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Following a year in which the Maryland SoccerPlex’s Maureen Hendricks Field completed its second season as home to the National Women’s Soccer League franchise Washington Spirit, and once again hosted an array of top youth events including the US Youth Soccer National Championships, the venue earned the highest honor available in the sports field industry.
Maureen Hendricks Field, also known as the SoccerPlex’s Championship Stadium, was recently named the Sports Turf Managers Association’s Professional Soccer Field of the Year for 2014. The SoccerPlex Grounds and Environmental Management staff helped make it the first venue exclusive to a women’s team to win the Professional Soccer category.
The Spirit, the only pro team to call the SoccerPlex home, posted a 10-9-5 record in 2014 and advanced all the way to the semifinal round of the NWSL playoffs in head coach Mark Parsons’ first full season with the team.
“We have been telling anyone who would listen that this is the best field in the NWSL and now we get to say it’s the best field in the country,” said Washington Spirit head coach Mark Parsons. “We are excited to play on Maureen Hendricks Field again this season and will give everything to bring a championship game to this fantastic stadium.”Maureen Hendricks Field succeeded the 2013 STMA Field of the Year, Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew Stadium Pitch, which also received the honor in 2010. Other recent winners include the Colorado Rapids’ home stadium Dick’s Sporting Goods Park (2012, 2008); FC Dallas’ 20,000 seat Toyota Stadium (2011); former home of Sporting Kansas City, Community America Ballpark (2009); and INVESCO Field at Mile High, home of the Denver Broncos and formerly the Colorado Rapids (2005).
The SoccerPlex crew is led by Director of Grounds and Environmental Management Ryan Bjorn, Manager of Grounds Dusty LeVan, Foreman William Godoy and Lead Operator Joel Cruz.
What it Took to Win
So, what exactly does it take to keep a playing surface up to the standard of an STMA Professional Field of the Year?
The STMA Field of the Year is decided in large part by a rating tool known as the Playing Conditions Index, or PCI which accounts for factors like cultivation practices, drainage, fertility and quality of soil, equipment, maintenance programs and how often the field is used. A panel of 11 judges independently scores entries based on playability, appearance of surfaces, utilization of innovative solutions, effective use of budget and implementation of a comprehensive agronomic program. Thanks to an outside-the-box approach to field care which borrows ideas from several major professional fields in Europe, the crew received high marks across the board on their PCI assessment.
“We’ve tried to incorporate as many management practices as we can into that field because there’s no one perfect way to do anything in our industry,” Bjorn said.
One of the deciding factors in Maureen Hendricks Field winning the distinction is the crew’s passionate dedication to maintaining a top-notch professional level surface regardless of who is using the field on that particular day. While most professional venues have just one field, Bjorn and his crew have 18 other Kentucky Bluegrass and Bermuda Grass fields to care for. The fields are used on almost every weekend of the year and see some 650,000 visitors annually.
Maureen Hendricks Field has set the standard for excellent plant health and appearance among professional venues despite having somewhere between 700 and 900 hours of use throughout the year.
“Even though it’s the Washington Spirit’s home field, it’s not exclusively their field by any means,” Bjorn said. “We use it for all different sports and all different age groups, but we try to maintain it at the level of the best professional fields at all times, whether it’s pro, college, high school or youth teams all the way down to the 3 and 4-year-olds.”
Juggling as many as 20 games in a week on the SoccerPlex’s top field is a task that requires creativity from the crew on a variety of levels. In a busy week they will routinely change the dimensions and direction of the field lines to avoid wear-and-tear on the most heavily trampled areas of the pitch, like inside the goal boxes and around midfield. This gives the grass more time to rest as part of a comprehensive approach to plant health where the crew takes care of the field the same way a person would take care of their own body.
“If you eat and hydrate well you’ll tend to fight off disease on your own because if you’re healthy, your body has its own natural defenses,” Bjorn said. “Plants are the exact same way. If a plant gets proper hydration, adequate nutrients and plenty of oxygen, it will fight off problems on its own and you won’t have to use as many pesticides or fertilizers.“ -
The Defining Week
The defining week of 2014 for Maureen Hendricks Field was July 22-27 when the SoccerPlex hosted 96 of the country’s top youth teams for the US Youth Soccer National Championships in the heart of the NWSL season.
Over the course of five days, the Championship Stadium was used for 18 youth matches and a Washington Spirit home match against Alex Morgan and the Portland Thorns. The Spirit played to a 1-1 draw on Wednesday, July 23 after two days of heavy use for US Youth Nationals.
“In my coaching career I have seen some great surfaces at some of the biggest clubs in the world, but what makes this surface so special is the fact that so much sport is played on it,” Parsons said. “We played an NWSL league game on it after it had over 10 games in two days and it was still in spectacular condition.”
