By Mike Woitalla
Long gone are the days when soccer in the USA existed on the fringes. Its massive popularity among the nation’s youth, among other factors, moved it deep into the American mainstream. So it's easy to forget there are still battles to be won.
Kenneth Newman, a longtime soccer referee, coach and advocate for the sport, reminds us of a blatant lack of respect for the sport: the construction of high school stadiums without regard to the optimal soccer field dimensions.
“When schools and some park districts build 400-meter tracks, they most often build narrow infields in these tracks, which renders the infield of the track too narrow for a properly sized soccer field,” says Newman, citing fields as narrow as 55 yards. That's fine for football, not for soccer.
The demands of both track & field and soccer can be easily met. It’s been done that way for decades, all over the world. The key is opting for a “broken back” track, which allows a much wider playing field, up to 75 yards.
World Cup games are played on properly dimensioned soccer fields surrounded by running tracks. The tracks on which Olympians contest for gold medals are laid out to allow for perfect soccer fields. And that configuration is also suited for football.
What frustrates Newman is that in many communities the high school stadiums or fields with tracks at parks are often the only fields with lights. “And soccer loses big time,” he says.
Newman, who is campaigning to get Miami-Dade County Schools to consider soccer when they build or redesign fields, has refereed and coached enough games to see what a profound impact a narrow field has on the game. It invites a more physical game, puts possession-minded skillful teams at a disadvantage, and, he believes, may lead to more injuries.
“It is clear to me that any high school game played on a field less than 65 yards wide is a foul fest,” Newman says. “It isn't enjoyable for the players, coaches, referees and spectators.”
Martin Jacobson, the coach of New York City’s Martin Luther King Jr. High School, says it’s been a constant and not very successful battle to get high schools to build soccer fields with suitable width.
Within the last decade, more than $100 million have been spent to upgrade New York City public schools' sports facilities through the “Take the Field” program. But Jacobson said the vast majority of the fields were constructed to suit football and track without regard to soccer.
“It’s not the beautiful game anymore when you play on a narrow field,” says Jacobson. “You take away the wings and it eliminates skill, speed and creativity. It enables inferior teams to strategically box in an opponent. It makes it easier to double-team creative, skillful players.”
The leeway in soccer rulebooks -- FIFA’s 50-yard minimum and high school’s 55-yard minimum -- is to enable games to be played when optimally sized fields aren't available. But when fields are being designed for American high schools, there’s no excuse to go with something near those minimums.
For international games, FIFA’s minimum is 70 yards and the National Federation of State High School Associations' recommended width is 65 yards.
That soccer can still get the short shrift when what it requires is no detriment to other sports is a reminder that American soccer, for all its progress, must continue to fight for respect.
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for Rockridge SCin Oakland, Calif. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)
What's been your experience with high school fields in your area? Do school districts give soccer respect? Let us know in the comments below ...