Soccer Field Maintenance and Management
By Jim Puhalla, President, Sportscape International, Inc.
Soccer coaches don't need to be told that their game demands better turf quality than just about any other outdoor team sport. On a smooth, dry, well-maintained pitch, soccer has a graceful quality - even in the middle of a hard-fought game. But when the field goes bad, the whole game goes bad. Bad ball response disrupts players' efforts to execute passes, the game slows to a crawl as mis-kicked balls constantly fly over the touch lines, and the score may depend on who can stay upright most successfully.

Good turf doesn't just happen. It takes careful planning and hard work. Here are some ideas for making soccer field maintenance and management easier.

First of all, it's important to remember that a really effective field management program takes careful, regular inspection of the fields. You have to know what's going on with the turfgrass before you can make knowledgeable decisions about how to take care of it. A good place to start is with a soil test. That will help you understand the "nutrient values" of the soil, so you'll know how much fertilizer - and what kind - your field needs. (If you don't know how to do a soil test, call your county extension agent. He or she will walk you through the procedure, and help you find a lab to do the test. It only costs a few dollars, and it can save you much more in terms of wasted fertilizer, etc.)

If you really want to keep your fields in top condition, give each one at least a quick inspection every other week all year round (even during the off season). It doesn't have to take more than five minutes, and that five minutes can save you a lot of time, work and headaches once the season starts. Once play begins, you should do a field inspection once or twice a week

What to Look For

When your turfgrass is actively growing, keep an eye out for mowing problems. If there's a thick layer of clippings on the turf after it's been mowed, the field is being allowed to get too high between cuttings, and then is being cut too short. That's bad; a thick layer of clippings on the turf can literally kill the grass. What's more, cutting off more than one third of the plant can weaken the grass and make it less resistant to all kinds of stresses - like drought, insects, disease, and even weeds.

While you're at it, tear off a couple of blades of grass and look closely at the cut ends to see if they're been sheared off cleanly, or if they have ragged edges, which is a sign of dull mower blades that tear the grass blades and can make the turf vulnerable to disease. Just looking over the field from the edge, if it has a whitish cast after it's been mowed, that's a sign of mower blades that need to be sharpened. Most people let their blades get much too dull before they sharpen them. (Of course, always make sure to follow the mower manufacturer's directions for safely sharpening the blades.)

Of course, one of the most critical things to look for is moisture - and that underscores the importance of off-season inspections. If it's too wet or too dry, it's best to solve those problems during the off-season, when you don't have to worry about getting it ready for a game. Don't forget to walk around the field sometimes during or just after a hard rain, so you can see (and feel) for yourself how the turf is draining.

Another quick way to check soil moisture is to push a screwdriver into the turf until you encounter some resistance. It should easily penetrate 4" to 6" into the soil. If it doesn't, the field probably needs watered. (There's also a tool, called a "soil probe" or "soil profiler," that can help you check soil compaction, thatch accumulation and root structure as well as moisture. Ask about these tools wherever you buy fertilizer and other maintenance supplies)

You need to check for weeds in the parts of the field that get the most traffic, like the areas in front of the goals, because these are the most compacted areas, where weeds can get a toehold. On northern fields, for example, the appearance of knotweed is usually a sign that the area is becoming too compacted. If you relieve the compaction by aerating, the turfgrass will have a better chance of crowding out the knotweed.

This article includes a downloadable Field Inspection Report form (Figure 1), which you'll find very helpful for doing your own inspections. Recording all your observations on a form like this will help you keep track of all the factors that can affect field performance, and make it easier to understand how the field responds to environmental conditions all year long.

