Maintaining a champions-worthy
playing field

Head Groundsman Gage Knudson and the craft of field management.

SGL grow lights at Los Angeles FC

Los Angeles Football Club

Banc of California Stadium

Los Angeles, California

Grass type

3x LU440, 2x LU120, 2x TC40 & 6x TurfPod

A great venue, two quality teams, overtime, and a last-minute Gareth Bale equalizer taking the game to penalties; LAFC clinched its first MLS cup in style. The final against Philadelphia Union was the culmination of an intense and successful season at the Banc of California Stadium, home of Los Angeles Football Club. Not just for the players, but also for the grounds team. These unsung heroes oversee the care and maintenance of the training facilities and stadium field, and make sure the quality of the turfgrass matches the ambitions of the players and club. How do Head Groundsman Gage Knudson and his team maintain a consistent high quality grass playing field throughout the year? What’s Gage’s take on data monitoring and grow lights? And what’s Will Ferrell wearing goalie gloves doing at practice?

Learning from the best in the business

“It was an incredible year, Gage reflects on last season’s success. Not only because of the team winning the MLS cup, but also when we look at what we did from a grounds team’s stand point. How we were able to maintain a consistent playing field throughout the year with the amount of games and concerts we had during the regular season, the additional play-off games and the women’s team we brought in this year. It’s something you’ll always remember. After the MLS Cup final, we were so exhausted from all the build-up, that we forgot to celebrate. We didn’t have much of an off season, because our season starts in January. People in the industry need to have a passion for the grind. I really enjoy being at the field, hands in the dirt, mowing the grass; it’s a passion. Of course, it’s a job and it pays the bills, but it’s also something I love doing.”

Growing up in Kansas, Gage’s first encounter with turf management was via a turf programme at Kansas State University.

“I took a couple of classes and really enjoyed being outside and learning about turf. The programme predominantly puts a lot of guys into the golf course world, but I knew right away I wanted to do sports turf because of my background in playing sports. After that, I wanted to expose myself as much as possible. I did research for a semester and did an internship with the athletics programme at Kansas State University, maintaining the women’s soccer team field. At the time, it was a brand new facility with a field built from scratch. It was a cool experience to be at the foundation of creating the right facilities, but for my next internship I wanted to leave Kansas.”

Looking for internships at both the east and west coast, Gage’s yearning for knowledge eventually brought him to MLS side New York Red Bulls, where he got the chance to learn the ropes of turf management from some of the best in the business.

“At the time, I just wanted to get out of Kansas and by luck I happened to fall into a great situation in New York. As an intern, I learned a lot from Neil Sitzman (Manager Arena Ground) and Daniel Shemesh (Director of Grounds). Neil and Dan are huge supporters of data monitoring and technology and they have been at the forefront of the industry in the last ten to fifteen years. I was very fortunate to start my career off at New York Red Bulls and already be on the track of data monitoring and the integration of new technology.

After I had finished my semester at ‘K State’, I heard that there was a job opportunity at LAFC. Next thing you know, I joined the club in 2019 overseeing the training facilities, and two years later I took over the stadium field as well. It’s been a quick track of graduation, cool internships and ultimately joining LAFC. And now I’m in the spotlight managing everything at the club and overseeing the grounds team, which consists of myself and 4 other guys.”

The importance of data collection and grow lights

With forty soccer games a year and twelve concerts, the field at the Banc of California Stadium gets its fair share of usage. Maintaining a consistent high quality grass playing field requires a lot of work in a short period time. This means, utilizing the available tools as efficiently as possible and for that, field data comes in handy.

“We have to maximize the time we have as much as possible. Next season, we’ll probably be close to forty-five soccer games and twelve concerts, of which six take place during the MLS season. In January, we’ll look at the calendar and we’ll see all the events scheduled. We know we’re going to get through it, but it always seems like a monumental task at forehand. For instance, we would have a concert on a Saturday and a game on Wednesday. Those are the ones that are nerve recking. Getting the grass to recover in a little over three days… It’s a challenge.

Data helps me get insight into the values of our field and it’s something I’ve grown great interest in since my internship at New York Red Bulls. We do a lot of field testing. We use various manual measurement tools and collect valuable data with the TurfPods. For me, pulling a lot of data is important in order to create the most consistent field.”

With six LU440 and four LU120 HPS grow lights at his disposal, Gage has the equipment in place to maintain the desired high quality field, despite the shade in the stadium and the demanding event schedule. But having the tools is one thing, using them the best way possible is another story. “We use the data we collect to deploy our grow lights as efficient as possible. When we started to uptick with the concert load, we realized we needed the extra light from the grow lights to recover the field and create the quality field that we would like to have. We got our LU440’s and LU120’s in 2021 and the results were impressive to see. On the south end of our field, we’ll see shade about eight months out of the year.

So for us, putting the grow lights on the south end of the field and see the results that the grow lights got us, that was impressive. It was our first experience of the real potential of the grow lights, and it convinced us to purchase the second set of grow lights.”

Even though sustainability is not as big of an issue as it is in Europe, LED technology has been an innovation that has sparked Gage’s interest for quite some time now.

“Sustainability is important, but it’s not in the forefront here in the US. Nevertheless, we sure would like to get the LED grow lights. We’re interested. I know Weston (Weston Appelfeller, red.) works with LED technology at Austin FC and I saw the LED grow lights during last year’s SGL Masterclass at Leicester City FC. It seems like really exciting technology that will help us control the growing conditions and recover the grass from damage without wasting energy.”

The turf community; a tight group of guys

Coming out of such a successful season, it must be a challenge to live up to the high expectations. What are the area’s Gage and his team can still improve on?

“The attention to detail! It’s always something that’s in the forefront of my mind. To see the nuances. Because it’s the little things that make a big difference. We’re a small staff, so we have to rely on everyone to do their job and pull their weight. Paying attention to details is really something I want to hit home on. We want to create a better, consistent field going into next season and make sure we’re improving and continuing down a positive route. Every season is a little different, but that’s the fun of it.

It also helps that the turf industry is such a tight group of people who all, more or less, go through the same things. Everyone deals with grass diseases, demanding playing schedules and quick turn-around time. It’s nice to be able to reach out to colleagues and get some advice every now and then. That also works the other way around, I’m always happy to answer questions and give advice.

It’s good to meet field managers from across the globe at conferences. Strike up a conversation, meet new people and make new friends. In the little time I’ve been in the field management industry, everyone has been very welcoming.”

An unexpected stand-in goalie

Someone who has also shown interest in the field management business, is Hollywood actor and Owner of LAFC, Will Ferrell. You’d say there’s a better chance of spotting him on a red carpet rather than on the green grass carpet at LAFC, but don’t be surprised if you see footage of the famous actor popping up at practice, as a stand in goalie for instance.

“Will is a really funny guy, who is very involved with the team. You’ll see him randomly at the training centre and you go like: holy cr*p, it’s Will Ferrell! Once, he came out to practice with his goalie gloves on, made a couple of saves and joked around with the players.

And he even came up to me to talk to me. Will was intrigued by the grass. He wanted to talk grass for a little bit and we spoke about the grow lights. It was a cool and unique experience, and my family got a kick out of it.”

Last but not least Gage, is it called soccer or football?

“Ha-ha, I guess it’s an American thing. We’re proud to call it soccer and our league is called Major League Soccer. When Bob Bradley was our coach, he used to call it football. But now Steve Cherundolo calls it soccer. If you asks me, it’s called soccer. I guess it’s the quirk of America. We want to be a little different. In four years, we want to convert everyone into soccer lovers.”