New surface at TQL Stadium brings change, but also (hopefully) a more dynamic and healthier grass for FC Cincinnati

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The turf at TQL Stadium had plenty of memories grown into its roots after three and half years of service as the playing surface for FC Cincinnati. Playoff victories, a Supporters’ Shield lifted, an MVP season and so much more graced the blades of grass at The Orange and Blue’s home in the West End. But a change was needed, and a change was executed this week while The Orange and Blue were on the road and a new tenant at TQL Stadium prompted a midseason adjustment.

Immediately following the FC Cincinnati match with New England Revolution on Saturday, June 22, a team of contractors and TQL Stadium staff descended onto the field to begin tearing up the Perennial Ryegrass that had been grown, removing the irrigation heads that watered it, and the synthetic carpet that was woven beneath the grass that gave TQL Stadium its signature “Hybrid Grass” label.

By early the next day, all that was left was sand and a white plastic flooring used to cover the field from end to end to allow for construction. Kenny Chesney’s “Sun Goes Down 2024” concert tour was coming in that week to build its towering stage on the west end of the field where the Country Music star and a few of his friends would rock out last Saturday night while FC Cincinnati traveled to Dallas for an away match.

It was the second concert in TQL Stadium history behind British rockers “The Who” and posed a difficult challenge for the turf operations staff. Hypothetically speaking, given a different set-up, a stage could have been built on top of the existing grass and the staff could then try to race time to revive the plant in about a week to get it back to its standard playing condition. That’s what was done when Roger Daultry and Company rocked out TQL Stadium, and the staff replaced all of the area around the south 18-yard boxes to repair the inevitable but expected damage left behind. Yet that still left marks from stage risers that discolored the goalkeepers domain.

But in this specific instance, that simply was not possible. The stadium turf operations team led by Director of Turf Operations Mitch Litz, had to balance some difficult conditions and evaluations on top of the idea that growing grass just simply takes time. For starters, the concert was confirmed internally some time in November, meaning a decision and plan had to be made quickly and the initial feasibility investigation estimated that building the stage and all supplemental work being done on the playing surface would kill, at least, 40% of the grass instantly with no way of knowing the knock-on effects from there.

The growth from there would be an uphill battle. The Perennial Rye blend that was in place is considered a cold weather plant, meaning that it thrives most in cooler weather. A vital attribute to survive Cincinnati winters, but also survivable enough to make it through the hotter summer months with the team at TQL Stadium constantly maintaining it. But, when trying to regrow or sod a cool season grass in the Summer months the roots would never grow, thus making the surface more unstable and thus less safe for the athletes. Not unsafe, to be clear. The sod would be usable just not up to the standard the turf team (and by that virtue, the club as a whole) holds itself to.

“The biggest thing for us was we knew the date, and we know that Cincinnati summer is kind of predictably hot and humid and it was pretty evident from the beginning that this stage setup, (Kenny Chesney’s) production setup was going to be much larger than The Who concert we had in 2022,” Litz said in an interview the Thursday before the concert at TQL Stadium. “At the time of speaking with him, all of the old grass had been pulled up, the stage had been partially built and final checks were being made before the new turf was expected to arrive.

“So you combine those things, you know, a much bigger footprint and a much worse time of year to have to replace grass. It made the decision to just remove the field beforehand and replace the whole thing a pretty easy choice from a technical standpoint.”

So from there a quick contingency plan needed to be executed. TQL Stadium needed a warm weather plant, in a very specific window, and needed to plan a demolition, removal and installation in a very tight window.

“To provide the most consistent playing surface possible and to have the best chance of a cohesive field through the end of the year, we decided to switch from a cool season surface to a warm season surface.”

Introducing Tahoma 31 Bermuda Grass, which has now been installed along with a new base level at TQL Stadium for The Orange and Blue to play on, all in the span of just over five days.

The formerly hybrid backing that wove itself into the grass to help maintain the strength of the cold weather Perennial RyeGrass (overseeded by Kentucky BlueGrass in the spring and fall) has now been replaced by a base level of nearly 400 tons of sand and the Tahoma 31 on top of it, creating what the layman (this writer and many like him) would call “Natural Grass.” A phrase that turf management people wince at because the original playing surface with the Hybrid carpeting was, for all intents and purposes, natural. Or at the very least everything players, coaches and officials would touch was. This just eliminates any semantic arguments.

So now, TQL Stadium is officially 100% au natural.

