Robert Heggie on the 2026 World Cup and the challenges at BMO Field.
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Now that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar has just finished, you’d think World Cup soccer won’t be top of mind for a while. But that’s not the case for Robert Heggie, Director of Grounds at BMO Field in Toronto. The home stadium of MLS-side Toronto FC is one of the sixteen stadiums across Canada, the United States and Mexico that will host 2026 World Cup soccer matches. It’s up to Robert and his team to maintain a world class stadium field in Toronto, where in a few years’ time the world’s biggest soccer stars will walk ‘his’ stadium field. Just back from a trip to Qatar to see the 2022 World Cup facilities and to meet up with FIFA officials to talk turf, Robert got some welcoming reassurance: BMO Field is already looking good for the 2026 World Cup.
“It’s nice to know that the stadium is pretty much ready to go, “Robert starts off. “There is still a major project to expand the seating capacity to 45,000 seats, but BMO Field is the closest venue to be fully field-level ready. The FIFA has hired Dr. John Sorochan (professor at University of Tennessee) and Trey Rogers (professor at University of Michigan State) to lead a group of researchers at the states of Tennessee and Michigan, who will work on growing grasses under a variety of conditions, and set up some guidelines that every World Cup host should meet, e.g., height of cut, firmness of the pitch and moisture levels. The field at BMO Field falls within everything they are expecting, so they are going to come up to Toronto and see what the standard should be.”
These guidelines should help the groundsmen get their stadium field in world class shape. But that’s easier said than done.
“It’s going to be an interesting World Cup. We’re going from the smallest footprint in Qatar, where the two stadiums furthest apart were only 79 kilometres separated and all stadiums essentially dealt with the same grass growing climate, to a set up where the stadiums are spread across Canada, the United States and Mexico, and thus have very different growing climates. For instance, in Toronto we’re 75 meters above the sea level, whereas Estadio Akron in Guadalajara is 1400 meters above sea level. We have completely different grass growing climates and we’re growing two completely different grass types. It will be a challenge to get consistency across all of the sixteen playing fields, so the ball bounces and rolls the same way on each surface.”
*Dr. John Sorochan is internationally recognized as a leader in the design, installation, and maintenance of safe, sustainable, and attractive playing surfaces for major sporting venues. Both Trey and John were a part of the 1994 World Cup and were integral in the turf tray system in the Pontiac Silverdome indoor venue.
With his thirteen years of groundsman experience at Toronto FC, maintaining a world class grass playing field for an event like the World Cup is not something to be nervous about. Even when turn-around time between games is marginal.
“If you’re ready, than there’s no reason to be nervous. At BMO Field we’re used to having three or four events in a week. When the MLS season starts in February, it’s ‘just’ Toronto FC playing, but in June the Canadian Football League starts and the Toronto Argonauts will also play their home matches at BMO Field.
Most MLS clubs wind down the soccer as soon as the NFL season is winding up, they have three or four games of overlap. We, on the other hand, have ten to twelve games of overlap. We switch from football to soccer and vice versa. BMO Field is a multi-purpose venue, so we could be hosting a soccer game on Saturday, a CFL (Canadian Football League) game on Wednesday and another soccer game on Friday, with the expectation that the field is perfect for the soccer event that’s two days after the CFL event. In addition to the short turn-around time, a CFL player will have different demands from the grass than a soccer player. CFL players will never complain as long as their cleats are grabbing the field. It’s all about cleat – surface interaction. Soccer players are more like golfers, it’s all about ball – surface interaction. You have to take those demands into account.
I can imagine it will be more of an eye-opener for the artificial grass guys. They need to figure out how to grow grass in their stadium first of all. They usually also have longer turn-around time, with one or two weeks between NFL games. Getting the field ready in the run-up to the event is one thing, but then holding it into the event, that’s a challenge.”
In addition to a demanding playing schedule where MLS games alternate with CFL games, there’s also the extreme Toronto temperatures (-10°C in the winter, +30°C in the summer) and the accompanying grass diseases complicating the life of Robert and his 14-man grounds team. Identifying grass diseases and taking the right measures can be a case of trial and error.
“So far, the winter has been quite mild with 4°C during the day and °0 C at night. It has been a relatively warm December month. But usually we have extreme temperatures in winter and also in summer. In the winter, temperature can drop to -10°C, with wind chill -30°C and prolonged snow cover. During these extreme winter conditions, we have to look out for grass diseases like grey and pink snow mold. That’s one of the things that doesn’t help us groundskeepers sleep at night, managing the snow mold.
Last year I decided to tarp the field, but it actually backfired and gave me a whole bunch of snow mold. On the one hand, the tarp helps the grass, it’s giving the grass the protection it needs. But it’s also giving the disease the conditions the disease needs to grow. This year I decided to leave the tarp off for maximum leaf dryness and air flow, but it’s a thin line to walk on. These grass diseases can do a lot of damage very quickly.
And then in February and March, when we get things going again and we want to activate the plant, we turn on the undersoil heating and we switch on the grow lights. We have a roof on the south end of the stadium, so I will always have this one piece of shade that hangs across the field. Later in the year, the whole south side gets very minimal natural sunlight. That’s where we use the grow lights the most, in combination with the SGL Portal. With my 10+ years of experience, I know pretty much what the Portal is going to tell me before I even open it, but it reminds me where the natural light in the stadium is. In addition to SGL’s Portal data and recommendations, I also like to walk the field to actually see where the damage is myself, and so we use the grow lights based on a combination of SGL Portal data and my own experience to keep the playing surface in perfect condition.”
Last but not least we asked Robert to pick a side in the soccer vs. football debate and he could not be more clear.
It’s called football! I’m actually pretty sure the word ‘soccer’ originally came from England. We didn’t invent the word, they did. For me it’s ‘football’, but don’t blame us for also calling it ‘soccer’!
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