Kroner: Year-round soccer to become reality
URBANA — Today, it starts.
"It's a momentous day," Graham Berry said.
"A long time coming," Mick Galeski said.
Today, a former farm field in north Urbana starts the transformation of becoming a 24,500-square-foot indoor soccer facility.
"They'll be moving equipment in and moving dirt out," said Berry, who along with his wife, Liz, are the owners and developers.
Berry relocated to Champaign County in 1988 as a 25-year-old who had grown up in England.
"We play year-round soccer over there," Berry said. "The high school soccer season runs from August to May because the weather is conducive to that."
In East Central Illinois, soccer has remained strictly an outdoor sport, unless you count the times a school will allow players on the basketball court to play a type of kickball on the hard, wooden surface.
"There's not a dedicated facility specifically for indoor soccer," Berry said. "For the more serious player and the recreational players, there's nowhere to go."
At least close-by.
"Decatur is a smaller city than Champaign-Urbana, but they have a facility where guys like me are driving over to play in an indoor league," said Berry, who coaches the Judah Christian boys' and girls' soccer teams.
To help promote growth of the sport locally, Berry became the take-action instigator. He located property in Urbana — 2310 N. Willow Road — which is north of Interstate 74, west of O'Brien Auto Park and north of Michelle's Bridal, and got the ball rolling.
The timetable is that by early October, Soccer Planet will be open for business. "We'll have fall leagues, instruction and rental," Berry said.
Robert Myers, the planning manager for the City of Urbana, believes the chosen site is ideal.
"It's in a location that is visible, it's accessible and also in an area where we are planning for future growth and development," he said. "It seems like a natural fit, and it fills a need in our community for indoor recreation."
Of the 24,500 square feet, 16,000 will be dedicated to an indoor soccer field that will measure 185 feet in length and 85 feet in width.
The surface, Berry said, will be "actual synthetic blades of grass. It's the latest and greatest in indoor synthetic turf. I appreciate playing on a surface that's easier on my knees and ankles."
Berry envisions usage by more than the soccer faithful.
"I'm sure flag football leagues will be popular, and there will be interest from lacrosse," he said, adding opportunities also will be available in softball and baseball.
Filling a void
High school coaches, such as Champaign Central's Galeski and Centennial's Hsiung Marler, are elated at the prospects.
"Everyone who is part of the soccer community in town is so excited," Marler said.
He noticed the void eight years ago when he moved to the area from suburban Chicago.
"One of my first thoughts was, 'There's nowhere to play in the winter,' " Marler said. "I could name 20 places (to play) within an hour's drive in the Chicago suburbs.
"This is great for people who want to continue to play and kids who want to continue their development."
From Galeski's perspective, there are numerous rewards.
"Any time kids can play year-round, it means they won't be getting rusty in the offseason," he said.
The field at Soccer Planet will be comparable in size to the inside of a hockey rink.
"I guess the only thing I would wish for," Marler said, "is that it would be even bigger."
Urbana contractors Barber & DeAtley Inc. are in charge of the project. Berry's day job has given him ample opportunity to learn about what is offered elsewhere.
He's a corporate pilot and, he said, "I've been around the country the last five years, looking at indoor facilities from Seattle to Miami. I've seen all kinds of shapes and sizes."
The more he traveled, and the more he learned, the more convinced he became there was a need for an indoor facility locally.
"In the greater Chicago area, from Waukegan to Rockford to Joliet, there are 33 of these facilities," he said. "Springfield has two, and a third is being built. Decatur, Bloomington and Peoria all have dedicated indoor soccer facilities."
The benefits will go beyond helping high schoolers sharpen their skills in the offseason. Berry believes adults will find the facility appealing.
"A lot of people would play if they could play with their peers," he said. "I'm tired of playing with 25-year-olds. You have the social element and also keeping active and doing something we love."
Berry, 48, already is determined to organize an adult men's team.
"The recreational player, like myself, will have more opportunities," he said. "I plan on getting a team together in an over-40 league."
There are still details that have not yet been resolved. Rental fees haven't been finalized, but Berry said they will be posted at the online site (soccerplanetcu.com) once they are determined.
Staffing will include a full-time facilities manager, though Berry anticipates he and his wife will be actively involved in the operation.
"Why I'm doing it," he said, "is because it's something I'm passionate about and we needed it."
High school athletes will be able to use the facility for training and indoor leagues. Berry promises to offer camps and clinics.
"Whatever you do, the more you do it, the better you get," Berry said. "Those players who love the sport and play it in the spring or the fall can play year-round soccer and will get better and have fun doing it."
Regardless of the weather outside, the conditions will be the same inside Soccer Planet, which will have a section devoted to spectator seating.
"It will be 68 degrees and sunny," Berry said. "It can be used for practice when the weather outside is frightful."
For area soccer enthusiasts, that means a bright future for the sport they love.
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette's prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by fax at 217-373-7401, by phone at 217-351-5232 or at email@example.com.