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Getting to know RSL: Fields and Grounds

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We sit down with Director of Fields & Grounds Dan Farnes to learn about his department & the work they do.

Dan Farnes on a Toro mower, giving the new pitch its first cut.
Robert Hitz, Real Salt Lake

Among the most basic facts about soccer is that it is a game played on a field. Part of the global appeal of soccer is how easy it is to find a grass field, wood court, or street on which to play the game.

At the professional level in the US, the standard for the quality of field is high. If you’ve ever gone to look at footage of matches in England in the 1960s or 70s, you’ll notice two immediate differences from the game we watch today: short shorts and terrible fields. In the 70s, a study was done which showed that by December most fields in England were covered in mud patches due to the wet winter conditions. Changes had to be made. Over the next several decades horticulture, particularly turf management, improved drastically and this is a benefit we all now enjoy.

If you’ve ever watched a Real Salt Lake game, you’ve never seen a single mud patch on the field. The grass always crisp, green, and sharp. If you’ve ever been on the field, perhaps for 4th of July fireworks, you know the grass is delightful. I personally don’t know why the players are more interested in playing than napping on the grass, but perhaps this is why I never made it as a pro.

This is the first installment in a new series we’re doing at RSL Soapbox – Getting to Know RSL. The idea with this series is to get to know different parts of the RSL organization. There is a lot of fantastic coverage on the players and coaching staff, and that kind of accessibility to the team is one thing I love about this club, but I’m also interested in how the rest of the RSL structure functions. This series aims to explain different parts of RSL and to get to know some of the key people who help make this club run.

I can think of no better play to start than with the fields and grounds. I was able to sit down with Dan Farnes and ask him about the department he leads. Dan is the Director of Fields and Grounds, and is the man who is ultimately responsible for the playing surfaces of the stadium and training ground.

MLS: Montreal Impact at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Lucas Muller – Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background?

Dan Farnes – I grew up in Bountiful. I went to Utah State to study Horticulture. I met my wife there and been married for 12 years. We have two kids and still live in Bountiful. I got my first job in Parks and Recs mowing grass and that’s where I fell in love with grass and being outside. I actually got this job when I saw a posting on Craigslist for hourly work, not full time or anything, and started there. I worked my way up and got the director position three years ago, so been here (with RSL) seven years total.

Lucas – Were you a fan of RSL before working for the club?

Dan – Yeah, I had season tickets back at Rice-Eccles. Then I started here in 2010. My wife and kids, parents, and grandparents have season tickets, so it’s always been a family affair.

Lucas – What does game day look like for you? Are able to watch and enjoy the match, or are in work mode and stressing about the field?

Dan – Yes, I am stressing about the field. If a game day is at eight o’clock, we get here about noon, set up goals, lots of other things. During the game we sit down on the sidewalk around the field behind the goals, in case a corner flag breaks or the net breaks or anything like that. So we get to watch the games, then after the games we do a lot of cleanup on the field too.

Lucas – As the head of your department I would love to hear a little bit about what goes on in your department — how many people report to you, who do you report to, what is a day in the life like for you guys?

Dan – I report to Craig Martin, who is the stadium vice president; he’s my boss. I’m over three guys in the department who are all full time; Bret, Charlie, and Andy. All really good dudes, good guys to work with. We try and do internships, sometimes in the summer, but I haven’t had a lot of luck doing that for some reason.

In a typical day we get here about 8 or 8:30, depending on the day if we’re setting up for practices that go on at America First, so we’re always setting up for those every day. We’re mowing the commons, we do a lot of work inside the stadium, small construction projects, things like that. I have a huge list of little things that need to be taken care of, we have a little meeting at the beginning of the day to get set up. Today, for example, we had to fertilize the field, put down some iron to spruce up the color a little bit. It’s a lot of running around. We try and help other departments in the stadium; we’re kind of the go to guys for, ‘hey this light bulb went out’, or, ‘hey we need to figure out Monarchs just so there’s no overlap.”

Lucas – As far as taking care of the field, it sounds like a lot has changed over the last 40 years. You see old footage of games in England and the fields are just mud. Now there’s a pretty elaborate system of drainage, sand, and some other stuff that’s changed that. Can you speak to what goes into the field here at Rio Tinto?

Dan – We’re really spoiled with this field. It’s a sand-based Kentucky bluegrass field. There’s about 8 or 9 inches of sand under the grass, which gives the roots a lot of room to go down, which is what we want. We want deep roots, which strengthens the grass on top. Underneath the sand is a gravel layer. In that layer is our irrigation and then our drainage, in there is where we have our sub-air system. Lets say there’s a big rainstorm, I can turn the vacuum on and it’ll suck the puddles down through the sand. It’s pretty sweet. Golf courses have it a lot on their greens. It also gives us the ability to heat the grass, so I can turn on the heater, there’s also a pressure function, the heater heats up the soil so when we’re trying to play in March when the season starts, we turn that on and it helps to warm the field up so it’s a little easier to play and the fields not frozen. Then the pressure system helps with the heat, like this summer was super hot, so you turn the pressure on and it pushes the colder air that is under the sand layer up to cool the grass.

Grass versus sand layer as the new fields are installed at the Herriman Academy
Lucas Muller - RSL Soapbox

Lucas – What are the unique challenges to having a bright, beautiful, green soccer field in Utah, especially with the summer schedule?

