Wayne Etheridge, president of Mobile United FC, always knew Mobile would open a soccer complex, but he had his doubts about when it would happen.
“I always believed it would happen,” he said. “I didn’t know if it would happen in my lifetime.”
The time it took to gather enough political support for the project and the need within the county’s soccer community was an ongoing theme as commissioners and stakeholders came together Thursday, July 23 to christen phase one of the long-awaited complex on Halls Mill Road.
Mobile County Commissioner Connie Hudson got somewhat sentimental over what had been, at one time, a series of failures before drumming up enough political support to move forward.
“This began nearly eight years ago to help meet the demand for an adequate facility to support soccer tournaments,” Hudson said. “It was an arduous journey, but I believe that seeing what we have before us, it was worth every bit of it.”
Commission President Jerry Carl, who was often at odds with Hudson over the cost of the facility, praised his counterpart at the opening, agreeing with her that it took “every bit of eight years” to bring the facility to fruition.
“I’m excited about the soccer fields,” he said. “This was a long time coming and Commissioner Hudson was very, very committed.”
Carl also encouraged the fans in attendance to continue to support the facility in the future.
“This soccer field is of no use to anyone unless someone gets out there and it’s supported by the people of Mobile,” Carl said.
Commissioner Merceria Ludgood praised Hudson’s “leadership and vision” for helping to make the goal a reality. She called it a “crown jewel” for the county.
“For you young people, I know eight years seems like a long time, but if it’s worthwhile and you put the time in, you can accomplish anything,” Ludgood said.
Phase one of the complex included four fields and lights. Future phases will add restrooms, a concession stand and nearly double its size to 100 acres and 10 fields. The first phase of the complex, plus the fields at Mobile United’s Graystone facility, would give the city and county up to six tournament-quality fields within a mile and a half of each other, Etheridge said. Four of those fields are lighted.
“It’s perfect for small tournaments,” he said. “This is exciting.”
Mobile Sports Authority Executive Director Danny Corte agreed, adding that the city’s artificial turf fields at Sage Park could also be used for tournament play. While not ideal to have fields in different areas, having the fields at all gives the city and county a chance to host events they wouldn’t have had a chance to in the past, Corte said.
“Ideally you’d want them on in the same complex … but we can definitely go out and start looking for some tournaments,” he said. “It’s all about the facilities.”
Both Etheridge and Corte spoke optimistically about the area’s appetite for soccer.
“We now have facilities that match the enthusiasm in the community,” Etheridge said.
While soccer is still a big draw in the world of youth sports tourism, Corte added that the facility could be used for lacrosse, ultimate frisbee and other sports as well.
“What you need is the fields,” he said. “That’s what we have here.”
On Thursday when the pomp had died down, those in the crowd were treated to exhibition games featuring senior high school soccer players whose seasons were cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Two teams with a total of 38 boys from area high schools played in one match, while a team of 16 girls from area schools took on a Mobile United club.
“We wanted to give them a chance to hit the pitch one last time as high school players,” Etheridge said.
Members of the soccer community weren’t always so optimistic about the possibility of a tournament-ready facility. As St. Paul’s Episcopal School varsity boys soccer coach Chad Harrelson told the crowd, there were major moments of doubt.
Harrelson broke down in tears when describing a low point. He said four years ago while he was driving back from a tournament in Greenville, S.C., Hudson called him to inform him the complex had been voted down by commissioners, or as he put it, the facility “hit one of its many speed bumps.”
“I threw my hands up,” Harrelson said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to have anything to do with this anymore.”
It was at that moment, Harrelson said, Hudson made a promise the complex deal would get done.
“In the political spectrum, when those who work for us keep their promises, it means something,” he said.
The price tag for the first phase of the project was estimated at about $4 million. The remaining phases are estimated to cost about $17 million, according to previous Lagniappe reporting.
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