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The Interview Series: Caring for the Field at Dick's Sporting Goods Park

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We have one of the greatest home fields in Major League Soccer. How does it look like that?

Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

The Colorado Rapids have a massive match this Monday as they take on defending MLS Cup Champions Portland Timbers while being watched by a sell-out crowd.  For many supporters at the game they will have one thing on their mind:

Does Tim Howard play for the first time?

(SPOILER ALERT:  Yes)

So while the players and fans are getting ready for the July 4 match, there is a team of people getting something even more important ready:

The Playing Surface

It is taken for granted a bit that we have such an amazing field to play on at Dick's Sporting Goods Park and as the Rapids look to capture their second MLS Cup Championship this season, the field at DSGP will be a major factor as to whether that title happens.

I had a chance to chat with Phil McQuade, Head Groundskeeper at Dick's Sporting Goods Park about care of the DSGP pitch and what he does in a typical week.  McQuade is a member of the Sports Turf Managers Association, an organization that is focused on education and awareness in field care and development.  McQuade was incredibly passionate about his job and his care of the Dick's Sporting Goods Park field.

Here is our conversation which took place last week in Section 127 at Dick's Sporting Goods Park.

Burgundy Wave:  Phil, thanks for taking the time to chat with us today.  So the first thing I notice when I look at the field is that there are some brown spots on the pitch.  Why is that?

PM: Those are hot spots. So what happened this year is that we did not get our normal three week window where we aerate the stadium field so we found a window of 12 days in between games which, to be honest, is bare bones minimum for us. Because (without a long enough window) the field gets too soft and the players don't like that. And the field is for them. So we do what we can to get it the way that is best for them. So we took that window and aerated and of course the next week we were at 95 degrees. So what you see are hot spots in the field. From up here (we were in section 127) it looks terrible but when you are down on the field you can see that there is green coming through.

So it's one of those things that we had to take a flyer and do it. Because that is part of the good agronomic practice that you need to do for the field.

BW: So you look at some MLS fields and it looks like they have patches on the field. Is that something that grass has been torn out because of the players on it? Or is it have to do with climate that the fields are in? (Specifically I was relating to the patchwork seen on the FC Dallas field on Wednesday night)

PM: Well, for one thing they grow Bermudagrass down there and it's a completely different type of grass and it is very, very heat tolerant. It's a warm season grass. We have all Kentucky Bluegrass here because it's a cool season grass. So when it's hot the grass uses a defense mechanism and it shuts down. It's goes yellow. It's not dead, it's just protecting itself.

BW: How do you keep a field this size, this green pretty much year round?

PM: Yeah. Well, coming out of the winter time we are lucky enough that we have a subair system under the field. We have a main collector pipe, a 36 inch pipe that runs down the middle of the field. It goes from sidewalk to sidewalk and on the East side it goes north up towards a building that we have the capabilities to put warm air into the soil profile. It's warm air. It's your home furnace on steroids.

The intent of the collector pipe is not not melt snow off the field it's to warm up the soil profile. So when this field was built we are 10 over 4 in turf terms. We have ten inches of sand over four inches of pea gravel and then we are at native soil. And below all of that we have all of our pipes to heat the field. So with that subair system we can also suck moisture down through the field. So if we get a good gully washer here we can suck 90% of the water through the soil profile.

BW: So speaking of snow, I was here at the snow game in April and the grounds crew was amazing. How do you plow grass without ripping it up?

PM: Basically our plows are like a rolled edge (Phil picks up my cell phone which has a rolled edge on its case) and due to that edge it will never bite into the grass. Now, if you turn hard enough you can catch and edge and rip it. But the intent is with the rolled edge to have the plow glide across the top.

Now, will we ever get it completely clean? No. But we will get it clear enough that it was playable.

BW: So what do you do in a normal week?

PM: I'll take you through a game week. We will mow it every day. This week, and it's a little bit different this week as we just came off a renovation of the field (the aeration). We don't want a lot of traffic on it, but we do want some on it. Because you are going against what you just did. You decompacted it by aerating it but now we want to firm it up a bit, but not too much. It's a crazy balancing act.

So basically, on a Monday we will mow our diagonals, our double diagonals. It's two mows on Monday.

On Tuesday we will mow our north-south pattern and double that up.

