By Charles Boehm
As it has in nearly every year since its birth, the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown, Md., will host U.S. Open Cup action tonight, in the form of a much anticipated fourth-round match between MLS rivals D.C. United and the Philadelphia Union.
Another chapter in one of the oldest soccer tournaments in the world will play out at the facility’s Championship Stadium, whose immaculate natural-grass field has also hosted Women’s Pro Soccer, a U.S. Olympic qualifier, CONCACAF Champions Cup play, the ACC men’s soccer championships, training sessions for Argentina’s Boca Juniors and the New Zealand National team, many USL and W-League matches, the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships and innumerable other major youth games.
It’s a professional-grade playing surface, a blend of Kentucky Bluegrass, fescue and ryegrass on a sand-based foundation which drains at an amazing rate of eight inches per hour, comparable to artificial turf. Yet constant use means it absorbs wear and tear on a level far beyond most of its peers at much larger places like FedEx Field.
Thanks to a slate of youth showcase tournaments, Maryland State Cup matches and D.C United Women’s W-League matches, it just played host to 29 matches in a 17-day period, highlighting the ongoing wizardry of turf manager Jerad Minnick and his staff.
“A lot goes into the prep that people don’t understand or realize,” noted SoccerPlex executive director Trish Heffelfinger. “People just think, ‘Oh, they mow it once and they line it, and it’s good to go.’ And there’s a lot more involved in it.”
Minnick is a nationally respected expert in his field who honed his trade at the collegiate and pro levels, including several years with MLS’ Kansas City Wizards (now known as Sporting Kansas City), before taking over at the SoccerPlex. On Monday he graciously shared a few of the intricate details that go into maintaining and preparing the surface at the Championship Stadium, which will also host the Atlantic Coast Conference’s men’s soccer tournament this fall.
“One of the things we do is, we usually move the field around,” he revealed. “We’ve had the field in three different positions for all these events.
“We have enough room that we can shift the goals to one side and still play a regulation soccer tournament – 115 by 75 [yards]…[We] move the very center of the field, move the goalmouths, move the [assistant] referee lines, because that’s where you see wear first.”
Making liberal use of green paint to cover and re-draw the touchlines and endlines, Minnick and his crew work to spread the impact of “herds of kids” who trample central areas far more heavily than their pro counterparts.
“Professionals don’t hurt a field at all,” he said. “A professional match or a higher-level college match does less damage than a youth game, where they play up and down the center of the field. That’s why we’ve moved our youngest [age] groups to turf …There’s parts of the field for a pro match that the ball only comes to once. They just play the game so differently…they use the entire field and they appreciate the entire field being in good shape.”
Minnick also revealed that tiny adjustments – as little as an eighth of an inch – in the height of grass blades can noticeably impact the way the game flows.
“We’ve lowered our height slightly for this [Open Cup] event, to try to speed the play up,” he said. “An eighth of an inch or a quarter of an inch – not talking about a lot, but that makes a difference on ball speed…We can definitely get a lot more speed if the field is cut shorter, because it’s closer to the layer of sand that we put down to protect the crowns, similar to a putting green.”
Minnick said that former D.C. head coach Curt Onalfo took a keen interest in these small groundskeeping details when he coached the Wizards. While he isn’t personally familiar with Olsen, he noted that United always request that the field be watered close to game time to keep the surface fast and slick.
He is characteristically modest, even pessimistic, about the pitch’s current state. But thanks to the tricks of the trade he’s learned over more than a decade in the business, fans are unlikely to notice that it’s somewhat short of what Minnick considers its ideal condition.
“With all the traffic that we’ve had on it, it’s not in great shape, that’s for sure,” he said of the surface. “But it’ll play well tomorrow night.”