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Synthetic fields open new chapter for MD Soccerplex

By: Charles Boehm

The Maryland Soccerplex has become an integral part of the Washington, D.C.-area soccer scene since its debut seven years ago, offering a staggering array of immaculately-groomed fields anchored by a 3,200-capacity “championship stadium” and extensive indoor facilities.

Now an ambitious new endeavor has made the sprawling park in Germantown an even more appealing destination for players of all ages. A four-month, $2.5-million construction project is adding three cutting-edge, synthetic-turf fields to the Soccerplex’s list of amenities, giving the facility substantial all-weather capabilities and chipping away at the seasonal and scheduling limitations that have traditionally hampered area sports leagues.

“It is a huge enhancement for the facility,” said Maryland Soccer Foundation executive director Trish Heffelfinger. “It enables us to allow adults to play out here – we’re very protective of our grass fields and adults are very hard on them. It allows us to bring in new sports like field hockey, flag football, lacrosse, and it allows us to play year-round.”

Some soccer purists view the rise of artificial turf with alarm. But the game’s explosive growth has made field space scarce and the latest generation of turf technology makes the surfaces safer and more predictable than ever, especially compared to the worn, rutted pitches that have become all too common in the D.C. area.

“I think that most soccer players would say to you, they want to play on a good natural grass field,” said Heffelfinger. “But if you don’t have a good natural grass field, they’d rather play on a synthetic than a not-so-good grass field. The beauty of the synthetic is that it gives you a consistent surface.”

It’s also a sound investment for the non-profit MSF, which financed the construction with a grant from Discovery Channel founder John Hendricks and his wife Maureen, who sits on the MSF Board of Directors. The artificial surface’s versatility equates to considerable income and with annual maintenance costs measuring barely a third of those incurred by a comparable grass field, the newest additions at the Soccerplex will do much to help pay down the debt lingering from the facility’s initial construction. There are environmental benefits, too.

“This allows us to generate net new revenue right off the bat,” said Heffelfinger. “Plus, you end up with a year like this year, where you’re in a drought and you’re spending a lot of money. All our fields are irrigated, so we spend a lot of money to irrigate them, to keep them going through that time of year.”

All three turf fields feature floodlights to maximize their value and on a busy weekend day, officials envision them being used almost continuously from 8:00 am to 11:00 pm. Two opened for use in mid-October, with the third to be completed by the end of this month, and players, coaches and parents have already provided plenty of positive feedback.

“You hear things like, ‘Wow, I wish I’d had these fields while my playing career was going on,’” said Heffelfinger with a laugh. “What we’re finding is that people are just so thrilled to be able to play – especially adults – year-round, outdoors.”

In constructing their newest addition, Soccerplex officials dodged convention and did their homework. Rather than simply hand over the entire project to an outside turf vendor, the facility partnered with DOC Turf of Crofton, Md. to create the “Performance Blade” design, a custom turf blend combining two textures of synthetic grass to offer a soft feel without sacrificing durability.

But the fields’ most crucial features lie well beneath the surface: an advanced, six-layer underpinning painstakingly crafted long before a single “blade” was “planted.” Over the past two years, MSF officials visited synthetic turf facilities across the country to solicit advice and know-how from their counterparts – and with Montgomery County storm-water management rules some of the most stringent in the nation, the need for a well-crafted foundation was clear.

“You get really excited about the turf, because that’s what sits on top, but it’s the base work that really determines whether this field will be the quality you want,” explained Heffelfinger. “So the construction of the base and the compaction of that base are critical to making sure these fields drain – because the reason you purchase them is [so] you can play on them in all types of weather.”

The new fields require minimal upkeep. Soccerplex’s five-member groundskeeping crew will routinely brush the surface to level the crumb rubber infill, while an antibacterial solution – along with specific rules prohibiting spitting and the like – is used to keep the turf clean and safe.

“It just looks spectacular,” said Heffelfinger. “I’m just over the moon, I’m so excited about them. It’s so much fun to watch people out there, being able to play no matter what. You know how crazy soccer people are – they want to play all the time!”