'Mini-pitch' soccer fields give access to Sioux Falls kids in core neighborhoods
Dakota Soccer Alliance, Neighborhood Soccer and the City of Sioux Falls hope the mini-pitch at Terrace Park is the first of many.
SIOUX FALLS — The image of kids playing soccer in Sioux Falls is familiar.
Hordes of brightly clad boys and girls chasing the ball around on field after field, arrayed in a series of green rectangles, lined with dutiful parents in decked out folding chairs, umbrellas and clam-shell tents staked down for some merciful protection from the sun and the wind.
It’s the suburban right of passage complete with fruit snacks and juice boxes.
But it’s not like that everywhere.
In parts of Europe and Africa and Latin America, “futbal” is learned on the streets, or a hardscrabble piece of dirt.
All you really need is a few friends, a ball and something to kick it through.
It’s how many of the greats of the game found and honed their skills, not unlike basketball in Brooklyn or baseball on untold sandlots across the Midwest.
That’s an ethos, and an opportunity, that Frank Gurnick wants to bring to a few forgotten corners of Sioux Falls parks, in neighborhoods where soccer’s reach is less common but full of potential.
Gurnick, the executive director of Dakota Alliance Soccer, is the driving force behind a plan to bring “mini-pitches” to Sioux Falls, beginning with the first one planned for Terrace Park.
“What we noticed at Dakota Alliance is that there is a population out there in the community that wants soccer but they can’t get to us,” Gurnick said in an interview with Sioux Falls Live.
That’s because in most cases, the multitude of soccer fields where organized leagues practice and play are on the edges of the city, a reflection of the history of development that followed the middle-class housing tracts stretching further and further into the countryside.
The sport has thrived in Sioux Falls. Dakota Alliance has about 4,000 kids playing at the various age groups and skill levels. There are multiple leagues, traveling clubs and high school programs. For those kids, the system works great.
But the city has changed in the past 20 years. Many new residents, immigrants and refugees, transplants from other parts of the country, moved here looking for a job and a chance.
The parents may work two jobs. There’s little time, or money, for the demands that can come with youth sports.
It’s those kids, those families, in those neighborhoods that Gurnick wants to reach.
“If the kids can’t come to us, we need to figure out a way to come to them,” he said.
That’s where the mini-pitch comes in.
Planning is underway to convert two seldom-used tennis courts on the north end of the park into side-by-side mini-pitches, which are hard-surfaced and small with barriers on the side to prevent the ball from leaving the playing field.
The fields will have lighting.
It’s a fast-paced version of soccer, called “futsal,” which typically has four players and a goalie on each side. But there’s no real minimum to have a pick-up game, not unlike basketball or sandlot baseball.
The system works in urban areas, especially, where space is at a premium. New York City has plans for 50 pitches and in Georgia, they have been built along commuter train lines.
The Terrace Park fields are the first of what Dakota Alliance Soccer Club and the City of Sioux Falls hope will be several neighborhood gathering places for kids and adults.
Gurnick started working on the project before the COVID pandemic, after seeing a mini-pitch in Des Moines. One of the first people he reached out to was Randell Beck, a retired newspaper executive and organizer of Sioux Falls Neighborhood Soccer.
The appeal of the mini-pitch was apparent immediately, Beck said.
The Neighborhood Soccer program was formed in 2021 with the two-fold purpose of closing the opportunity gap for kids and building neighborhoods and families.
“The mini-pitch is just like a gift,” Beck said in an interview. “It just seemed like such a great, natural extension of Neighborhood Soccer and this idea that we shouldn’t force a kid to travel across town. They should be able to do it in their own neighborhood.”
There are currently 450 to 500 kids playing in six Neighborhood Soccer leagues associated with schools with high rates of poverty. Two more will be added in the fall, Beck said.
After meeting with Gurnick, Beck connected with Mayor Paul TenHaken and Don Kearney, the director of Parks and Recreation.
“They just didn’t hesitate. They said this is awesome, we need to do this,” Beck said.
TenHaken unveiled the plan in his State of the City address on Monday, April, 17.
“Soccer is one of the fastest growing sports in Sioux Falls, and we’re running out of space for kids to play,” TenHaken said in an email to Sioux Falls Live. “Not only do these mini-pitch systems bring a solution to that problem, but they also create a positive and active gathering space for all generations to enjoy.”
The Terrace Park location will be installed by Musco Lighting, a company based in Oskaloosa, Iowa.
Musco has partnered with U.S. Soccer Foundation to expand the mini-pitch system across the country. While futsal has been around for a long time, the logistics of creating the pitch from scratch involved bringing together different contractors or suppliers.
U.S. Soccer Foundation was looking for a turnkey package to meet their goal of building 1,000 mini-pitches across the country by 2026.
That’s what Musco does.
The company has installed about 250 of the fields in the U.S. and eight countries, said Kirby Van Der Kamp, a soccer market representative for Musco.
Van Der Kamp grew up playing soccer in Des Moines and now lives in Denver. He was in Sioux Falls this week scouting and assessing sites.
In cases such as Terrace Park, two of the mini-pitches fit perfectly into two tennis courts. The existing fence will remain to keep the ball from flying onto Menlo Avenue or Covell Lake.
The surface of the tennis courts will stay with an additional layer of acrylic resin spread over the top.
“It speeds up the game,” Van Der Kamp said.
The cost for two courts will be $180,000 and the installation should take just a few days. Expansion will require private support, said TenHaken.
“These neighborhood investments are key to a safe and thriving community,” TenHaken said. “The city is looking for partners to collaborate with us to expand mini-pitch systems throughout our neighborhood parks.”
For now, finding that money will fall on Beck and Gurnick.
“I have offered, and Frank has, to do some fundraising,” Beck said. “I think there will be great corporate enthusiasm for this idea.”
The next target is Pioneer Park, which is north of Rice Street and east of Cliff Avenue, in the Riverside neighborhood.
“I love Pioneer Park because it’s tucked back into the core of this little neighborhood,” Beck said.
Like Terrace, there is an under-used tennis court, where kids are already playing pick-up soccer.
“It’s just a gem of a park with houses all the way around it,” he said.
Campus Park on 26th Street near Augustana University and the University of Sioux Falls, is also high on the list.
Gurnick said Dakota Alliance will continue to support the fields with coaches, organization and outreach.
But the structure is less important than the opportunity. The mini-pitches will be available to anyone, not just teams or leagues, he said.
Youth sports have become overwhelmed with money and false expectations, Gurnick said. One of his motivations is to remove some of the structure that has enveloped sports and make it about fun again.
“This has nothing to do with soccer. It’s about community development,” he said. “These will now be meeting places. It’s all to empower the kids to lead their activity when it isn’t being structured for them.”
Which is to say, borrowing from a tired sports analogy, if you build it …
“What we want to do is create opportunities for kids who wouldn’t normally have these opportunities,” he said. “The goal has always been, can we do this in a way that kids can ride their bike or walk to the parks?”