Figure 1. Field Inspection Report

Soccer Maintenance - Field Inspection Report

Maintaining Southern Fields

Figure 2 is an example of a maintenance program that you can tailor to fit the needs of a soccer field in the South or Southwest - usually called the "warm season zone." This is just one example of a maintenance program that one fields manager uses. You can adapt it to the factors you observe in your field inspections over a year or two. Here are some of the major items it includes:

Figure 2. Southern (Warm Season) Maintenance Program

Soccer Maintenance - Southern (Warm Season) Maintenance Program

Fertilization. This maintenance program includes very aggressive fertilization, especially in the spring. That promotes rapid bermudagrass recovery from the competitive stress of the previous season. If you irrigate the field after applying fertilizer, you can make the heavy Nitrogen applications all at once; otherwise, you should split the fertilizer into two applications two weeks apart.

A complete fertilizer (like, for instance, 13-13-13) is good to apply in May to make sure that nutrient levels are strong as summer approaches. In the summer itself, fertilization calls for urea (45-0-0) for maintenance applications of one pound of N. An additional application of K in October helps the turf stand up well to the winter, and the winter fertilization application of ammonium nitrate (34-0-0) helps to maintain ryegrass growth.

Aeration and Topdressing. For many soccer fields, the only periods of limited use during the growing season are early May and August. That means you can aerate the field to help the turf stay healthy. We like to use a spiker with 6" curved blades, run over the turf in 2 directions. If you topdress the field with sand, you'll smooth the divots created by the spiker, and help keep the surface as even as possible.

Overseeding. This is a very good practice many field managers overlook. Overseeding helps to fill in the thin spots, and keeps your field looking much better year-round. We like to overseed the field with a three-way perennial ryegrass blend at the end of September, putting down about 15 pounds of seed for each 1000 square feet. Areas where the turf is especially bad can be spot-seeded in October. Overseeding is especially important where there is year-round use of a field. If you spread 1/4" of sand over the field after overseeding, you'll get better seed germination, because the topdressing promotes seed-to-soil contact.

Mowing. We recommend mowing twice a week at a height of about 1" from May through September. That maximizes the strength of the turfgrass and encourages lateral spread of the grass plants. After overseeding in the fall, raise the cutting height to 2" to promote winter hardiness and protect bermudagrass during winter play.

Watering. Generally, most fields need to be watered every 3 days or so from June through September, and as needed the rest of the year to keep the soil moist. Applying at least 1" of water per week will help to maximize turfgrass growth. If you overseed, or spot-seed thin areas, you'll want to water lightly and frequently at first to promote germination of the new turfgrass.

Weed Control. Point of information: healthy turfgrass has a lot less weed trouble than weak turf. You can use a post-emergence herbicide with MSMA and 2,4-D for spot-treatment of weed problems beginning in June, but don't use any herbicides when the temperatures are very hot or very dry.

Transitional Zone Maintenance

Maintenance programs in the Transitional Zone depend on what kind of turfgrass you're using. If the field has warm season varieties like bermudagrass, follow warm-season maintenance practices - just realize that the cooler weather in the transitional zone makes the growing season shorter. If the field has perennial ryegrass or Kentucky bluegrass, use the practices that are common for the North, but remember that your turfgrass will start growing earlier in the spring and keep growing later in the fall.

Northern (Cool Season) Maintenance

Cool season turfgrasses grow strongly in the spring and early summer, go dormant in the hottest part of the year, and then have another strong growing season in the late summer and fall. Northern maintenance programs have to account for this cycle. Figure 3 is a sample of a northern maintenance program that you can adapt to the needs of your facility in the North.

Figure 3. Cool Season Maintenance Program

Soccer Maintenance - Northern (Cool Season) Maintenance Program

Fertilization. A cool season field should get no more than 30% of its annual nitrogen needs in the spring, with the rest applied in the fall. If you fertilize too heavily in the spring, it can cause excessive shoot growth, and restrict the growth of strong roots, which are important to the health of the turf. At the first fertilization of the spring, put down a "starter fertilizer" like 18-24-12, to help get new plants established.

In the summertime, apply one-half pound nitrogen and a full pound of potassium to protect the plants during the heat of the summer, and to help resist disease.

