The D.C. Stoddert Soccer League, the largest youth soccer group in the District, has pulled some of its games from two city fields and is moving them to the Maryland SoccerPlex in Montgomery County and other fields deemed better and safer for the players.
The shift affects a relatively small portion of the league's overall activity in the city but will cost many players on its select, or tryout, travel teams $100 more a season to cover the cost of using SoccerPlex and other fields.
David Repka, chairman of the volunteer executive committee for the 28-year-old league, said Stoddert has stopped playing official select-team games on fields at Fort Reno Park and the Hearst Recreation Center, both in Northwest.
"They were a safety hazard," Repka said. He noted that Stoddert and officials with suburban leagues that Stoddert competes against raised concerns last spring about the rutted and rocky condition of the fields, which are maintained by the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation.
Starting this school year, the league has shifted 40 games a season to the SoccerPlex facility in Boyds, near Germantown, and two dozen games a season to private facilities in the city, such as at St. John's College High School and George Washington University's Mount Vernon campus. It is looking for other fields where it can host games.
The SoccerPlex is an expensive and inconvenient venue for Stoddert, a nonprofit boys' and girls' soccer organization, particularly compared with the nominal fees it pays to use D.C. fields. Playing 40 of its "home" games each season in upper Montgomery County will cost Stoddert about $75,000 over three years, according to the league.
Tom Gross, the league's paid administrator, said the move affects about 225 seventh-grade and older players out of roughly 400 youths on Stoddert's travel teams. These travel teams hire professional coaches and require larger fields for competitive games they play throughout the region, including five home games a season. Families of older players will now be paying an extra $100 each, or $660 a season, to help defray field rental costs, not counting additional costs for increased gas consumption.
Gross said Stoddert already spends about $40,000 a year on scholarships for players, particularly travel team players, whose families can't afford soccer fees.
Regina Williams, a spokeswoman for the Department of Parks and Recreation, said that there were unavoidable delays in refurbishing the fields at Fort Reno and Hearst and that other teams have continued to play there. The city charges a $26 application fee per team to use its fields.
"At this point, we have not heard that anything is terribly wrong" with the fields, she said. "We will continue to work with Stoddert and hope they will feel comfortable enough to use our fields for their home games."
Williams said part of the problem is that the fields are used for baseball and soccer, which contributes to the wear and tear. Fort Reno is owned by the National Park Service, with its field maintained by the city agency. The land is considered historic, and there is a long process required to make sure that any work there doesn't have adverse affects. Also, the city can reseed the field but is not allowed to dig it up in making repairs.
At Hearst, she said, a contractor had to wait until baseball season ended before work could begin to fill in patches of grass. Repairs to that field are ongoing, she said.
Repka and Gross described the move to the SoccerPlex as an "interim" arrangement until the league can return to city-operated fields or find other fields in or close to the District. They stressed that the move does not affect any of the 4,200 youths, ages 5 to 19, who participate in its recreational soccer programs, which have volunteer coaches and cost $65 a player to participate each season.
"We rely on D.C. Parks and Recreation to maintain the fields," Repka said. "While we do hire some contractors from time to time to do specific maintenance projects, it's a government responsiblity to have a place for youth soccer and other athletics . . . Parents of travel team members are used to driving, but not necessarily to home games."
The Stoddert league spent $170,000 about five years ago to renovate the soccer field at Fort Stevens Recreation Center in Northwest Washington's Brightwood neighborhood -- the only high-quality, full-size field in the District.
The only other full-size field in the city is at Fort Reno, "and it's in terrible shape," Gross said. The Hearst field, he said, "looks better" than it did last spring but still may not meet league standards.
The District "does as well as it can," Gross said. Still, he and Repka would like to see some of the city's surplus revenue earmarked for better maintenance of soccer fields. Good fields, they say, would mean that Stoddert could do what other soccer organizations do: host tournaments that bring people into the city.
Gross said the District government could solve many of its soccer field maintenance problems by installing synthetic grass at some fields, a material that makes GWU's field at Mount Vernon "absolutely perfect. . . . There's a long life span and no maintenance. You can use it 24 hours a day."
Also, the long-proposed $3.2 million development at Kenilworth-Parkside Community Center in Northeast calls for building a baseball field, a football field and two state-of-the art multipurpose fields that could be used for soccer games. The D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission has funds for the project but is trying to allay concerns about its environmental impact on the neighborhood.
"They would build something like SoccerPlex in Ward 7 -- it's a huge, perfect site," Gross said. "It would solve our travel problems, and we'd move some of our recreation games there, too."