Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Freedom to stay at SoccerPlex

When team turns pro next year, it will remain based in Boyds

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Washington Freedom fans have become accustomed to the intimate atmosphere at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, where they’ve spent the past two summers watching some of the country’s best women’s soccer talent up close. As the 2008 W-League season winds down (postseason play begins July 22) and fans gear up for the inaugural Women’s Professional Soccer season in April 2009, Freedom fans no longer have to worry about where they’ll be able to catch their favorite players. It’s official: The SoccerPlex will be the Freedom’s home facility.

The defending W-League champion Freedom is the only former Women’s United Soccer Association team that managed to stay intact when the professional league ceased operations in 2003 shortly after its third season, and has developed a strong following during its two W-League seasons. The W-League is the country’s premier amateur league, consisting of 41 teams in three conferences (Central, Eastern, Western) and five divisions.

The Freedom struggled to fill the seats, while playing its home games at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. during the WUSA’s three-year tenure — it attracted an average crowd of around 3,300. SoccerPlex provides a more close-knit, family-oriented environment.

‘‘I’m very excited to play there next year,” Freedom coach Jim Gabarra said. ‘‘We’ve been playing there the last three years now. Our offices are now up there. It’s a great facility. We’re smack in the middle of the soccer market. The goal is to be able to sell out our home games.”

SoccerPlex, which originally opened in Oct. 2000, is a pristine facility. It hosts 23 soccer fields, including the main stadium field which seats up to 3,200 spectators and provides broadcast-quality lighting. SoccerPlex hosts about 150 events, from the youth level to Olympic level, each year — it hosted the Atlantic Coastal Conference men’s soccer tournament last fall and a U.S. Olympic men’s soccer qualifier in 2003. But being the home facility for a professional league team is a whole different ballgame.

Montgomery County Parks & Planning owns the land the SoccerPlex sits on. But the facility is managed by the Maryland Soccer Foundation. The two, along with the Freedom, are working together on agreements for stadium improvements. MSF Executive Director Trish Heffelfinger said the Freedom is slated to sign a lease for use of the land in September. Heffelfinger herself will approach the Parks & Planning board in the early fall with a proposal for stadium upgrades.

Heffelfinger’s plan includes a stadium expansion to 6,500 seats, a press box, ticket booth, additional scoreboard and a substantial fence around the entire perimeter of the stadium (rather than the current plastic, tarp-like fence) for controlled access. The SoccerPlex’s outdoor season ends in late November. Heffelfinger hopes construction will begin by early December to ensure everything’s ready for the team’s home opener in April.

‘‘There are a lot of details we have to look at to make sure we do what we have to do to create a professional atmosphere,” Heffelfinger said. ‘‘They’re still going to have the fan fest before every home game, and halftime shows. Some of this stuff will be familiar, it’s been done before but it now has to be done at the professional level. We need to make it feel like this is a real professional stadium.”

SoccerPlex isn’t at the heart of the city; it’s in the middle of a residential community. But it’s easy to find, and has 3,000 parking spaces.

A lot of progress has been made in preparing SoccerPlex and fans for the return of women’s professional soccer to the area. A lot still needs to be done — the Freedom and SoccerPlex need to make sure they smooth out all scheduling conflicts before signing the final lease agreement, among other things. But one thing’s for sure: The Washington Freedom will play its home games at SoccerPlex as a professional league team in 2009.

‘‘This is a natural fit for us,” Gabarra said. ‘‘Our average crowd when we played at RFK was 3,300. This is a good starting point for us. If there is a soccer-specific stadium built in the future, that’s where we might want to play. But this is a good place for us to start.”