Over $900,000 in improvements to Asheville’s Memorial Stadium are now underway. And while the recreational facility is host to a wide variety of sporting events, area soccer players are particularly excited about the prospect of a nicer field and more functional amenities.
AstroTurf Corp., based in Dalton, Ga., began work in late August, with construction aimed for completion by the end of the year. Planned improvements to Memorial Stadium, located just east of the Asheville Tourists’ McCormick Field, include new artificial turf with improved drainage, new stormwater infrastructure, the installation of sidewalks and access to existing concrete bleachers in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The field has always been intended to accommodate multiple sports and provide equitable athletic programming space for Asheville athletes, according to Christy Bass, program and operations manager for Asheville’s Parks and Recreation Department. She says games played at the facility include, but are not limited to football, lacrosse, flag football, Ultimate frisbee and field hockey.
But soccer dominates Memorial Stadium, with users including the semipro Asheville City Soccer Club and recreational Asheville Buncombe Adult Soccer Association. The current changes, says Eric Usher, are set to make an already good facility even better.
“Playing at Memorial Stadium — it’s the type of atmosphere that soccer players dream of,” says Usher, a co-director of the Beer City Cup. The national tournament, which bills itself as the country’s largest adult soccer event, holds its finals at the stadium over Labor Day weekend every year.
Usher, who also referees in a number of Southern soccer conferences, credits the field with some of the Beer City Cup’s growth. “It’s a great arena. It overlooks the city, it’s centrally located, and the sun sets over the mountains,” he says. “It’s just incredible. When you play there, it feels like more than just a kick around. You feel like people are actually watching.”
According to a city webpage on the project, the 100-year-old Memorial Stadium facility has been modestly improved over time; its most recent turf renovation took place in 2000. The 2009 Parks and Recreation Master Plan flagged the current batch of improvements as important “to support the need for multiple athletic uses, improve safety and enhance neighborhood park space.”
Asheville voters approved funding for the project in November 2016 as part of a referendum on $17 million in bonds to make improvements to the city’s parks and recreation facilities. Planning and design for renovations to Memorial Stadium and nearby Mountainside Park began in 2017, with multiple community and stakeholder meetings taking place since 2019 to collect feedback on the work’s scope.
Ryan Kelley, co-owner and past president of Asheville City Soccer Club, says he was able to engage with the city about the improvements on different levels over the past few years. “The turf replacement is long overdue, and we are thrilled that it is finally taking place. It will be a huge upgrade for us and all of the many users of the stadium,” he says.
Beyond the new playing surface for the field, Bass says that addressing stormwater drainage is a major element of the stadium project. Looking toward future patterns of extreme weather driven by climate change, as outlined in Asheville’s 2018 climate resilience report, the city believes it is important to address drainage as the frequency of heavy rainstorms picks up.
“While we are replacing the turf, it is a great opportunity to replace the aging stormwater infrastructure and move it out from under the field. As important as it is, the improvements will largely be unnoticed by the general public,” she says.
Kelley says the impact of an excellent venue on his club and the larger soccer community cannot be overstated. “It is an essential part of Asheville City Soccer Club’s culture, and it provides one of the best atmospheres in minor league soccer. Our players and visiting players alike have called playing under the lights at Memorial in front of thousands of local fans one of the best experiences of their careers,” he says. “I have yet to encounter a better downtown stadium experience anywhere in minor league soccer.”
Those who play the sport at an amateur level are also eager to get their feet on the new facility. Soccer is huge in Asheville, despite the city’s relatively small size. Frank Balentine, who played at UNC Asheville and has since moved onto an adult league, says there isn’t another soccer community in the state that rivals Asheville’s.
“There are more than 1,000 participants [in the adult league]. When you include their families that play in the youth leagues, that’s 3,000-4,000 people playing,” he explains. “The renovations to Memorial Stadium are giving the soccer community the space it deserves.”
Usher with the Beer City Cup says that soccer might fly under the radar in terms of Asheville sports, but it shouldn’t. He says the sport is a good cultural fit for the city: It attracts people from many cultural backgrounds, creeds and orientations. It also fits in with the beer scene.
“Soccer’s history is intertwined with pubs, and the breweries sponsor the Beer City Cup and also show top-level pro games from around the world,” he says. “People here are active and love the outdoors. It just fits.”