Soccer pitch patches

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Jack Scuro ‘24 and rest of team return to Varsity Field

The conditions of both the practice and game fields for the men’s and women’s soccer teams have recently had problems. “This preseason, I noticed that there was a lot of dead grass, it was pretty dry and patches were growing in the field,” said midfielder Francois D’Elia ‘23. For D’Elia and his teammates, this meant that several of their home games had to be relocated to other fields in the Lehigh Valley. 

Head Coach Sean Topping had to break the news to his team a week before the season opener. “[Topping] told us we weren’t going to play the first three games at home,” said D’Elia. “There were still patches of grass that weren’t growing right. And the corners on the fields didn’t look too good.” 

“While the varsity field was being redone we played at two different fields. The first one being the Lehigh County fields and the second one being J. Birney Crum Stadium,” said an anonymous women’s soccer player. “Both of these facilities were fine to play at, but just did not feel like home for our team and it just felt very unprofessional and embarrassing having the other team showing up to a field that was not our own. It definitely made it more challenging on us having to drive ourselves and worry[ing] about getting all the players and [their] equipment over there. And, not being used to the playing surface, but we made it work.”

Although athletic grass fields will experience wear and tear throughout the season, the hope is that dirt patches and uneven grass growth will be fixed by next season’s start. “When I transferred in spring 2021, the field felt good,” said D’Elia. “Then last summer, it was not in the same condition.” 

“We were in a drought,” explained Assistant Director of Plant Operations Brett Fulton. “The eastern part of the state was in a drought. The field is irrigated, but you’re never going to make up for the lack of rain within irrigation systems. You just can’t put enough consistent moisture for the very high heat we saw throughout the summer.” 

Death by a thousand cuts, or in this case, patches. Fulton believes that a mountain of problems has left the field in this condition. Like mentioned before, the lack of rain was a concern. The amount of bodies using the field had also contributed. Both programs have opened the fields to the community through several soccer clinics and camps, one of those being Mules Youth Day Camp that took place in July. 

“It was the hottest weekend of the summer and they had a camp there,” said Grounds Manager Roberto Rivera. “So, it was over-stressed especially when you have 200-300 kids on the field with that degree weather.” 

Plant Operations only mows and provides minimal treatment to the athletic grass fields. An outside contractor is responsible for major adjustments and repairs. “We have used an outside contractor for some of the work on the field, including this year,” says Fulton. “The outside contractor is a landscape contractor and they have a program set up for fertilization that starts in the spring, and continues until the season starts. And then there’s a little bit of treatment during the season.” 

Varsity Field’s species of grass has also played into its downfall. “It’s a bluegrass field,” said Fulton. “A lot of lawns are a mix of perennial rye and bluegrass and fescue. The soccer fields are pure blue grass, so you’re dealing with a type of grass that is very susceptible to the heat and the dryness.” 

A game pitch must adhere to NCAA standards, with white lines painted straight and the grass full, flat and freshly cut. But the grass field, used by both programs as their practice field adjacent to Varsity Field, has some leeway. Separated only by a press box and a few aluminum benches from the game pitch, the practice field is the middle child of the athletic fields. “Our practice field is sometimes a bit unplayable,” D’Elia adds, “I’d say it’s bumpy, with a lot of random holes and dirt patches all over the place. That’s much worse than the game field.” 

The main objective of a practice field is to be the punching bag for the soccer teams and preserve the game pitch so it’s in top shape for games. If both of the soccer teams used one field for practices and games, it would become a nightmare for Plant Operations. “The field would be destroyed within the first couple weeks of the season,” agrees D’Elia. “Patches everywhere. Spots too from cutting, especially when it gets wet. It would just be a brutal surface to play on.” 

Returning to the natural grass Varsity Field was a relief for D’Elia. The Mules were able to return to play at Muhlenberg Sept. 17 against McDaniel College. D’Elia and his teammates managed to win 3-1. The men’s team has managed to go (1-0-2) since returning to play on-campus. “I’m a huge proponent of playing on grass fields. I was excited to be back and have the rest of our home games at home.” 

Within the ‘futbol’ world, maintaining a grass soccer field (pitch over on the other side of the pond) is an art that many can learn but few can master. D’Elia says he prefers a grass pitch over artificial turf. “I think in general, if you talk to any soccer player, a nice, well-maintained grass field is going to be preferable to a turf field, it just plays differently. Good grass fields are gonna play like turf, but it’s not going to bounce as much. You grow up watching soccer on these nice grass fields in Europe and all over the place. And that’s something you just want to play on.” 

But as nice as a playable grass field suited for varsity collegiate play might be, the maintenance might not be worth it. “We decided to look into synthetic,” said Fulton. “The field will be used by athletics and by the summer conference groups, and will be able to withstand a full schedule. We have spent several years discussing it, researching it, and are now looking at making the switch. We are working with designers, contractors, and engineers to move forward with the installation of a synthetic turf field.” 

Artificial turf can be a beneficial alternative. “It’s definitely a lot less maintenance. But there is grooming. There’s an infill that goes on a synthetic turf like the football field. You have to groom the turf to keep the fiber standing upright. It doesn’t take as much manpower and you have to keep the visit infill that filters down between the fibers. So you have to maintain that you have to keep it at a playable level, which is honestly very simple.”

“The stadium soccer grass field will eventually become a turf field,” said Director of Athletics Lynn Tubman. “We are currently in the planning phase. The College has received permits and we have put the project out to bid. It is hard to determine [a] specific timeline due to the current environment with any construction project. We are seeing delays nationwide due to supply chain and labor issues. Once we get through the bid phase we hope to have a clearer picture on the project timeline.” 

“I’m definitely going to miss the grass field,” said soccer player Josh Bordwick ‘23. “When it is well kept, it is great to play in and such a home field advantage.” 

The same anonymous women’s soccer player echoed a similar sentiment, “I prefer to play on grass. But, if the school unfortunately cannot take care of it properly and this will continue to be an issue for the men’s and women’s soccer program then I think it is only necessary that Varsity Field becomes turf because it does not take as much maintenance and time as grass does.”

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