On Wednesday, we will mow the east-west pattern and on Thursday we take a look and we might freshen up the diagonals or just let it sit. Normally we don't, so we will mow again.

On Friday we come down first thing in the morning and we mow our east west pattern one more time and then we start painting the field. It takes us about 45 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes to paint the field.

BW: The first team has their practice pitch that they use but sometimes you see the first team practicing on the main field here. Do you try and keep them off the main field?

PM: Yeah. Absolutely. One of the league rules is that the day before a match if the home team practices on the main field is that the visiting team gets that option as well. Pablo and these guys are awesome. They have a huge amount of respect for what we do.

About five weeks ago, maybe six, we renovated the practice field so when you saw those pictures it was a trade off. I said you give me 17 days off the practice field and I'll let you practice in the stadium.

BW: Sounds like a fair trade off

PM: Yeah, they need a high end field to train on and I'm not going to put them on the pod fields. These guys are professional athletes making a lot of money and so it's a fair trade off. With that we are always talk Pablo or (Chris) Sharpe or Cookie (Steve Cook) or Spencer (John Spencer) and say hey guys, our north goal mouth is looking rough and a little beat up. Can you avoid that at all costs. And they are always saying yes. Miguel, their trainer will move his cone drills for us if the field needs it.

Those guys are awesome. After we walk the field and need them to move this or that here or there, they are great. They are so respectful for what we do and what we are asking.

So that takes us through mowing. We also spoon field this field, meaning fertilizing it. It is a sand based field and it does not hold nutrients very well. One week we do a spray application and then next week will be a different spray application and the third week will be a granular application. And we do that all season.

It's a very aggressive feeding schedule and we try and coincide it with the home schedule. If there is a home game we will spray some organic iron on it so then it is that glowing green that you see.

BW: So this is probably the busiest week of the year. You've got the game on Saturday night (Liga MX match) and then you've got the game on Monday. But that's not the hard part. You've got thousands of people on the field afterwards for fireworks. Do you do anything special to prepare the field?

PM: Prior to the game we really don't. There is just nothing that we can really do to help our cause for after the people are on the field. So prior to the game there is nothing special that we can do. But after the game we will have our entire crew--all 13 of us walking the field. We are looking for hairpins, coins, lighters, cell phones, random things that fall out onto the pitch during the fireworks event.

After the walk through is done we go so far as to bring a six foot wide magnet on the field that hangs an inch above the grass so that any metal that we miss, the magnet will get. It's just a safety concern and we don't need players getting hurt on things like that. I don't want Marco Pappa to slide tackle someone and come out with a hairpin stuck in his shin. So those are some of the things that we do post match for this game.

And depending on the game schedule we might do a slice aeration or something else to help the field to recover. Now looking at the calendar this season we have about 10 days that might allow us to deep tine aerate the field. That would help more air and water get down to the roots and just really helps the grass.

BW: How often do you water the field?

PM: When we are not coming off a renovation, maybe twice a week. Maybe. This is like a newborn baby--you are constantly loving and pampering it.

BW: You go down there and you feel the field, I know it's very geeky of me, but it feels awesome.

PM: No, you're right. I finally had to put a stop to our guys wanting to paint the field in bare feet because it felt good on their feet.

BW: I have one last easy question for you. When the season is done and it is time for Winter, what do you do for the field.

PM: We also put down a root feeding fertilizer both here in the stadium and on the practice field so through the winter the plant is not struggling to survive. It is intended for the roots. Depending on the year and how much wear and tear we have on it we may completely cover it track to track with evergreen cover. This keeps it warm and safe over the winter. It just varies year to year depending on the winter.

The one thing that I will say we do is planning. Most people live in the day, but we have to live in the future with the field. You talk about winterizing, but this year we have seven nights of concerts and I am thinking what we need to do after those concerts to get the field back to shape. I have contacted our sod farm saying we may need sod depending on damage or needs of the field. It's just one of those things that you are constantly adjusting and trying to figure out.

We have five full timers and we are constantly thinking about this field. We exchanges text messages when we have ideas that might be applicable. We just can't let go of it. We have one field of the year nationally twice. We just take so much pride with this field.

BW:  Phil, thanks so much for the time today.   This was terrific and I really appreciate you taking time to speak with me.

PM: It's my pleasure