Dan – It’s the weather that’s the biggest challenge. We start so early in March, usually have snow, so we’re hoping that the snow goes away fast. If there is snow, we have to plan for plowing the fields. We had that snow game this year, which we’ve never had before (RSL vs. Vancouver on April 8th, 2017). It was fun because we’ve never had that before. We had to figure things out really fast like what lines needed to be shoveled. In the summer the schedule is so busy with Monarchs and Real and other events we have on the fields it’s hard to keep people off it. I’d love it if the teams came and played on game days and that was it. We have to plan on other events; Monarchs always train the day before a game. Now in fall, where we went from 90 degrees down to 50 degrees, the grass is really shocked, and it’s hard to keep it growing in these conditions.

The fields & grounds crew shovels snow off the field lines in the infamous snow game against the Whitecaps
USA Today Sports

Lucas – What happens to the field from the final whistle at the end of a game to the starting whistle of the next game?

Dan – Immediately after the game we take the goals down and do a divot walk, which takes 2-3 hours depending on the damage to the field. In the divots we put down a green sand mixture with seed, kind of like on golf courses, you make a divot and fill it in with sand and seed. The next day we come back and check the divots again to be sure we didn’t miss anything. We are testing compaction. That’s one our biggest enemies. We want the grass to be soft but a little firm. If it’s too soft we’ll get big divots out there, but if it’s too firm the ball, for example, will bounce too high. The players like it at a certain density. It also helps with injuries too, if a field is harder we see more injuries out there, especially with guys jumping up and crashing back down. We like to see it a little bit softer. In order to do that we test the compaction and see if we need to aerate. We do some solid tine aeration. When people think about aeration, people think about pulling a core out and it leaves them on the grass. These different type of tines just pokes holes and it relieves the compaction issues on the grass.

I’m usually mowing the field five or six times a week. A lot of that is to keep the length. We keep the grass at one inch long. It also helps with the pattern you see on the grass as well. We’re constantly watering it and checking for dry spots and looking for any spots that need to be taken out.

Lucas – Is there anything special that goes in on game day or the day before?

Dan – Setting up goals is the biggest things, goals, corner flags, we paint the lines the day before or the day of the game, just so the lines are nice and crisp and white for the TV. We’re always worried about how it looks on TV, and of course how it plays for the players.

Lucas – Now that the academy is in Herriman, is that a part of your team’s responsibilities?

Dan – Yeah, I’ll now be over Rio Tinto and Herriman, but I’ll have a full time staff of four guys in Herriman and we’ll keep the three full time guys here. We’re in charge of those fields. There are five natural fields, two indoor, and one stadium, which is artificial. I’ll be over both of those. I have guys hired out there now. We have two fields down, two fields sodded and there’s three left.

This building will house the two indoor fields in Herriman
Lucas Muller - RSL Soapbox

Lucas - Does your department get any input in the design of the Academy fields?

Dan – We had a little bit of input with it — I wish maybe we would’ve had a little bit more input — but they came to us for a lot of things, which was really nice. Five fields is a lot, but you think about one field for the academy, two fields for Real, one field for Monarchs, and then another field that’s kind of promised to Herriman City for their use. I wish we had two or three more fields out there, but that might happen at a later date.

Lucas – What kind of care goes into the artificial fields?

Dan – Artificial is kind of tricky. People think you lay it down and let it be and it’s easy, but you have to really watch the infill, that crumb rubber infill, so you’re constantly grooming that to make sure the fields are still flat and there’s no bare spots. And you also have to clean it weekly. We’ll also be constantly painting lines for different sports that will happen out there, football, rugby, I think lacrosse, plus the academy.

Lucas – What goes into care for the America First training field?

Dan – At America First, we try to keep the same exact maintenance schedule that we have at Rio Tinto because the team is practicing there every day. That field is the exact same dimension, exact same specs as the stadium except it doesn’t have the sub-air over there. The thing about America First is that it gets so much more use, three times more use, so we’re doing a lot more aeration when we can. It’s a lot harder to do maintenance out there because it’s being used so much.

Lucas – What do you do for equipment between the three locations?

Dan – We’re lucky because Toro is a big sponsor for us, so we have all Toro equipment. The fields in Herriman will be the “Toro fields”. They will have all Toro equipment in Herriman and we have all Toro equipment here in the stadium. But it’s all kept separate; we’re not taking a tractor from here to Herriman. We’ll have our separate equipment out there and here too.

Lucas – Is there anything about the fields, grounds, or anything you guys do that you wish the average fan knew?

Dan – Maybe they do know, but the guys I work with, we put in so much time and we really care about the safety for our players, so that’s why we do most of the things we do out there. We put in a lot of hours, it’s not just a forty hour, 8-4 work day or whatever, it’s a lot of overtime, it’s a lot of, ‘Oh crap, the Monarch’s schedule changed” or Real changed their schedule and we gotta come in and figure it out. So it’s a lot of extra hours and the guys do such a good job, I just couldn’t do it without them. Maybe something people might like to know is that we’re really big fans of the team, so we really enjoy being here, getting to know coaches, getting to know the players, it’s just really fun, I love the job. It’s just a fun job.