SACO – Kris Lamb sees gold in green turf soccer fields.

Lamb’s company, XL Soccer World, just bought Saco’s Southern Maine Sports Zone for $2 million and spent an additional $1 million on upgrades to the 75,000-square-foot sports facility.

Among the changes are replacing and upgrading the facility’s two soccer fields, refurbishing the 24-hour gym and renovating the bar and restaurant area to create a more family-friendly, cleaner and modern facility.

The center also includes three basketball courts and a kids’ BounceZone inflatable play area.

“We want to create a fantastic, social atmosphere where people can come play, and socialize afterwards,” Lamb said.

XL Soccer World already owns soccer centers in Orlando, Fla., and Raleigh, N.C., but Lamb expects the Saco facility to be more successful because cold weather will force players to come inside during the winter.

“Our other centers compete with outdoor arenas and fields,” Lamb said. “In Maine, they will be playing inside because of the weather. It will be a year-round facility and will be packed in the winter.”

The Orlando facility, for example, handles about 4,000 children and adult players per year, Lamb said. He said he expects the Saco facility to handle as many as 10,000 players a year.

The soccer fields will have new artificial turf and side boards. They will be rugged enough to handle the wear and tear of a broader range of sports, such as lacrosse and field hockey. To reflect the wide range of sports, the center will be called XL Sports World.

“We’re changing the layout, putting in new fields,” said Lamb. “We’re improving everything.”

Jon Stewart, who has played at the center and organized leagues for 13 years, said the planned upgrades are overdue and sorely needed.

“The turf was very old and outdated,” said Stewart, a resident of Saco. “The new owners are coming in and spending a lot of money. It will be a great benefit to everyone who goes there.”

The sports facility is open during the six-week renovation project, which is expected to be completed by mid-June, Lamb said. A grand opening will be held in July, Lamb said.

Lamb hopes to reap benefits both from the desire of Saco-area players for better facilities, and from general growing interest in soccer.

Nationally, about 4.25 million children under 18 played soccer last year, an increase of 5 percent over the past three years, according to the U.S. Soccer Federation.

Including adults, there are 13.7 million soccer players in the U.S., making it the second most popular team sport, behind basketball, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

Indoor soccer is one of the few growing team sports markets and attracts more than 5 million children and adult players, the SGMA said.

Saco is XL Soccer’s first facility in Maine.

“We’re spreading ourselves up the East Coast with this move,” Lamb said. “We’re loving Maine. Everything about it. It’s a great market for us.”

The Saco facility will compete with other soccer centers, such as SoccerMaine in Portland and the Portland Sports Complex, which is seeking to expand.

Lamb said he doesn’t expect the market to become oversaturated since he’s upgrading an existing location rather than building a new facility.

“There’s facilities in Gorham, Portland and New Hampshire that people may drive to, but those centers don’t have side boards and that changes the pace of the game,” Stewart said. “For me, the big reason to use the Saco facility is the boards.”

XL Sports will have the same side boards as a professional hockey rink, meaning they can easily handle the occasional slam.

Lamb said he financed the venture with a Small Business Administration loan.

He expects the soccer leagues and play groups — which will range from SoccerTots for kids as young as 2 and Fun & Frolics leagues for beginner adults, to serious games for seasoned players — will easily pay back the loan for the building and renovations and turn a profit.

“We’ll recoup it quickly,” Lamb said. “We bought the building outright. Once you’ve got it, you’re just paying for heat and air.”

Lamb said he became interested in Maine through his affiliated travel company, XL Travel, which books travel and organizes games for professional and college teams. XL Travel worked with the Portland Phoenix soccer team.

Lamb said he’s played soccer all his life after being pushed into the sport by his father when he grew up in Middlesbrough, England. He came to the U.S. at 18 to attend Campbell University in North Carolina.

“When you get kids starting at a young age, you get them in a good place to start being active their whole lives,” Lamb said.

“We want to get families in and get kids moving around and active.”

Staff Writer Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

[email protected]