FC Edmonton and Clarke Stadium: Le turf est mort, vive le turf!

clarkesmallMembers of FC Edmonton, the Alberta Soccer Association, the Edmonton Eskimos and Football Alberta were in front of Edmonton’s Community Services Committee on Monday morning.

They made their pleas; all of them have vested interests in a plan to replace theClarke Stadium turf.

But, after a morning of debate, the committee has recommended that the city pay $1.25 million to replace Clarke’s worn-out surface with new artificial turf. Council will vote on the measure next week. The change would come when the NASL is in its World Cup break, and would be ready for the league’s fall season. The new turf would also come with a shock pad acting as underpinning, to act as an impact-absorbing cushion. The turf will have permanent soccer lines, but no permanent football lines.

FCE owner Tom Fath will foot the bill to have the football lines scrubbed off the turf before Sunday home games, then painted back on after the crowds go home and the cameras go dark on the soccer matches.

“Hopefully we’ll just have the four league games left plus Amway Canadian Championship games on the old turf,” said FC Edmonton General Manager Rod Proudfoot. “We felt that council was very thorough today. They had lots of questions. That’s fine with us.”

After three years playing Canadian Championship games at cavernous Commonwealth, FC Edmonton will play them at Clarke in 2014. The Canadian Soccer Association requires their sanctioned matches to be played on fields that have no other markings other than soccer markings. To comply, Proudfoot said the football lines will be painted over for the April 30 preliminary-round date with the Ottawa Fury. If FCE wins its two-game set with Ottawa, it will host the Montreal Impact May 7, again on a field with lines painted over in green.

The city experimented with the paint last year, and it gave the affected areas the consistency of steel wool. But, beggars can’t be choosers, and the spot painting is what is planned for 2014 Canadian Championship match(es) in Edmonton.

As Fath told the committee on Monday when he was asked about the possibility of FCE moving to Commonwealth down the road: “Commonwealth is too expensive to be sustainable at our level.”

But is it good enough for the football community?

The football community — including Football Alberta, high-school teams and the two Edmonton teams in the Prairie Football Conference — has concerns. And before the majority of our readers roll their eyes (after all, this is a soccer site, and the football vs. soccer stadium debates never cease to get the readers’ blood boiling), we should make the effort to see it from their side.

What the football community wants is a guarantee that their schedules won’t be interrupted. In a perfect world, the deal that FCE will be able to scrub the lines clean and then repaint them will come off without a hitch. The soccer team will get a new TV deal (Sportsnet bailed on the Eddies broadcasts, citing the football lines as the issue), FCE will attract more fans, and the football teams can continue to play their games at Clarke, as well.

“It’s my understanding (that the lines be removed and painted easily), it wouldn’t be us doing the work, but the technology is there,” Fath told the committee on Monday.

But Football Alberta’s concerns come with the realization that the world isn’t easy. What if it rains for a long period after the Eddies’ game, and the paint doesn’t dry in time for Tuesday high-school football?

Repeatedly, Football Alberta has spoken about Plan B. What happens if the field isn’t ready? And Football Alberta has made the simple request; if the Clarke field isn’t playable, would there be other places to play, such as Commonwealth?

Commonwealth isn’t used very much. The CFL Eskimos do 10 dates a year there. FC Edmonton has played three Canadian Championship games there, but won’t go back again. It hosts soccer friendlies and major tournaments, when they are available. It hosts a major concert about once a generation. If U2 or the Stones come to town, fine — but otherwise, concert promoters stay away.

Basically, it is an under-utilized facility. And the reason is that rents are so steep to get into a stadium that hardly anyone uses. The Eskimos do practice there four or five times a week during the CFL season, but those are closed events.

During the committee meeting, Football Alberta kept repeating the message — we’re OK with the paintable lines, as long as we have a Plan B for a worst-case scenario. And, in their minds, Commonwealth could be the solution. But, the committee decided to make improvements to a couple of other Edmonton football fields — Jasper Place Bowl and Johnny Bright field — so they could be used as auxiliary sites.

Fath said FCE averaged about 2,500 fans at Clarke last season. But he expects more in 2014.

“We doubled (attendance) last year, I would not be surprised at all to double again this year.”

FCE paid for bleachers that raised Clarke’s capacity from the neighbourhood of 1,200-1,500 — depending on whose stats you believe — to 5,000.

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About Steven Sandor

I'm currently the colour commentator for FC Edmonton broadcasts on Sportsnet, NASL.com and TEAM 1260. I've covered the Toronto FC beat for four years, worked for the Edmonton Aviators of the USL for a season, covered the Edmonton Drillers of the NPSL and started covering Canadian World Cup qualifiers in 1996. I've covered the CONCACAF Champions League and the U-20 World Cup. I'm passionate about soccer in North America.