The raggedy pitch at BMO Field for Saturday’s Toronto FC home opener drew criticism from all quarters.
“As bad as I’ve ever seen in the MLS,” said D.C. United coach Ben Olsen.
For Robert Heggie, it was just the latest blow in a long, brutally cold winter that has been a groundskeeper’s nightmare.
“I’m battling Mother Nature, that’s what it is,” the Toronto FC head groundskeeper lamented in an interview.
“We’ve never had a winter like this,” he added.
Despite the best efforts of his staff, millions of dollars worth of technology and no shortage of science, Heggie knew this winter was going to wallop his prize soccer surface.
“I knew,” he said in an interview in his office at Toronto FC’s training ground. “Ever since that ice storm, I knew ‘This isn’t good guys.’ But I don’t create the (MLS) schedule.”
For Heggie, having an MLS game in Toronto in March is like holding the NHL Winter Classic in August.
It’s a huge ask.
Heggie (pronounced Heg-ee) and his team put in 17-hour days before the home opener working on the field. And they were there until 1 a.m. after the game, putting down seed, rolling the surface, fertilizing it and then putting the cover back on.
“I don’t think I’ve slept since I looked at my grass in February,” he said with a laugh.
While the playing surface took its lumps, the MLS club was quick to point the finger at the elements rather than the groundskeeping crew.
“I blame God for that at the moment for the winter he’s given Toronto,” manager Ryan Nelsen said, half jokingly, last Friday.
“It’s impossible to keep grass with that kind of winter,” captain Steven Caldwell said after the 1-0 win over D.C. United.
The grass at windswept BMO Field, down by Lake Ontario south of the city, is Kentucky bluegrass augmented with perennial ryegrass, a fast-growing and aggressive type of plant.
“It’s cool-season grass, but this isn’t what they meant by cool season,” Heggie said.
Heggie, who studied horticulture and turf grass management at the University of Guelph, takes his pitch personally.
The 31-year-old prepared for an interview about BMO Field like Perry Mason for a court case. He had sheafs of paper, highlighted comments and plenty of passion.
Like Colonel Mustard in the study with a wrench, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln study paints a stark picture of the winter’s criminal effect on grass.
BMO Field ticks almost every box.
Ice cover for more than 45-60 days. Windblown. Turf seeded in the fall. Perennial ryegrass and annual bluegrass are the most susceptible to desiccation.
When MLSE switched BMO Field from artificial turf to grass in 2010, millions were spent to get it right. An extensive sub-surface heating and drainage system was installed, as well as a series of irrigation heads.
“It’s a phenomenal system,” Heggie said. “If we didn’t have that system, what do you think the field would have looked like last Saturday?”
Brown is the answer.
Heggie pulls ups photos of Lambeau Field on Jan. 5 to illustrate the brown surface that greeted the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers.
“They have the Cadillac systems,” he said.
That includes artificial grow-light rigs that TFC doesn’t have. Lambeau also has the hybrid grass that the MLS team is looking to install, a largely below-the-surface system that strengthen the roots and helps prevent the turf cutting up.
Not to mention a much bigger groundskeeping crew.
Heggie, whose background includes working on golf courses in his native Barbados, has been heating the BMO Field pitch since January, gradually turning up the temperature two degrees a week in a bid to mirror Mother Nature. Getting a pitch ready for spring is not like popping a burrito in the microwave — it takes time to fool the grass into thinking spring has arrived.
The heating system only warms the soil. Heggie compares it to being in a hot tub at a ski resort. What’s underwater is nice and toasty, but everything above is chilly.
“So the plant has a tendency not to grow because it wants to hold itself towards the heat,” he explained.
The heating eventually melted all the snow and ice, allowing the grounds crew to put down a tarp on Valentine’s Day.
They started “pounding” the field with grass seed augmented by fertility sprays. But the unseasonably cold temperature hindered seed germination, even in warm soil.
Tissue tests were sent to the lab to see what’s needed to help the grass recover from winter.
“Everything’s very scientific. We’re not Caddyshack Carl Spackler any more,” he said, referencing the assistant groundskeeper character played by Bill Murray in the 1980 comedy “Caddyshack.”
“We’re scientists. We did everything we could do. I brought consultants up from the States to help me out, to point me in any direction that I wasn’t going but they were having trouble pointing me in any direction that I wasn’t already doing.”
Some grass dies over the winter. The rest sees its roots shrink, setting the stage for grass to come loose — as it did Saturday.
Give him a temperature of zero degrees and he can work his magic. So Heggie is anxiously checking forecasts.
He has less than three weeks until the next home game.
“Will the pitch be perfect by April 12? Probably not. But will the pitch be perfect by May? Probably. We know what we’re doing.”
While Nelsen supports his groundskeeping crew, he still calls a spade a spade.
Asked about what he expects of the grass for the next game, he replied dryly: “I don’t think it can get any worse so that’s one positive.”
Heggie, who has been looking after the BMO Field pitch since it was switched to grass, has his hands tied in one respect.
Put grass under a weight of snow and eventually mould, fungus or other “disease pressures” can set in.
“I can’t spray pesticides down there,” he said of BMO Field. “Unlike golf courses.”
Still, Heggie expects golf courses will also suffer — damage that may only be seen once the snow fully disappears.
Heggie is lobbying the Ontario government to exempt BMO Field from that pesticide ban, as it does golf courses, cricket pitches, bowling greens and farms.
When the government came up with the list of exemptions, BMO Field was artificial turf so no one lobbied to include soccer.
The lack of pesticide means he cannot use a winter tarp, which would help protect the field from wind desiccation. A heavy tarp would restrict air flow and promote disease.
Instead he has to use a less substantial grow cover tarp, which lets some air in.
As Toronto FC trains under the bubble, Heggie is in front of a computer — planning his next move.
“All you can really do is know your science and pick your best battles,” he added.