Aiming for back-to-back awards
at Real Salt Lake

Director of Fields and Grounds Dan Farnes: expert in maintaining an award winning playing surface at America First Field.

Dan Farnes and Simon Gumbrill under SGL grow lighting units at Real Salt Lake

About Real Salt Lake

America First Field

Salt Lake City, Utah

Grass type
Kentucky bluegrass

MU360, BU50, BU10 and 5x TurfPods

Sure, the mountain view is great. But maintaining a top quality playing surface in Rocky Mountain area has its difficulties. Despite the extreme temperatures in Salt Lake City, Dan Farnes manages to impress the field management industry with ‘his’ reward winning grass playing surface at America First Field, home of Real Salt Lake. During last year’s SFMA conference, Dan was handed the award for ‘2022 Professional Soccer Field of the year’, as a result of an amazing season with his grounds team. It was the second time winning this prestigious award, after also clinching the highly regarded trophy back in December 2019. So… What’s the secret to his success?

“It’s the team!,” Dan tells without hesitation. “The guys and girls here are really great to work with. It’s so nice to be able to work with people who care about the team and the fields. They take so much pride in their work and are out on the field with me every day. Even during extreme weather conditions, as is the case at the moment. I simply could not do it without the team, and it was awesome to share the award with them.”

*The ‘Field of the Year’ is awarded to natural grass fields that exhibit excellent playability and safety and whose managers utilize innovative solutions, effectively use their budgets, and have implemented a comprehensive agronomic program.

From freezing cold, to scorching hot

The weather conditions are something Dan and his team are used to dealing with. Whether it’s freezing cold or scorching hot, they come out to maintain the stadium field.

“Right now, it’s 15 °Fahrenheit (-10 °Celsius) and we’re a month away from the first home match of the new season. Luckily, we’ve got the grow lighting units, so those are out on the field right now. We’ve got the field covered in grow tarps and we’ll probably turn the soil heating on next week to get the soil to warm up. But a lot of our maintenance depends on the weather. We see all four seasons here in the Rocky Mountains. We’ll come out of winter around March or April and we’ll get spring weather, with quite a bit of rain, from April until June. Come June or July, it starts to get really hot, with temperatures up to 100 °Fahrenheit (40 °Celsius). That usually lasts until August or September. And then fall starts and it starts to cool off again. The weather, yes, it’s a big challenge for us.”

Luckily, the field managers community consists of helpful (inter)national colleagues who don’t hesitate to share knowledge and experiences. “Looking back to how it was when I first started, the industry has become a lot more welcoming for new people and a lot more ideas are being shared. Over the years, I’ve built relationships with most of the guys in the league that run the fields, and even with people in Europe I met during the yearly conferences. I never would have thought I would be talking to guys from FIFA and groundskeepers from AS Monaco, Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid. The sharing of knowledge about equipment, or different ways to do things has become such a huge help in what I do. I can ask anyone for advice, and that’s so great.

Modern day pitch management technology

As troublesome as the weather can be, shade due to the stadium construction fortunately is less of a problem, as is the case at Vanderbilt University. Where many newly built stadiums cast a shadow on large areas of the field, this is not so much the case at America First Field.

“We’re lucky that our stadium wasn’t built like al the new MLS stadiums, which can be quite enclosed like a lot of the European stadiums. We’ve got some shade issues on the south end of the field, where we have a big videoboard casting shade on the 18-yard box (penalty area) up until about April or May. That’s the area where we really need the grow lights to get quality grass growth. We’ve got the BU10, BU50 and MU360 to get the grass growing in that shaded area of the field. The grow lights help us maintain a consistent playing surface, which is very important for player safety, a topic that’s always on our mind.

In addition to grow lighting technology, turf data is also starting to ramp up. We have five SGL TurfPods that we just got this year and I’m really happy with how those have been working. We can put them underneath the grow tarps and collect valuable field data we use to make field management decisions. Data helps us create consistency across the field, which is crucial to guarantee player safety; our number one priority.”

The field is the 12th man

Going into his eleventh (!) season with the club, you’d say the field has no surprises for Dan. But it’s the small nuances that keep the job interesting.

“Sure, I’ve seen a lot over the pas years, but still every day is different. Especially when a new coach comes in. They always have their preferred ways of doing things, different training times, and their own opinion about how the field should play. During the season, it also depends on how well the team is doing. If the team is winning, everyone is happy and we’re doing things right. But if the team is losing, than we’re constantly meeting with the coaches and trying different things with the field. It’s something I like, the feeling that you contribute to the team’s performance and the result on game day. That’s why we like to see the field as the 12th man. We have all these athletes who are worth a lot of money. I want the field to be treated just like one of those athletes. As something we need to keep safe and consistent, that contributes to the result. Just like the players.”

With two SFMA Professional Soccer Field of the year awards in the trophy cabinet, expectations for next season are high as ever. How about clinching the SFMA award back-to-back?

“We’ll see how it goes! We actually renovated the field at the end of the season, last year. It might sound a bit strange, that we get a reward for the field of the year and then we take the field out to try something different. But it was just time, it’s been seven years since we last renovated. For now, we’re just looking forward to the first home game. It’s tough to win it back-to-back, but we’ll definitely try our best!”