Whether it is an amateur league match or on the World Stage, there is something special about Rio Tinto Stadium. In part there is the unique, picturesque alpine backdrop and a fan atmosphere that creates a fortress in Major League Soccer, but closer to the pitch still there is something that makes Real Salt Lake's stadium unique.
Sporting the only SubAir Sport system west of the Mississippi (*editor's note: After further investigation we found that Sporting Park is the only other Western Conference MLS team to have a SubAir system), Rio Tinto has been able to avoid what has been all but inevitable for other clubs - installing artificial turf. This unique system allows the grounds crew to properly manage the pitch in ways that would be impossible without this system.
The SubAir Sport system was installed in 2008 during the construction of the surrounding architecture with the promise of offering a pitch with quicker recovery. This has become even more important with the variety of events that the stadium hosts in addition to the 17 matches held there during the Major League Soccer season. With both the Real Monarchs and Real Salt Lake calling the stadium home, the pitch must be at peak condition every day.
"It is important that we keep the field at a high standard," Dan Farnes, the Director of Fields and Grounds for RSL and Sports Turf Managers Association member, said. "It keeps everything as level as possible."
The SubAir system is essentially a network of pipes embedded underneath the turf. The system's main arteries are two main pipes coming out of the south end of the pitch, up the end lines and stretching across midfield which feed the rest of the field. In other words it is kind of like a plant's root system with capillaries stretching across the entire pitch.
"The SubAir Sport system speaks to how the ownership wants the best for [the club, the stadium, and the grounds crew]. They really take care of us," Farnes said.
This network of pipes have two functions that allow the grounds crew greater flexibility when caring for the pitch. The first is the ability to "vacuum" moisture from the field. Instead of being subject to puddles forming, the system can remove water from the sand-base underneath the turf. The second function is heating the pitch. This allows the club to play through snow without the flakes building up on the pitch during the match.
While these seem like pretty simple functions, the system takes finesse and planning in order to get it right. Take for example the CONCACAF Champions League final at Rio Tinto Stadium. The SubAir system's heating function was left on for too long - whether it be from miscommunication or whatever other reason - which left the center line looking more like a path of dormant grass when compared to the rest of the pitch — visible in the 2011 Season Ticket Holder's end of the year gift/photograph on canvas.
While the system is not a quick fix, it does allow the club and the stadium more flexibility than they would have without it.
To put it simply, the SubAir system takes the guesswork out of the equation. With the ability to monitor and control the pitch conditions, Rio Tinto Stadium promotes the optimal growing environment for any playing surface. As a result, the stadium's increased pitch durability thereby increases playability, producing many more enjoyable experiences for both players and fans.
With a stunning view of the Rocky Mountains, Rio Tinto provides one of the best views in North America - let alone MLS. Coupled with the stadium's unique ability to provide the best playing surface available, it is no surprise that it has been chosen to host the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying semi-final and final matches in October. Utah already hosts the best snow on earth, so why not the best soccer pitch?
So with help from the SubAir Sport system, expect the Rio Tinto ground crew to keep the pitch at its constant "high standard" for many more matches to come - whether it hosts the Claret-and-Cobalt or with the Stars and Stripes.
More in-depth information about the SubAir System can be found on SubAir's website and in this video: