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Roots run deep in soccer field dispute

Northern United SC the result of split from Prince George Youth Soccer Association four years ago

Minor soccer is starting to shed the chains of COVID-19 restrictions that have weighed down heavily on its field activities for more than a year and Northern United Soccer Club technical director Brad Stewart is thankful things are getting back to normal now that kids are free to play games again.

The fourth outdoor season began May 11 for Northern United with players running physically-distanced drills at their home base at Prince George Secondary School field. Two weeks later, intra-league game play was once again allowed when the province moved to Step 1 of its restart plan.

Kids in Northern United played through the winter at the Northern Sport Centre for a third consecutive year and registration for the outdoor game has more than doubled this year with 270 players registered, up from 110 in 2020. More players means more field time is needed and that’s been a sore spot for the folks behind Northern United, which is limited to using three fields at PGSS.

Lacking its own storage facility at the PGSS site, Northern United coaches have to rely on hauling a trailer to the field that carried the nets and balls they use daily for their practices and games. Stewart wonders why his kids can’t instead use what is widely-considered one of the province’s best outdoor soccer facilities. They would like to be playing at the massive park-like confines of Rotary Soccer Field and its 10 full-sized fields along 15th Avenue and Ospika Boulevard but Northern United does not have access to those fields.

Built in the late 1990s on city-owned land with money raised from city’s three Rotary clubs, Rotary Soccer Field is the home of the Prince George Youth Soccer Association, which spearheaded the project. But Stewart says city taxpayers are paying city crews to maintain the grass that makes up those fields and he can’t understand why Northern United, an associate member of BC Soccer, is not allowed to play there and why PGYSA has exclusive rights to Rotary Field.

“That’s the million dollar question, we’ve been asking the city for it,” said Stewart. “They’re sitting there vacant. It’s my understanding they were built by the Rotary club for the citizens, for the youth of Prince George and only certain people are allowed on it and we are not, for some reason.”

Stewart says other groups outside of the PGYSA have been granted access to the fields in previous years.

“They’ve let the (Vancouver) Whitecaps on there, I’ve seen rugby on there and I’ve seen field lacrosse there, but we’re not allowed,” said Stewart. “If we want to grow and run a legitimate program we need fields like the ones at Rotary. It should be a fair playing field, that’s all we’re asking for. We can just do what we can with what we’re given but we’re going to fight for more because we can give more and do more and be better.”

Northern United was denied its request to the city for permission to bring in a sea can to store its equipment on the PGSS site, while the Prince George Track and Field Club and PGSS Polars football team/Prince George Minor Football Association have been allowed to move in their big steel storage boxes closer to Masich Stadium within sight of the soccer fields.

Jacob Jensen, Northern United’s 9-12-year-old coaching director, says his association has tried to work out an agreement with the PGYSA but to no avail and he’s frustrated his players can’t boot soccer balls on the city’s showcase facility. He’s considering making a plea to city politicians to get involved in settling the dispute.

“We were told (by city workers) that PGYSA has an annual automatic agreement and first right of refusal to get those fields every year,” said Jensen. “We’ve reached out to PGYSA and we want to work with them, because I think having two soccer clubs in town would strengthen soccer in northern B.C. But they don’t seem to want to work with us and we’re doing the best we can, we’re trying to get on the Rotary Fields and we’re at the point where we might have to reach out to city council.”

Terrol Russell, PGYSA’s director of club operations, said the association has invested $3.5 million in infrastructure at Rotary Field since it was built. It owns the fieldhouse, fences, goal cages, lights and equipment and the club is required to pay for the upkeep of those facilities and takes on the liability of those facilities which gives the organization the right to control who uses the fields.

“The PGYSA built this facility and gave the fields back to the city for maintenance,” said Russell.

 “No other sport organization as far as I know of pays all the money for their own infrastructure and we do. It’s endless what we cover from an organizational standpoint. Parks does an amazing job on looking after the grass, but all the infrastructure we run and that comes from our bank account.  I spend thousands of dollars per year on maintenance and infrastructure upgrades, everything comes out of our pocket.”

Russell says he’s always willing to negotiate and would not rule the possibility of working out a field-use agreement with Northern United.

“Once we get out of the pandemic, who knows what will happen going forward,” he said. “A lot will be determined by BC Soccer membership but it would be nice if a lot of the soccer community would actually communicate and sit down and have a chat.”

Both Jensen and Stewart were formerly associated with the PGYSA and their philosophical differences with the way the league was being run prompted the split in 2017, which led to the formation of Northern United. Although none of the PGYSA board directors are still in place four years later, there’s been no mending of the fences between the two organizations.

“I’ve tried to connect with other northern members and members here to try to bring people together because coming out of a pandemic, volunteerism has disappeared,” said Russell. “There are situations where the cost of doing business has gone up and yet for whatever reason I still see more head-butting and conflict than anything else.”

Minor soccer registration has plummeted

When Russell was hired as technical director of programming in May 2018, the PGYSA was in the midst of tumultuous time plagued by in-fighting at the board level and those disagreements combined with lower birth rates in the city had a detrimental effect over time on the number of kids playing soccer. From its high point in 2003, when the PGYSA had more than 3,100 players registered, the numbers have tailed off considerably.  In one year, the league lost about 500 players, dropping from about 2,100 in 2016 to 1,551 in 2017. There were 1,430 registered in 2018, the year Russell took over the job.

Both of the city’s minor soccer organizations have been hurt by the pandemic which ruled out competition in 2020. Registration has closed for the outdoor season in the PGYSA and while Russell would not reveal the player total for the spring/summer season, he says there are encouraging signs kids are returning to the game in all but the older age groups.

“If we’re anywhere near 700 or 800, I’m happy,” said Russell. “In a COVID world last year only 20 or 30 per cent of the players in Canada came back off lockdown in July.

“Right now in the COVID world we’re way above where we thought. All of our high-performance competitive numbers are excellent. Anything from about three to 12 is really healthy, but that Active for Life (formerly known as house league) that’s where we’re seeing the biggest deficit. Anything above the age of 14, that age group has basically disappeared and that was happening before COVID, so that’s nothing new. It starts thinning out at about 12.”

Russell said the older divisions in the PGYSA are playing co-ed soccer with girls and boys grouped together just so there are enough players to make up a team. He worries the pandemic has made kids reluctant to get involved in team activities and has heard feedback from some that they no longer want to be bound by time constraints and are instead  choosing to stick with individual sports like mountain biking or snowboarding.

“The trends were looking that way before COVID happened,” said Russell. “COVID has just made it that much worse, so some people who might have been on the fence have made a decision and decided to do other things.”

Russell said the pandemic has left Kitimat, Terrace, Prince Rupert and Mackenzie without minor soccer this year.

Soccer Canada raises standards for grassroots members

Standards for clubs affiliated with BC Soccer and Soccer Canada have changed as the country strives to become more competitive internationally and that’s had a trickle-down effect on minor soccer organizations. Russell knew those modern standards on risk policy, financial accounting, coaching certification, club licencing and operational procedures were coming when he was reviewing the documents in his previous job as the high-performance director with the Saskatchewan Soccer Association. Now they are being implemented in the PGYSA.

“If we look at the history over the past decade at the registrations, the certifications, the (technical directors) we’ve run out of town, some of the policies we’ve been required to meet but haven’t,” he said. “Ever since the new board came in three years ago and I arrived we’ve literally had to rebuild the organization from the ground up.

 “There’s policies and bylaws, and rules and regulations we have to meet now we never used to in the past and now we do, it’s non-negotiable. The regional politics have to go because if we do not make sure we meet the standards the rest of the country will leave us behind.”