With its red brick walls and arches, U-M’s new soccer stadium evokes Michigan Stadium–though at about one-fiftieth the scale.
There’s irony in the comparison–because for the last two seasons, football’s hegemony has made soccer at U-M an orphan. When construction started in early 2008 on the $26 million Al Glick Fieldhouse, a state-of-the-art football practice facility, it wiped out the university’s only soccer pitch along South State, used since 1995 by both the women’s and men’s teams.
Even as soccer went into exile, U-M signaled that it was taking the sport more seriously by hiring Greg Ryan, the high-profile former coach of the U.S. women’s national team. (Ryan compiled a 54-1 record with that team, but the lone loss, a 4-0 defeat to Brazil in the 2007 Women’s World Cup semifinals, got him canned because of his controversial decision to bench goalkeeper Hope Solo.)
Soccer moved to what was then a vacant lot west of the U-M’s sprawling tennis facilities. The 12.5-acre buckthorn-choked prairie, which abuts South Main across from Woodland Plaza, was just wide enough to squeeze in three pitches–one each for the men’s and women’s teams to practice, and one for both to use for competition. But though the relocation was approved in July 2007, the pitches weren’t ready for the 2008 season, forcing the U-M’s teams to play “home” games at places like Saline and Plymouth-Canton high schools. Even last year, the teams were playing in front of fans on makeshift bleachers. It only added to the bad vibes that Ryan’s team lost its two leading scorers to injuries early on and managed to score only four goals in ten Big Ten games. The men’s squad did only a little better.
With the massively expensive Big House renovation, it took the athletics department awhile to come up with funds for soccer. Finally, in May 2009, the regents OK’d a $6 million soccer stadium. But in July, when the university asked the city for water and sewer hookup, it learned that the parcel was not in Ann Arbor–but in Pittsfield Township.
The U-M nevertheless went ahead with preliminary site construction, which forced the women’s team to play its final 2009 home game on its practice field. And the city planning commission recommended city council approve the university’s belated proposal to annex and rezone the site. City planner Jill Thacher says the master plan had called for the land–if and when annexed–to be used either for housing or as a park. But, she points out, “we have no regulatory authority” over the university. Looking at what was essentially a fait accompli as the stadium’s stands went up, the city, Pittsfield Township, and the state boundary commission all OK’d the annexation.
The city will collect no property taxes, since U-M doesn’t pay them, but the university has paid more than $149,000 in “improvement charges” for water and storm-water connections, and will pay thousands more in sewer hookup fees; the city will also collect ongoing utility usage charges.
The money was nothing to sneeze at for a city facing a budget crunch, but aside from that, Thacher says the planning commissioners felt that if the city nixed annexation, the U-M could get county approval to dig its own wells and septic field on the land–with possibly unwanted environmental results.
How did the U-M miss the fact that the land, which it has owned for at least fifteen years, had never been annexed to the city? “The university doesn’t get tax bills, and there was no use of it taking place,” points out Jim Kosteva, the university’s director of community relations. “So there was no correspondence from the township or any other taxing entity.” He calls the gaffe a “novel little story.”
If all goes as planned, the new stadium will open in time for the women’s soccer league opener August 20 against the University of Detroit (the men’s team opens league play September 1 against the same opponent). The next challenge will be filling the 2,200-seat facility. The U-M’s record crowd for soccer is about 1,000–and that was when the pitch was a mile closer to campus.