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Building up a program: How Steve Burns and Greg Ryan helped create the new Michigan soccer stadium

BY TIM ROHAN
Daily Sports Writer
Published October 28, 2009

When Steve Burns first saw the future of the Michigan men's soccer team, he was with eight or nine of his past players. The coach was at a former player’s wedding when the preliminary drawings of the proposed Michigan soccer stadium were released.

“They looked at me and shrugged their shoulders like, ‘Yeah, you told us that we were going to have a stadium, too. So I’ll believe it when I see it,’ ” Burns said.

Burns and his players had a right to be skeptical. Ever since the men’s soccer program officially became a varsity sport in 2000, it hasn’t had a home field.

But the new Michigan soccer stadium could make up for lost time. With a capacity of 2,200, it may not be the largest college soccer stadium, but it will meet Michigan's high standards for building a new sports venue.

It took a lot of work for the coach to get the stadium to become a reality, but without Burns, there wouldn’t be a men’s soccer program in the first place.

As a Michigan student, he played on the men’s club soccer team from 1984 to 1988, and then came back to coach it in 1992.

When Burns was earning his Masters in Kinesiology in 1998, he researched how he could convince the Athletic Department to approve men’s soccer as a varsity sport. His work culminated in a 32-page report to persuade Athletic Director Bill Martin to grant the sport varsity status.

Burns started the push for soccer facilities at Michigan, but women’s coach Greg Ryan helped to seal the deal. He was hired in 2008 to turn around a porous program that had gone 20-25-16 the previous three years, including a three-win campaign in 2007.

Ryan took over the program in the spring of 2008 and led Michigan to a 4-10-5 record in a rebuilding year. Like the men’s team, Ryan’s squad hasn’t had quality facilities since its inception in 1994.

With both teams becoming more prominent at the university, the coaches were able to have a say in the construction of a stadium that will make its mark on Michigan soccer.

THE BEST STADIUM IN THE COUNTRY

Executive Associate Athletic Director Dr. Michael Stevenson didn’t hesitate when he was asked why it took so long to get a stadium for the soccer programs.

“Money,” he said bluntly. It was one of the same reasons the men’s program waited so long to become a varsity sport.

The new stadium is part of a project that will cost six million dollars, and is directly funded by the Intercollegiate Athletics resources and gifts fund. With O’Neill Construction of Ann Arbor winning the bid, construction started this week on the current site of the soccer complex.

“I think that we’re bringing the Soccer Complex, including the fields and the stadium, up to the level that you would expect a Michigan team to have,” Stevenson said. “We have been way, way behind the eight-ball with soccer facilities from the day that we added the men’s team. … I think we’re finally getting it to where it needs to be.”

The teams currently play at the three-field U-M Soccer Complex, and the new stadium will be built at the center of the facility.

Next year, both soccer teams will continue to practice on the fields on either side of the middle site. In years past, both teams have fell victim to uncertain practice fields and home games outside of Ann Arbor.

The stadium will add another venue to the unofficial second athletic campus, which has popped up at the end of State Street. The Varsity Tennis center, the future wrestling center and the gymnastics team are also located in the area.

The stadium will be solely used for the soccer teams. To prepare, the Athletic Department consulted both of the Michigan soccer coaches.

“I think Steve and I both agreed that we wanted to have a really intimate setting,” Ryan said. “We didn’t care how large the stadium was, we wanted it to have great atmosphere. And we wanted to have it be consistent with all of the other great Michigan facilities.”

The stadium will have a large grandstand on the west side of the field, and the exterior will be red brick, similar to the baseball and softball fields.

It’s the first stadium in the short history of Michigan soccer, and even though its 2,200-person capacity isn’t the largest in the Big Ten, it should achieve Ryan’s desired effects.

Since the coaches want to encourage attendance, they suggested that a four-row stand be placed on the east sideline and a roof be placed over both the east and west side seating structures.

Burns also proposed that installing dense netting could enhance the atmosphere even more. That way, with the stands, the roof and the darker netting, the stadium would have a closed, caged-in feel, and give it a European flavor.

“If ever you watch a European game, it has that excitement and that atmosphere and the players really feed off of that,” junior Cam Cameron said.

But the students and fans need come to games in order to create the atmosphere that the stadium is being built to support.

Currently, fans sometimes pack the metal bleachers that are only on the west side of the field. But the average attendance of a men’s game is 880 fans, and just 609 for women’s games.
“One of the big things that we’re really hoping for is to make that connection with the student body,” Burns said. “So that they know that this east sideline is four rows, it’s got a roof on it (and) that’s where we want that fan base to be extremely rowdy.”

FINALLY "LEGIT"

Cameron said he was excited to play in the new stadium since it would finally make soccer a “legit” sport at Michigan.

The players are excited for the stadium, but the coaches will be reaping the rewards of the Athletic Department’s investment, too.

“When you look at how you can recruit out of that top pool of talent, they’re looking at three things,” Burns said. “Do you have a history of putting players in the pros? … Then, they look at facilities … and the other thing they look at is a track record of winning championships.

“Now we’re looking at two out of three, and it’s going to be a lot easier to pull players out of that top pool and make it three out of three.”

Ryan agreed that a state-of-the art stadium would be a draw for recruits, and Burns added that the stadium will be a model that other schools would follow.

“For me, it’s what I wanted to bring to Michigan,” Ryan said of the stadium. “When I came to Michigan and saw the lack of facilities for soccer, and some other lacks, I thought this may be the greatest challenge of my coaching career.”

Ryan is in the middle of rebuilding his team. Before he came to Ann Arbor, he said that because of a lack of facilities and a lack of success, a potential recruit would look around and say, “No, there’s no reason for me to come here.”

“And now to play in that stadium and have people in the stands and the girls on the field and say Michigan is a first-class place that has full backing of the Athletic Department,” Ryan said. “To me, that’s going to be a personal accomplishment just to see it done. I know I’m just going to be one little piece, or part of it, but I’m going to be so proud of Michigan for getting this done.”

From 1997 to 2004, the women’s program made the NCAA Tournament every year. With the added benefit of a new venue, Ryan could soon have the team back on track.

The men’s program also has had its own success at times. In its first nine seasons as a varsity sport, the men’s soccer team has made the NCAA Tournament three times — 2003, 2004 and 2008. It has been a long journey for Burns and the men’s soccer program, that will be on display when the stadium opens next year.

In the men’s soccer locker room, there is a Bob Marley lyric on the wall from the song “No Woman No Cry.” It reads, “In this great future, you can’t forget your past.” Burns tries to make sure his players don’t forget where the soccer program came from.

And it will likely be an emotional day for everyone when the stadium opens in 2010.

“At times, even without a stadium, I’ll be out here on my own at the end of a practice and I’ll look around at the fact that we have three full-time soccer fields,” Burns said. “And it’s a little overwhelming. I get a little choked up. I think that if there’s a camera on me when we first open the stadium, you’re certainly going to be seeing a guy that’s humble and maybe shedding a tear."

— Daily Sports Editor Nicole Auerbach contributed to this report.