With 5,000 youth and nearly 3,000 adults playing the game, soccer is, by far, the most popular participation sport in the Central Okanagan.
And while such numbers are encouraging for the local soccer community, it also means fields and practise facilities in Kelowna and area are being stretched to the limit.
With that in mind, the Kelowna United Football Club is addressing some of that need with the construction of a new indoor/outdoor training centre at Mission Recreation Park.
The brainchild of United club president and longtime soccer supporter Mark Krehel, the facility will feature the latest in artificial turf and will be covered by an air-supported dome for six months of the year, allowing for year-round training.
Construction of the privately-funded $900,000 facility will begin next week on the east side of the H20 Fitness and Adventure Centre, with completion expected in mid-October.
While several community sports groups are expected to use the yet-to-be-named field, Krehel said the primary impetus behind the project is to nurture the growth and development of youth soccer in the Central Okanagan.
“The idea came about three years ago, in that we knew were really missing something as a club, somewhere for our kids to do their winter training,” said Krehel. “Any successful club out there has an adequate indoor facility where they can train all year-round. Our goal is to help our kids to move on to the national or provincial levels or to earn scholarships. We have the indoor surfaces at the Capital News Centre which certainly serve a purpose, but we knew we needed something bigger.”
At no cost to local taxpayers, the families of Krehel and fellow soccer supporter Darryl Hazell are providing all financial backing for the project, with Kelowna United to pay back the loan over a five- to eight-year period.
The City of Kelowna is supplying the land as part of a 15-year-lease with Kelowna United, which includes an option for a five-year contract renewal when the lease expires.
At 40 by 70 yards (38m by 67m), the surface covers roughly half the area of a full-sized soccer pitch, while the dome ceiling is 40 feet high (12.2m).
The dome is manufactured by a Guelph, Ont. company, The Farley Group, which will install the covering in mid-October, then will remove it at the beginning of April.
The turf is the newest generation available and is endorsed by FIFA, the governing body for international soccer.
Though considerably smaller than a regulation field, it will be large enough to accommodate standard games for the U12 age group and younger.
Kamloops, Penticton and Vernon already have similar facilities in place in the Interior, as does Richmond and North Vancouver on the Lower Mainland.
During the winter months, with the dome in place, the facility will operate from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., providing an extra 3,000 hours of field time for soccer players and other user groups.
Kelowna United technical director Dante Zanatta said the new pitch will be a boon to young soccer players in the region.
“To have this happen now is a great step forward,” Zanatta said. “On the Lower Mainland and the Island, players can train 11, 12 months a year. Here, in the past, we’ve done a lot of training in schools gyms and similar places, and that doesn’t fill the need very well. I’m sure we could fill three times the space, but to have this dedicated field is good. Our players will also be better prepared to play and compete when the spring season arrives.”
Other than the sides of the dome itself, there will be no walls on the new pitch. Divider curtains will allow two or more soccer teams to practise at one time.
“Trying to get 40 kids training at the same time and same place in the winter was pretty challenging here,” Zanatta added. “Now, with the U11s and 12s, we’ll be able to have three teams going at once and that will be a huge benefit for the players and coaches.”
Haley Loudoun, who plays for the Kelowna United U21 women’s squad, expects the new covered field will quickly pay dividends for local players and teams.
“To get to train in a facility like this during the winter is really going to increase the potential for success for our team,” said Loudoun. “For me, I think it’s going to give me more confidence, more touches on the ball and I’ll be able to improve my skills. To have access to something like this is very exciting, I’m looking forward to it.”
Krehel said Kelowna United teams will occupy the pitch for about 45 hours per week, with the Thompson Okanagan Football Club and Central Okanagan Youth Soccer Association also being significant users of the facility.
The remaining time will be allotted to other soccer groups and teams, and other sports such as ultimate frisbee and field lacrosse.
While Mark Krehel has been the driving force behind the project, he’s quick to credit many other individuals and groups who have helped turn his vision into reality—including Kelowna United, COYSA and the City of Kelowna.
“This is really a Kelowna United initiative, with a lot of support from COYSA. There are so many people who have made this happen…it’s not something you can do alone, it’s with the assistance of many that we are where we are,” Krehel said. “The City of Kelowna has been great through all of this, too. All the people with the city we dealt with, and those on council have been very supportive.”
Krehel also commended United club coaches and parents, Surinder Gosal and Chad Bigattini, for their invaluable contributions throughout the process.
As for the commitments of considerable time and money from the Krehel and Hazell families, Krehel says it all comes down to their passion for the game and desire to see young local players succeed.
“Our own kids are all done playing youth soccer, but we’re both huge soccer families and we want to see the game grow here in Kelowna,” said Krehel. “We’re just happy to do our part to help, and we’re excited about the new field.”
While the new facility has yet to be named, Krehel expects that will happen as soon as a corporate sponsor is finalized.