By Bobby Mohr
From the main road you’d never know it was there if it wasn’t for a subtle gate and sign on the edge of the grounds. According to Google Maps it would take a person 22 minutes to walk from the park’s main entrance all the way to the Football Centre building at the heart of the Football Association’s St. Georges Park, England’s national football training centre. On a campus chaperoned by thick, twisting willows monitoring its 13 external pitches, the facility’s topography mimics that of the East Staffordshire farmland it sits on, wavy green hills. But the playing fields are tended to like newborn infants, something I observed from the seemingly endless driveway as a platoon of groundskeepers shifted one of the enormous artificial sunlight lamps over the goal mouth on pitch number four. In my brief time spent there last month there was no shortage of tours carving through the halls as fans of the game came from all over to pay homage to what truly is a training facility masterpiece.
On site there’s an opulent Hilton hotel, complete with 228 guest rooms, 11 of them suites, two restaurants, a pool, and luxury spa. That’s not even the half of it. The Football Centre immediately adjacent to the lodging accommodations plays host to employee offices, changing rooms all named after iconic cap-earners, gym facilities complete with sports science assistance, a hydrotherapy suite, running track, and executive meeting rooms. The full-size indoor turf field on the south side of the structure, or 3G pitch as they refer to it as, was the 2014 Institute of Groundsmanship artificial pitch of the year. Furthermore, it’s the lucky neighbor of the park’s crown jewel, the “Wembley” pitch. Just beyond the windows from the 3G observation deck is a mini stadium that boasts the exact field dimensions and grass of Wembley Stadium in London. Chances are if you’ve played on that pitch you’re either part of the England full team or are someone like Barcelona that has come in and run a training camp. Regardless, St. George’s keeps track of all its famous visitors by having them sign the signature wall just beyond a set of double doors from the prim, ultramodern reception foyer. Pretty sweet. Did I mention the Futsal court, dedicated goalkeeper training area, designated blind pitch, and five satellite pavilions that service locker rooms for the furthest fields? Yeah, St. Georges Park, completed in 2012 after over a decade of planning and upward of 100 million pounds spent, has it all.
“The trouble is everyone used to say that we need one of these high-tech national training facilities like Argentina or the Italians if we really wanted to compete. Well, now we do have one and don’t have an excuse!”
That’s what one Englishman told me. And up until that point I’d been rather envious of England’s facilities. But those words made me think: ‘It would be nice to have this kind of luxury in the United States, but would it be worth it?’ Then the pitfalls of constructing such a perceived masterpiece for the American purpose started to seep into my thoughts.
The first issue for an American version of St. George’s Park resides in location. St. George’s is located as centrally in England, a much smaller country in comparison to the United States, as anyone would care to measure and is therefore easily accessible from all corners of its boarders by road or train. Traveling more than three hours to reach it would be the extreme. But it’s not that easy for a country that spans four time zones. The highest concentration of players in the United States’ national pool at most age groups is from the west. So it would make sense to have a national training center of our own in California, located near the Federation’s equipment headquarters and to enjoy favorable weather to train in year round, right? That leaves players stationed on the East Coast with lamentable but doable flight itinerary, but European based U.S. players with close to fourteen hour journey in the air to report to a home training camp. That’s not to say we don’t do that already. Yet with frequent trips over the Atlantic to play healthy competition in Europe, wouldn’t it make sense to have a more eastern starting point? That would mean the West Coast players, with the natural tail wind behind their arrival flight, would make the lamentable but doable cross-country journey and the European-based players wouldn’t have to go as far once being called in for a domestic camp.
However, an east coast setup would mean sacrificing the sunny weather year round. That being said, my visit to St. George’s was during an English February and they seem to cope. Florida could be an option, but in the summer it’d be too hot. However, going too far north would mean snow in the winter, and that wouldn’t be kind to the field conditions. Even the middle states on the eastern seaboard are prone to the odd hurricane in the appropriate season. So it would need to be tucked inland enough. And if anyone’s ever taken a good look at NCAA Division I university pitches bellow the Mason-Dixon Line, they’ll know the conditions of the fields are not an issue.
A solution I’ve heard to the locational dilemma is to build two soccer centers, one in the west and one in the east. Sounds ideal, but you have to consider the financing involved to pull off such a feat. As aforementioned, St. Georges Park cost more than 100 million pounds, currently equivalent to in the ballpark of 140 million U.S. dollars. And for the sake of staying consistent with what England has created, two of those facilities would cost $280,000,000. That’s a lot of money spent to generate a training facility (or two) that would in no way guarantee an improvement in the national team’s performance. And if that’s the result after that kind of money was utilized, the vigilante headhunters of domestic soccer would go on a rampage demanding why that cash wasn’t invested in youth development, or restructuring the domestic professional pyramid, or scouting, or anything else that appears a necessity in hindsight. The already high expectation amassing around the national team on the men’s side of things would increase twofold if not more with a state-of-the-art practice venue.
On the flip side, returning to train at the same grounded location would give the players and coaching staff a sense of continuity. It could be set up to fit their very purpose and customized for optimum performance. Instead of taking what are now working vacations to wherever the Federation decides would be a fitting location for a domestic training camp, the personnel representing the crest would be shipping out to someplace they could view as a second home. More comfort, better performances? You tell me.
So, this where I open the floor to the readers. Your thoughts and opinions on these matters, if vocalized, can create a more educated soccer fan base and culture in the United States, therefore furthering our stock in this sport as a whole. The Away End is interested in what you have to say. Would the United States benefit from a national training ground like England’s St. George’s Park? Where would it go? Is it even feasible? Share your comments bellow.