Both goals in the Crew’s 2-0 victory over the Chicago Fire on Saturday night resulted from Federico Higuain passes that hugged the smooth surface of the Crew Stadium playing field. Just one week earlier, that heavenly expanse of grass was covered with more than 20,000 rain-soaked heavy metal fans at the Rock on the Range music festival, yet Pipa’s pass to Ethan Finlay didn’t take a rut-propelled hop over the winger’s head, nor did his pass to Jairo Arrieta deflate in transit after being punctured by wayward, mosh-jostled nose ring.
Here’s the story of that miracle.
The weekend before Rock on the Range, the Crew Stadium field absorbed buckets of rain. The precipitation stopped before the Crew’s game against Vancouver, but it was still the most rain the field had taken in some time, causing it to play very soft for the Crew-Whitecaps FC match.
The weather forecast offered no relief for Weston Appelfeller, the Crew’s Director of Stadium Grounds. With the Rock on the Range festival looming, Mother Nature continued soaking the pristine pitch that earned the 2013 SportsTurf Professional Soccer Field of the Year Award.
There’s only so much that a grounds crew can control. The weather and the event schedule are not among them. This explains Appelfeller’s unofficial sanity-saving professional mantra: “It is what it is.”
Appelfeller’s job is to take what it is and make it what it can ideally be, so he got to work with the help of his team: Ben Jackson, Mitch Litz, and Ryan Martin, plus part-timer Gary Rasor and interns Jeff Linehan and Andrew Northeim. Although not part of the regular pre-concert routine, Appelfeller decided to aerify the field by having his crew drill holes into the turf.
“We normally aerify after a concert to soften the field back up a little bit, because usually it’s pretty hard,” Apelfeller said. “With as much rain as we had and as much water as the field took versus Vancouver, we knew we needed to drill some holes in it to move the water down if we did get a lot of rain as forecasted.”
The grounds crew also top-dressed the field, which is a fancy name for dumping sand onto the grass.
“Basically, what it does is it protects the crown of the plant,” Appelfeller explained. “The grass plant grows from the crown up, so basically where it comes out of the soil at the top of the root. So we put the sand down and it acts as a layer of protection. If the leaf tissue gets beat up or destroyed, the grass will grow back as long as that crown is protected.”
With holes drilled into the earth and sand dumped onto the grass, the grounds crew prepared for the concert by enlisting the players and parents of the St. Francis DeSales soccer team to assist in laying down one-and-a-quarter-inch thick plastic flooring over every last blade of grass. Once the flooring goes down, the grounds crew loses the ability to see what’s going on underneath. They can occasionally pull up a corner of the floor to catch a glimpse, but the health of the field is largely a mystery until the floor comes up. What made this year different was that the Crew installed moisture monitors under the field in the lead-up to the festival. This enabled Appelfeller to receive wireless transmissions of temperature and moisture readings instead of flying absolutely blind as he had in the past.
“We put the flooring on top of the field and we were getting some initial readings,” Appelfeller said. “Everything was going good. The readings were good. We had a lot of water under there, which we knew was the case.”
The cold rain continued through the first two days of the festival. With the recent stadium upgrades, additional ingress/egress points allowed the Crew to safely put a few thousand more fans onto the field than in prior years, swelling the on-field number to north of 20,000 raucous metalheads. More than the even the weather and the overall on-field population numbers, Appelfeller’s biggest concern was the newly re-sodded area in front of the north goal, which is at the stage end of the field. He hoped the mosh pit wouldn’t turn it into a mush pit.
At noon on Sunday, early in the festival’s third and final day, the moisture meter in front of the stage ceased all transmission. Appelfeller spent the day wondering what he would find.
“We had no idea what happened,” he said. “We didn’t know if we lost the signal because there were just too many people standing on top of it, or if we lost the signal because it had been vibrated too much with all of the jumping up and down in the mosh pit. We had no idea what kind of surface we would be looking at.”
The sensor resumed transmission about an hour after the concert let out, which offered some relief. The true test, however, would come on Monday with the removal of the protective flooring. After a nerve-wracking weekend, Appelfeller was happy with what he saw.
“We always have a little footprint that the flooring leaves behind, but everything looked good,” he said.
The Crew tweeted out a picture of a luscious green field and all of Crewville breathed a sigh of relief. Appelfeller confessed that the truth is a little more complicated.
“The thing we try to remember is that when we pull the flooring off, the grass usually has really good color,” he said. “So when we see all of the pictures that the Crew tweets out about how the field looks after the concert, we know that’s not indicative of what it’s really going to look like.”
The protective flooring actually enhances the color if it’s only down for a short time. Plus, by the time the flooring was removed, the grass had grown to nearly twice its playing length of 15/16 of an inch.
“It’s more like a home lawn at that point,” Appelfeller said. “By the time we hack it back down to where it needs to be and get all of the debris out of it, and run the magnets over it, and blowers over it so that it stands back up, and when we get all of the trash out of it, we know that by Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, it’s going to lose color. It’s going to start looking bad.”
Wait….did he say magnets?
“When you have over 20,000 people on the field, everything comes out,” he said. “It’s earrings, it’s phones, it’s batteries, it’s cameras, it’s necklaces…everything comes out. Everything that’s metal, especially earrings, we need to get out of the field. We have a six-foot wide high-powered magnet that we take across the field. We cover every inch to get every piece of metal out of there. We run the magnet and we get screws…another big thing is bobby pins. We probably pulled 40 to 50 bobby pins out of the field.”
The one thing the magnet doesn’t snag is coins.
“Our mowers, unfortunately, usually find those,” he said.
The grounds crew also has a sweeper that they run over the field to clean up the soil cores that litter the landscape after they aerify the field. That sweeper came in extra handy after a performance by the festival’s headlining act.
“We took the sweeper across the field a few times and got a lot of debris from that,” he said. “There was a lot of confetti from Guns N’ Roses. The sweeper was good for that.”
Usually the Crew’s schedule offers more of a buffer around Rock on the Range, but with the FIFA World Cup break cramming more games into the other parts of the season, Appelfeller had no such luxury in 2014. The Crew was to face the Fire just five days from the festival’s final note. A week of hard work and wonderful weather gave reason for optimism.
As the work week wound down, the deep green color returned to the field, meaning Appelfeller and his team had overcome the myriad challenges posed by a rainy Rock on the Range.
“I’m glad it’s over,” he said. “By Friday at 2:00 in the afternoon, we knew we were going to look pretty good for Saturday’s game.”
On Saturday night, Federico Higuain’s passes were as smooth and beautiful as the playing field itself. Pipa’s assists showed up in the box score. The grounds crew’s assist did not.
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