Dan Farnes stood on the edge of his masterpiece: more than 80,000 square feet of grass, cut, rolled, fertilized and aerated with precision.
The sun shone down on the expanse of green in the middle of Rio Tinto Stadium, only run down next to the sidelines, revealing the assistant referees’ path back and forth throughout the game.
“We want the surface to be as flat as possible,” said Farnes, the director of Field and Grounds for RSL, the Utah Royals and Real Monarchs, after an RSL practice at the stadium last week. “For ‘premium ball roll’ is what we say.”
The field at Rio Tinto Stadium has endured extra stress since the start of the season. It has been primed to house two teams since the addition of RSL’s USL affiliate, the Monarchs. However, at the end of March, three soccer clubs and a rugby team used the stadium as their home field. Then came an early-spring snowstorm — nightmare conditions for a grounds crew.
“I like the challenge of it,” Farnes said, noting the whole organization saw an increase in responsibilities as it weathered the launch of the Royals, the openings of the training center and stadium in Herriman, a wave of new hires and a shift to a three-professional team schedule — all in the past six months. “If we had four teams here all year, I think we would still be successful for sure.”
A delay in opening Zions Bank Stadium, the Monarchs’ new home field in Herriman, caused the early congestion at Rio Tinto. The Monarchs and the Utah Warriors of Major League Rugby were originally expected to play at Zions Bank Stadium.
The delay displaced the Monarchs to Rio Tinto for one home match and the Warriors for two. Farnes equated the wear and tear inflicted on a field by a rugby game to that of a hard practice.
Then, it’s the responsibility of him and his crew to restore the field to a standard where even RSL employees are encouraged to stay off unless necessary.
“They seem to be holding up well,” Royals coach Laura Harvey said of the stadium and practice fields. “The grounds crew do a great job.”
Practices generally put more stress on the field than a game, but the teams abide by field-saving guidelines when they practice at the stadium: Stay out of the goal boxes, limit use of the middle of the field, and work on the sides and corners of the field that get less traffic in games. To maintain the surface, RSL and the Royals usually only practice at the stadium one day during the week of a home game.
“I think going on the stadium is actually vital to your development as a team,” Harvey said, “just getting used to that facility. … We just want to make sure we maintain it — both the stadium field and [the practice] field — so that we can play the football we want to play.”
There are weeks like last week when Rio Tinto had to host a match or practice six days: Royals match Saturday, Royals practice Monday, RSL practice Tuesday, Royals match Wednesday, RSL practice Thursday, and RSL match Saturday.
“They’re really respectful,” Farnes said of Harvey and RSL coach Mike Petke. “They realize the damage they do during the week is what they’ll see at the game. … There’s not much we can do in a week’s time to get grass to grow. It takes two to three weeks for any seed that we put down to start growing or divots to repair.”
The opening of the stadium in Herriman took stress off the Rio Tinto Stadium field, and the outdoor grass fields on the same campus are expected to do the same for the Royals’ practice field.
Real Salt Lake was scheduled to move from America First Field to the Herriman campus for practice at the beginning of the season, leaving America First Field for the Royals. The delay in opening the grass fields in Herriman has left the two teams sharing the practice field in Sandy.
Petke estimated RSL would be able to move to Herriman within the next two weeks.
“The grass looks great,” he said on Tuesday, “but I think it needs another week or so to grasp. We don’t want to get on too early.”