Proposal aims to return Royal Athletic Park to its former soccer glory

The Island’s oldest soccer club, Vic West, wants to restore Royal Athletic Park to its former glory to stage team training camps and exhibition games just ahead of the 2026 World Cup co-hosted by Canada.

A key part of the proposal is bringing the natural-grass field up to FIFA standards, as it was when RAP hosted Canada ­qualifying games leading to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and 1986 World Cup, and again when the park hosted a group in the 2007 FIFA Under-20 World Cup.

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“Victoria should have one of the best natural-grass soccer fields in Canada and RAP is the place for it,” said Vic West legend Frank Woods, who also played professional.

“There’s so much history behind this.”

Vic West is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year and has a long association with Royal Athletic Park. The first soccer game at the site was on Sept. 12, 1908, between Vic West and the Fifth Regiment.

The proposal envisions a low-rise, English-style grandstand on the Cook Street side of the park as the field would be reconfigured to run north-south instead of the current east-west. That means the current soccer grandstand would be behind the south goal.

The proposal calls for a capacity of 4,000, expandable to 12,000 for bigger events.

“We are looking, on a smaller scale, for a feel of Liverpool or Dortmund,” said David Lawes, project lead for Vic West.

It would give the Canadian men’s and women’s national teams a natural-grass option to go with the turf option at Starlight Stadium in Langford. The field could be used by Vancouver Island Soccer League and youth soccer teams and also for Island and international rugby and field lacrosse.

“We hope to galvanize the soccer, and wider sports, community around this,” said Lawes.

“A big target for us is 2026.”

Although the B.C. NDP government controversially rejected the use of B.C. Place for the 2026 World Cup, there will be pools located in Seattle and Edmonton with national teams looking for pre-tournament exhibition games and training camp venues.

The plan is in the preliminary stages and Vic West president Randall Hollands said the club is inviting input from the community (vwclubby@shaw.ca).

He said the club is looking to raise $2 million with requests to the three levels of government initiated. “The city loses money on RAP and we believe we can change that and have a business case,” Lawes said.

The city has been approached by the club.

“We are aware that the Victoria West Athletic Association is looking for an opportunity to give back to the community as part of their milestone anniversary,” Bill Eisenhauer, head of engagement for the City of Victoria, said in a statement.

“We understand that they are in the very early exploration stage and we are not able to comment further at this time,”

The Vic West and Pacific FC logos appear side-by-side on the initial proposal booklet. PFC, of the pro Canadian Premier League, stressed it is committed to Starlight Stadium, but wants to see soccer thrive here on all levels at all venues.

“We are supportive of any proposal to grow the game on the Island, and RAP is due for revitalization,” said Pacific FC CEO and co-owner Rob Friend.

Lawes said he doesn’t see a conflict with the Victoria HarbourCats of the West Coast League since the baseball diamond is on the other side of the park and the non-permanent outfield fence can be wheeled on and off as needed.

“RAP has always been a multi-sport facility,” said Lawes.

Jim Swanson, GM and managing partner of the HarbourCats, said he is “fully in favour” of the park being used for more events.

“An outfield fence on wheels makes it easy,” said Swanson, whose summer-collegiate HarbourCats club has had three alumni play in MLB this season.

“And we would love to see new grass.”

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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