Applying most of the nitrogen in the fall helps the turf recover from the stresses that competition puts on it. The very best time to apply nitrogen is right after the last mowing of the season, while the grass is still green. At this point, shoot growth slows to a stop, but the roots continue to grow. The extra nitrogen you put down will be stored by the root system, and will help the turf green up early in the spring, as well as helping it withstand summer stresses the next year.

Aeration. Aerating frequently with different equipment at different times will help make the turf stronger. In April, we recommend core aerating the entire field, followed by topdressing with sand (and slit-seeding, if the budget allows). Later in the year, use solid tine aeration to reduce compaction without leaving cores all over the field, and core aerate again at the end of the fall playing season.

Topdressing and Slit-Seeding. Performing these two processes together really improves the health of the turf, and helps to level the surface for better ball response. If you do these steps for a couple of years, you'll be surprised at how much difference it makes.

Mowing. Most northern fields are a mixture of Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass. The ryegrass starts growing first in the spring, so it's a good idea to set your mowing height at about 1.5" so sunlight can reach the bluegrass underneath. When the bluegrass starts growing in the middle of the spring, raise the height by one-half inch". The cutting height should be at its highest in July.

About a month before the fall playing season starts, gradually begin reducing the cutting height to get the field to the desired height for competition. Remember not to cut off more than 1/3 of the grass plants at a time. Reducing the cutting height gradually lets the turf adjust to the lower cutting height in time for games.

When the playing season ends, keep mowing as long as the grass is growing. If you let the grass grow too long and leave it that way over the winter, you increase the risk of snow mold. (But don't scalp it in the fall either - that can expose the crowns of the plant to winter weather and weaken the turfgrass.)

If you plan to cut the grass shorter than 2", we recommend that you invest in a reel mower.

Watering. In the spring, it's good to water lightly but frequently, to help nurture new grass plants. As the season progresses, you can gradually decrease the frequency and increase the amount you apply each time you water.

If the fall season is dry, irrigate with an eye on the weather forecast. It's usually better to keep the turf a little dry than too wet during the playing season. That reduces the chance that sudden heavy rains could severely compromise competition.

Weed Control. As a rule, blanket weed treatments on a soccer field are not usually recommended. To have a really good field, a field should be re-seeded annually, which means pre-emergents are unwise, since they stop grass germination. Even post-emergents, which kill weeds after they appear, shouldn't be applied until the new plants are fully established.

When the turf is being kept healthy, weed infestation is usually pretty easy to control. One spot treatment a few weeks before the playing season will usually control the weeds until long after the last game. If you run into a nasty infestation that seems to call for a blanket application, make sure the turfgrass and the weeds are actively growing, and that the soil has at least normal moisture levels. Don't apply herbicides any time the turf is under drought stress.

Practice Fields

In northern areas, the program outlined in Figure 3 will support daily practices with minimal turf damage. (The ideal situation is to have more than one practice field and to alternate practices, but most coaches don't have that option.) A team with one practice field usually uses that facility for about 100 practices in the course of the season, so there are usually several bare spots by the last practice. Aerating and fertilizing these bare spots doesn't help much. A better strategy is to apply one pound of nitrogen monthly from April to July, so the turf is good and strong before the practices start. With careful mowing and watering, and this kind of aggressive fertilization, the field will stand up just fine to the demands of the season.


About the Author: Jim Puhalla is the President of Sportscape International, Inc., a firm specializing in the design, construction, and renovation of sports fields and related facilities, with headquarters in Boardman, Ohio and operations in Dallas and Southeast Michigan. He is also an author, with Mississippi State University professors Jeff Krans and Mike Goatley, of the book "Sports Fields: A Manual for Design, Construction and Maintenance" (Copyright 1999, Ann Arbor Press, Inc., Chelsea, Michigan), and a forthcoming book on baseball and softball fields to be published by John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ.

Contact Us: Jim Puhalla can be contacted toll-free at (888) 784-5586, or on the web at www.SportscapeOnline.com.

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