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Soccer BMO Field undergoes transformation into hybrid playing surface

The SISGrass machine is shown at BMO Field, in Toronto, on April 11, 2019.

Neil Davidson/The Canadian Press

Like an electronic caterpillar, a special machine is inching its way across the BMO Field pitch these days. It’s going 24 hours a day stitching green artificial fibres into the natural grass.

Imagine a sewing machine the size of a Winnebago.

Housed inside a tarpaulin cover — the eight Europeans staffing the machine find it cold in Canada — giant needles grab the polyethylene fibres and stuff them into the ground every 20 millimetres. The made-in-Abu-Dhabi fibres are 20-centimetres long and stitched 18-centimetres deep into the ground.

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Each piece is actually six strands. Pull them apart and tie them together, and the fibres being stitched into the stadium by Lake Ontario would span the globe 1.2 times.

Robert Heggie, director of grounds for Toronto FC, delivers the statistic with a hearty laugh.

Thursday was Day 3 with five or six more to go. Heggie says the enhanced pitch will be ready for April 19 when Minnesota United comes to visit.

In the meantime, the crews from SISGrass, based out of the Netherlands, are working around the clock installing what Heggie calls “Rebar for the soil.”

It will take 22 pallets, each weighing 448 kilograms and carrying 64 rolls of the artificial fibre.

When it’s all done, about five per cent of the surface will be artificial with the roots of the real grass attaching to the fibres. And BMO Field will join Green Bay’s Lambeau Field — the only other stadium in North American with SISGrass — and London’s Wembley Stadium among others with a hybrid surface.

“The investment on this square of grass has been phenomenal,” Heggie said. “There’s very few groundskeepers around the world that get the support that I get.”

Not to mention feedback. Before every game, Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley inspects the pitch. And he’s not someone you want mad at you.

For Heggie, the new hybrid grass should deliver a firmer, truer, more consistent playing surface — something Toronto FC players have been clamouring for. The big bodies in the CFL trenches should find that the field will not move below them as they butt heads.

“It’s not easy being a groundskeeper,” Heggie said. “But this will give me the peace of mind in January, February, December — those shoulder seasons when i just know it’s tough and we can’t get the too structure that we need.”

Former striker Sebastian Giovinco famously dismissed BMO Field as an “amateur field.” Team president Bill Manning called it “a little bit of a cow pasture.”

Heggie is an award-winning groundskeeper— he was named Sports Turf Manager of the Year in Canada in 2015 — but he’s not a miracle worker.

“Millions of years told this plant this is what it should be doing at certain times of the year and we’re trying to tell it the opposite,” he said. “So obviously there are limitations when fighting Mother Nature like that.”

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But, he admits he now has all the bells and whistles a groundskeeper can ask for — including underground heating and sensors, an upgraded irrigation system and an array of grow-lights that can cover 60 per cent of the field.

The hybrid surface will also allow him to transition from bluegrass, which offered “structure” in winter, to perennial ryegrass, used by English Premier League teams.

“Soccer players prefer perennial ryegrass,” Heggie said. “They say it’s greasier. When they slide on it, they feel like they slide better.”

He estimates 75 per cent of English Premier League teams play on a hybrid surface, either SISGrass or its competitor Desso GrassMaster.

The hybrid surface should last 10 years. And to ensure the artificial fibres don’t get damaged when the grass is cut, Heggie’s crew will use state-of-the-art walk-behind electric mowers, rather than riding mowers.

It takes two mowers about four hours to cut the field.

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“It’s a nicer cut,” Heggie said proudly.

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