The new breed of turf (a phrase that Litz and his staff use to refer to the grass, with artificial surfaces being call “synthetic”) was shipped in from New Jersey in refrigerated trucks as sod rolls from the famed Tuckahoe Turf Farm and is not only the same breed of plant but comes from the same plot of land on the farm that the 2026 FIFA World Cup Final pitch will use at MetLife Field in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Other sporting venues to utilize the sod from Tuckahoe include the Philadelphia Phillies’ Citizens Bank Park, Cleveland Guardians’ Progressive Field, Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field. While not all using the same breed of grass, the farm's reputation for quality is exceptional.

“When you get six months to basically buy a whole field – and a high quality field – your options are limited because most places that do concerts are perennial concert venues,” Litz explains. “(Those places) know the ramifications and have a couple fields on layaway, because you could be changing them out a couple times a year, it just depends on what your event load is. So we didn't have a ton of time or a lot of options based on the brief time period that we had.

“But we are getting it from a very reputable source and that's just how we were very lucky that they had grass for us. But that's also just how reputable the sod farm is, they’re growing grass for the World Cup and have options like these available for us.”

There was a relationship prebuilt with Tuckahoe Turf Farms prior to this project as the farm grows a variety of breeds of grass to choose from and has assisted the TQL Stadium Turf Team in the past when sod solutions were required. Ideally, Litz explains, the goal was to have the sod shipped in from a farm closer to Cincinnati as the travel required from New Jersey to Ohio does impact the health of the grass in the short term, not drastically but it is part of the calculation needed in the project. “Stress,”as Litz describes it, is the ultimate battle in maintaining grass and everything from walking on it to rolling it into wheels and driving them in trucks for nine or ten hours has an impact.

So options in Memphis, Tennessee among others were explored but ultimately the product provided by Tuckahoe outweighed other choices when all mapped out.

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As a warm weather plant, getting the Tahoma 31 in at this time of year, where daily temperatures in Cincinnati, Ohio are pushing 90 degrees Fahrenheit daily, allows the Turf Team to not only plant the grass now but allow it to thrive as the summer heat of July and August rages on. Similarly, this breed of grass is more manageable in the cold weather as instead of “dying” when left unmanaged in the cold the blades will turn brown to go dormant and preserve itself to resprout in the warmer weather. But with the team at TQL Stadium managing the turf at all times they can preemptively avoid the “dormant” state through grow lights and other tactics.

“It grows like a weed,” Litz adds about his plant, explaining that when the roots grow they develop strong anchors called “stolons” and “rhizomes” that grow above and below the surface and compete for sunlight so the blades battle for light and create an interwoven surface, anchoring the grass to create real strength while still having a soft top.

The process of reinstalling the turf at TQL Stadium occurred while FC Cincinnati took to the road for matches against FC Dallas and D.C. United. After the concert Saturday night, the stage was torn down and the flooring used was removed on Sunday into the early hours of Monday. From there, Litz, his staff and a team of contractors laid down the sand, laser leveled the ground level, and began a pre-fertilization process in preparation of the plant being laid down the next two days.

Tuesday morning while The Orange and Blue flew to Washington, D.C. the first half of the field arrived and was laid down and treated and Wednesday the second half came in and was similarly installed, reestablishing a full soccer pitch at TQL Stadium.

But the work was hardly complete.

“Then you're just watching moisture for the most part,” Litz continues. We just don't want it to dry out and get more stress than it’s already in. That's the thing about sod. It's just, it's delicate until it's actually rooted in, because it's just living in that, that one inch.”

Tahoma 31 Sod Installation at TQL Stadium

Litz, talking to this writer in his office at the south end of the stadium, then reaches to his desk and reveals a cut out piece of sod from a sample that was shipped from the New Jersey farm for testing and measurement. At this point when meeting with Litz, the full rolls had not yet arrived and we’re not expected to for another four days, so tests and planning were done on a sample patch that was sent over in advance. The one inch deep soil block he revealed has the grass living neatly on top of it but the roots grew past that soil and reached lower looking for water. When placed on top of the sand, a common practice in facilities turf management, the roots will dig deep into the base and grab hold, creating a solid foundation.

“It'll attach itself to our sand base, but that’s not something that will happen overnight,” Litz adds. “The full project is a multi-week process to create a cohesive, singular, surface.”

After the grass is laid down, another 80 tons of sand will be laid out on top of it to give the surface some extra weight as it grows and to re-level the top incase of any changes to the topography of the playing surface.

“Then it’s just about babying it. We will apply some sprayable nutrients just to give it some more recuperative ability. Because, again, it's limited, because it's living in that sod profile that it came in on. So spraying nutrients on top so the plant will absorb that overnight and that'll just give it a little extra energy to do what we want it to do. Sprout roots and grow.”

