WakeMed Soccer Park has become a destination for college and amateur soccer tournaments because of its manicured Bermuda pitch.
Because of its popularity, the field was unavailable on Tuesday for one of the biggest and most exciting games in Carolina RailHawks history.
The RailHawks and the town of Cary re-sodded the field earlier this month, and grass in the 10,000-seat stadium needs time to take root.
So when the RailHawks beat the Los Angeles Galaxy 1-0 in overtime Tuesday night, it was in front of about 3,000 fans on a secondary field next to the stadium.
Never miss a local story.
The RailHawks have played the Galaxy twice before, winning in front of nearly 8,000 fans each time.
But the Galaxy played those games without former star David Beckham and without Landon Donovan, perhaps the most famous and successful American soccer player in history.
This time, they brought Donovan. And the game was played just 48 hours after a record number of American viewers watched the United States play Portugal in an exhilarating World Cup match.
So an unprecedented amount of attention was directed toward Cary.
The timing, while unfortunate for the Galaxy visit, will pay off months from now when the soccer park hosts major tournaments the town is known for, said Doug McRainey, Cary’s parks and recreation director.
“There are a lot of demands now on that facility,” McRainey said. “Being year-round, hosting major events in the fall with the ACC and College Cup, and the need to maintain a certain level (for the RailHawks) … it’s tough.”
The facility hosts the Capital Area Soccer League’s National Soccer Series each fall, which results in a $9.3 million boon for the local economy, according to Scott Dupree, executive director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance.
But the field only needs to be re-sodded after hosting major soccer tournaments that extend into the winter, such as the NCAA championships.
WakeMed Soccer Park has hosted nine NCAA championships in the last 11 years and will host the Men’s College Cup later this year. The facility didn’t host NCAA championships in the years prior to the last two Galaxy matches, so the field didn’t need to be re-sodded.
Altogether, the tournaments have made Cary “the collegiate and youth soccer capital of the country,” Dupree said.
The field was replaced three of the last five years, but facility managers agreed in January that it needed another facelift this year.
They determined the only feasible time to do it was between the end of the RailHawks’ spring season on May 31 and July 6, when the club would host Mexican Premier League team Puebla FC in front of an expected sell-out crowd.
Facilities managers had to pick a date without knowing if the RailHawks would face an opponent at home as part of the post-season U.S. Open Cup.
So they agreed to tear up the field shortly after the RailHawks beat Chivas USA in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup on June 14. Donovan didn’t announce his intention to play against Carolina until a couple days before the match.
The club tried to secure a bigger field elsewhere in the Triangle but Duke, N.C. State and UNC were not available, according to RailHawks president Curt Johnson.
The secondary field, known as Koka Booth Stadium, offered fans a more intimate experience with players.
Some sat in bleachers set up behind the team benches, an arm’s length away from Donovan as he warmed up. Most watched the match from a grassy hill.
Others, like Jarrett Campbell, stood behind one of the goals and had a great view when RailHawks goalie Scott Goodwin flicked away a shot by Donovan that appeared destined for the back of the net.
Given the current fervor for soccer in America, Campbell said he was disappointed that the RailHawks-Galaxy match couldn’t be played in front of a bigger crowd. He’s president of Triangle Soccer Fanatics, which supports the RailHawks and aims to promote the sport in the Triangle.
“Certainly it’s a missed opportunity,” he said. “But given the choices, this was the best option.”
Despite its constraints for the Galaxy game, McRainey said the WakeMed Soccer Park has still fulfilled its role as the headquarters for soccer in the Triangle during the sport’s most anticipated week of the year.
The town has opened the facility so that fans can watch each of the U.S. men’s World Cup matches on the stadium’s big screen.
McRainey said nearly 1,000 people showed up at the stadium to watch the U.S. face Ghana, and twice as many came to watch the match against Portugal.