As Santa Fe basks in the moisture brought by its first real spring rains, several thousand soccer players across the city wonder what the five fields at the Municipal Recreation Complex will look like.
They know what the precious patches of green grass off Caja Del Rio Road used to look like after a storm: Something resembling a series of shallow ponds that quickly evolved into a sort of muddy primordial ooze. Eager players would rush to the fields too soon after rain. With even a little rain pooled on the playing surface, they'd quickly get muddy. The goalmouths, where a fair bit of frantic action (or pacing) tends to take place, got especially churned up.
Local state legislators went after a hard-won $500,000 in capital outlay money from the state to close down the playing fields, fix the drainage issues and help maintain optimal playing conditions. That work began in 2016.
"They're getting in good shape, compared with the last two or three years," says Peta Bernal, who runs the city's adult soccer league that started last week. Gone are the permanent goalposts, replaced by four sets of new, movable ones. The priority this season is making sure the improvements take hold.
The adult soccer league has 16 teams and plays all day on Sundays. The start of summer youth soccer isn't far behind, so for the time being, the adult league is only using half the fields. In a few weeks, it will switch to the closed half and let the fields used now rest and recover. In the fall, the season starts for La Liga—a local league named with a nod to the Spanish major soccer league—as well as for high school soccer. Five fields might sound like a lot, but they take a beating.
A group of soccer enthusiasts is asking the city to let it manage maintenance.
"What we bring to the table is we know soccer," Nic Smith tells SFR. He's the president of the group called Santa Fe Soccer Complex and also runs the Rio Rapids Northern Soccer Club. "We know when the fields need repair, we know how they need to be lined, we know they need to be rested, to take care of them in that way. It's a pretty scarce resource, having five fields with the amount of play that they get. It's going to take some careful management to stop it from going back [to the condition it was before repair]."
The city seems receptive to the maintenance deal and it's similar, at least in theory, to the Railyard Stewards agreement for care of the downtown space off Guadalupe Street.
Smith and his group are hoping for more. Another $500,000 from the city would match a pledge from the county and potentially turn the fields into a full-fledged soccer complex with nine different fields, lights, bathroom buildings and room to grow past that. Smith says that kind of facility would attract tournaments. He already has an organizer from Casa Grande, Arizona—"Know where that is? No? Exactly."—interested in moving a tournament here and thinks it wouldn't take much to get at least one more.
The City Council balked at a similar request this past winter, before three new councilors and new mayor took office. The funding is on its capital improvement projects list, which is a non-binding declaration of the city's intent for public works spending. The idea has been kicked around for at least a couple years.
"When you're trying to weigh the needs of the city, it's easy to put something like this on the back burner," District 3 City Councilor Chris Rivera tells SFR. "I understand that. But it's been on the back burner for a couple of years."
Rivera says there's support for the concept, and the county money would help the city leverage its own funding. It's just a question of committing. He sees soccer as a community-builder and one of the rare opportunities for people from different parts of Santa Fe—geographically and economically—to spend time with each other.
"I like it. I used to be part of the board for one of the soccer groups and the fields were lined and maintained in kind of a horrible way," he says.
Like the Santa Fe Soccer Complex group, he's not throwing shade at the city's maintenance crews—it's just that no one really has the expertise to keep soccer fields in top shape. "Who better to really support or work on the fields than this group?" he asks rhetorically.
In the next few weeks, the City Council expects to wrap up its operating budget plans for the fiscal year that begins in July and turn to capital improvement. By mid-summer, the group could know if the city sees a more robust soccer complex as a worthwhile investment that might someday pay for itself with full hotels and busy restaurants.
"Soccer teams travel really well," Rivera says. "I have nieces and nephews who play, and during the summer, they're traveling once or twice a month to Denver or Dallas or Las Vegas for tournaments, two or three days at a time. That's a lot of money."