From there it’s more water and more nutrients until Saturday when FC Cincinnati takes on Inter Miami CF. On matchday they’ll paint the surface with the playing lines in the early afternoon, which is the typical process for any game, but will evaluate if a fresh cut is feasible on the morning of, evaluating if the plant can handle the stress of a mowing at this time.

There is a depth of details that all turf people involved in the project get excited about around the plant. The strength behind the new surface makes for a healthier plant less at risk of disease and/or stress based damage, with a resiliency to survive heat and damage when it does come. The uses of Tahoma 31 nationwide prove that resiliency.

While not all grown at Tuckahoe Turf Farms, and there are several dealers and installers of the patented breed of Bermuda grass, places like Churchill Downs Race Track in Louisville, Kentucky use Tahoma 31 for their turf tracks, for example. Chicago Fire and the Chicago Bears use T31 as it is able to survive and thrive under the abuse of both football and soccer seasons. The Coachella Music Festival grounds use the turf for its grounds and golf courses nationwide rely on the grass's resilience. The LA Dodgers, LA Angels and St. Louis Cardinals use T31. The US Capitol Lawn and the grounds around the National Mall in Washington, D.C. use nearly eight acres of the turf per the distributors list of project locations and in the MLS backyard on top of Chicago, both LA based clubs are Tahoma 31 clubs. Again there are literally hundreds of variants of Bermuda grass, but this specific breed is used in a variety of ways due to its quality.

The removal of the now aging hybrid carpet base system allows for a more natural and uniform soil structure that will promote stronger growth as the uniformity allows water, oxygen and nutrients to flow freer through the soil system. In the past, with the stitched carpet, the movement of water was impacted and anaerobic material would build up, creating a less safe surface over time that would become more and more difficult to manageWith more of what some would call “the build blocks” of healthy grass in the system, all aspects of the plant from the roots to the plants will be happier and more encouraged to grow. This means that when the plant is at its healthiest there will be a stronger base for the players to perform on and the stolons and rhizomes that grow will provide a stabilizing effect. Meaning fewer, smaller divots that will be easier to to fix in shorter time frames, while still providing the safety that divots provide to players.

The removal of the hybrid carpet stitching also allows for divoting that more effectively and naturally displaces energy from players rather than reverberating that energy back up through the players body all while maintaining a more stabilized and consistent surface.

“We picked this particular variety of Bermuda as well because it is both the most cold tolerant and it also requires the least amount of light for Bermuda grass,” Litz adds as the final benefit. “Sunlight is at a premium in (TQL Stadium) because of the shape of the structure. So we went with something that is the most shade tolerant and the most cold tolerant. We're trying to cover all of our bases. We tried to make the best decision possible given the situation.”

But there are trade offs being made. The pitch will also be cut at a half inch lower than it was previously was, dropping down from the one inch height the Perennial Rye was cut at, to a half-inch because the Tahoma-31 is a finer blade and thus needs to be more neatly manicured to play the way they want. The T31 blade also typically sits flatter than the Rye so the typical criss-cross pattern the mowers leave on the grass will no longer be visible, resulting in a visually flatter and less textured field. That difference may impact game play at the player level in that the ball could move quicker and less impeded but it will certainly result in a different experience for viewers as the grass will look more standard across the pitch and less variant.

The other potential issue is that Mercy Health Training Center, the club’s base of operations in Milford, Ohio, does not have this particular breed of grass on either of its two grass playing fields. The training center does have the same breed of old grass that TQL Stadium used along with the interwoven hybrid carpeting that made TQL Stadium uniquely challenging to this point. While these types of field hybrid field systems are common in Europe, with several being used in the Bundesliga and France, notably Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena uses the stitching hybrid system, Litz now hypothesizes that the only Hybrid grass field of its kind in North America is now Field #2 at MHTC.

Not an ideal situation. To train on one surface all week then move to a different one for a matchday. In a sense it would be like playing an away game every week, in a grass sense. But given the circumstances surrounding the need for a new surface, the problem solving done to quickly and effectively make the changes has resulted in both an exciting change to the stadium while making adaptations that will benefit the club, its players and fans in the long run.

“There's quite a few varieties of Bermuda available on the market,” Litz added to me as I departed TQL Stadium and left him to the significant task of rebuilding the field over the next week. “We picked the one that we thought suited this particular challenge the best.”

So remember when the next generation of memories and moments happen at TQL Stadium, when a MLS Cup trophy or a Supporters’ Shield or U.S. Open Cup or Leagues Cup or even all four are lifted. When Luciano Acosta dribbles through a series of defenders before unleashing a golazo or the next time Miles Robinson slides to break-up what would be a sure goal for an opponent, remember this is where the “where” of those moments came from and how the grass was grown to support those moments.