Along with the obvious challenge of maintaining the premier quality of the Maureen Hendricks Field pitch through 19 high level games in a week, the SoccerPlex crew had to do the same for the venue’s other 18 grass fields on what ended up being the hottest and driest week of 2014.
“The amount of hours you have to put into something like this is astronomical,” said Maryland SoccerPlex Executive Director Trish Heffelfinger. “Our staff was remarkable, real troopers. They were asked to go above and beyond, and every day they did.”
The staff didn’t stop at simply maintaining the fields, they added another dimension of field art for the National Championships. US Youth Soccer’s hashtag ‘#RoadToMD’ was painted on many of the fields along with other logos, which was a social media hit among the participating teams.
“The Maryland SoccerPlex is one of the premier soccer complexes in the country,” said Seth Trembly, head coach of the Under-13 girls national champion San Diego Surf. “The quality of the surface was a dream for the players to play on. The way the fields were set up and the surrounding landscape between each field created an intimate stadium like atmosphere on each and every field.”
“I thought the Maryland SoccerPlex grounds crew did a tremendous job maintaining the quality of the fields throughout the week,” added Dominick Bucci, head coach of Under-18 girls semifinalist Match Fit Academy FC. “At this level all you can ask of a venue is that the quality of field be up to the standard of the event, and the fields our team played on were in tremendous shape each day.”
In their STMA Field of the Year award application, the SoccerPlex crew highlighted these five days as a top example in stating their case, showing the unique challenges they regularly face. The constant challenge of unpredictable weather and extraordinarily high usage rate was a major factor in winning the award.
Bjorn has been in his current role since February 2014 after the departure of longtime director Jerad Minnick, a well-known figure in the sports turf industry. With a sports turf management degree from the University of Massachusetts, Bjorn has over a decade of experience in the industry, including working on Fenway Park as an intern with the Boston Red Sox. He worked under Minnick for three years as the SoccerPlex’s Manager in Training, Assistant Sports Turf Manager of Grounds and then the Manager of Grounds, constantly learning along the way. As Director of Grounds and Environmental Management, he is mostly responsible for big picture planning, research and development of the crew’s maintenance practices.
When Minnick stopped working full time at the SoccerPlex early in 2014 to travel with his turf management education company Growing Innovations, LeVan stepped into Bjorn’s former position as Manager of Grounds. LeVan is responsible for turning the big picture ideas into day-to-day plans, working closely with Bjorn and his assistant turf managers on a daily basis.
Godoy has been with the SoccerPlex for over a decade, and as the foreman of the grounds crew has the most intimate knowledge of the facility. He is known as the glue of the facility, where he leads the execution of LeVan’s day-to-day plans.
As the lead operator, Cruz is an invaluable member of the staff because he is an expert on equipment. With the SoccerPlex crew often using some of the industry’s newest and most innovative equipment, Cruz quickly becomes the resident expert on the technology.
The four senior members of the crew have each played a major role in the upkeep of the SoccerPlex’s prized field since it took its current form in 2011. After winning the 2011 STMA Field of the Year award for the Schools and Parks category, the crew decided to clear out the top four inches of soil and completely resurface the field. It was an ambitious project in an effort to start from scratch after fertilizer and other materials had built up beneath the surface during the field’s first 10 years of use.
Since completing the resurfacing process, the grass has been among the healthiest of any pitch in the country as the SoccerPlex has drastically decreased its use of fertilizers and pesticides. The SoccerPlex has been widely recognized throughout the industry as a model for how to best resurface a field, and Bjorn has presented on the project several times.
The crew will spend 2015 the same way they spent 2014, seeking to maintain some of the highest quality fields in the country while potentially working toward another Field of the Year award. If that weren’t enough already, they are also responsible for maintenance and upkeep on almost every aspect of the SoccerPlex facility beyond just the fields.
“It’s a small staff, but they maintain all the fields in addition to the other smaller projects that come up, even down to painting the stripes on the parking lot,” said SoccerPlex Marketing Manager Annie Gavett. “It’s crazy that they can do all that.”
The 162-acres around the fields are perhaps as big a responsibility as the playing surfaces, with tasks like trash removal and maintaining common areas and landscaping beds chief among them.
“If it’s outside, it’s probably our responsibility,” Bjorn said. “We’re extremely excited about winning Field of the Year but it’s just a small piece to our huge puzzle that we’re always trying to keep together all the time.”
The SoccerPlex continues in 2015 as a mainstay for high level soccer with a growing list of top level youth tournaments, more college games, rising participation numbers in house leagues and the Washington Spirit set for their third season of play. With major field hockey, lacrosse, cricket and other events regularly packing the Plex as well, the crew again faces one of their biggest challenges to date.