, it is already obvious that LAFC is making an impact in Los Angeles and contributing to the soccerization of land use in the city through the creation of a stadium and a training facility. This is perhaps what other cities can expect to see if or when their MLS dreams are fulfilled. Expansion has happened several times in MLS since the league began play in 1996. Earlier this year, MLS announced Charlotte, Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, Phoenix, Raleigh/Durham, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Diego, St. Louis, and Tampa/St. Petersburg as its official expansion candidates. While not all of these places will end up hosting MLS teams, a few will and it will surely be interesting to see how these cities will be impacted physically, socially, economically, and in other ways.
In my view, soccer is here to stay, and will only continue to get more popular and mainstream. For those of us who are park planners or city planners, I believe that we will need to continue finding creative ways to meet the needs of players and watchers of what is often referred to as “the beautiful game.” This, of course, is not to say that soccer fields or stadiums should be allowed or developed anywhere and everywhere. I am also not suggesting that cities should subsidize the private development of stadiums for professional teams or just welcome these proposals openly without fully considering their costs (not just financial) and impacts. As I shared above, Los Angeles is a place where there is a great need for additional soccer facilities, especially for kids, as well as the appetite and capacity to sustain two professional soccer teams. This is probably not the case in most cities. Thus, the value and importance of a new soccer facility to a community and the need for its development must be vigorously analyzed and discussed by those impacted and decision-makers alike.
Photos of girl playing soccer and a group of kids at an indoor soccer center taken by author; Mettle Sports screenshot from http://www.mettlesports.com/#gototop; MLS screenshot from https://www.mlssoccer.com/post/2017/01/01/about-major-league-soccer; Banc of California Stadium graphic from LAFC website, https://lafc.com/stadium/banc-of-california-stadium-facts/
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.