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Getting BMO Field ready for World Cup’s six matches in Toronto

Artificial turf fibres help natural surface cope with wear

July 5, 2024  By  Mike Jiggens


Grow lights help the turf at BMO Field break dormancy earlier to ensure the playing surface is ready for early spring play. Photo: MIKE JIGGENS

Canada is one of three host countries for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, and both Toronto and Vancouver are gearing up for soccer’s premier event. The quadrennial tournament will also be played at venues in the United States and Mexico.

Of the 104 matches scheduled for the World Cup, 13 will be played on Canadian soil. Seven games will be played at Vancouver’s B.C. Place while six matches are slated for Toronto’s BMO Field.

Robert Heggie, head groundskeeper at BMO Field, outlined the necessary preparations being made for the event during February’s Ontario Turfgrass Symposium in Guelph.

FIFA (Federation internationale de football association) demands field conditions and set-up at its host facilities are strictly adhered to in advance of the tournament to ensure playability is consistent from one venue to another. Foremost among its policies is that all games must be played on natural turf.

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BMO Field has a hybrid playing surface, but its 95 per cent natural turf complies with FIFA regulations. In 2019, artificial turf fibres were stitched into the field to reduce the number of divots and produce a more consistent playing surface. The fibres account for only five per cent of the entire surface and are barely visible.

Heggie said at the time the hybrid system was introduced, it was still unclear that Toronto would serve as one of the host venues for the World Cup. 

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The lion’s share of games at the 2026 World Cup – 78 of the 104 matches – will be played in the United States at 11 different venues. Games in Mexico will be played at three different sites. Participating teams will experience playing on both cool and warm-season grasses. 

Heggie said having two types of grasses is irrelevant as long as ball roll remains consistent from one type to the other.

Like golf, a Stimpmeter-like device is used to measure soccer ball roll. Ball bounce is also measured with a computerized mechanism inside the ball. Measurements are taken from the moment the ball hits the ground and then bounces again. Ball roll and bounce measurements at BMO Field comply with FIFA regulations, Heggie said.

Transitioning to natural grass
BMO Field, which is home to both Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC and the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts, has been a suitable venue for the World Cup for several years. Built in 2006 along Toronto’s lakeshore, the original 20,000-seat stadium opened the following year and featured an artificial turf surface that was replaced with permanent natural grass a few years later. The transition to natural grass was prompted by the FC club’s desire to attract elite players who preferred playing on a natural surface. In 2009, a “friendly” match was played at BMO Field between the FC club and Real Madrid – a premier European team that wished to play on natural turf. 

A temporary natural grass covering was installed atop the artificial turf to accommodate the match.

To avoid further transitions and to provide the home team players with its preferred surface type, a decision was made to remove the artificial turf in 2009 and replace it with natural grass.

“There are challenges with growing grass in Toronto,” Heggie said. “When you’re trying to recover grass for the winter and maintain grass quality through the summer and shoulder seasons, there’s a lot of investment that needs to go with that.”

BMO Field was originally owned by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan before it was sold to the city in 2010 and became managed by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. Heggie said the transaction was the best thing to happen for the field’s future. It freed up money for the necessary upkeep of the field’s ongoing conditioning as a natural grass venue, especially when the Toronto FC’s home opener was sometimes played in February with the season continuing into December.

To keep natural turf alive and able to cope with the rigours of play outside of the typical growing season, Heggie convinced the city to invest in the necessary infrastructure. A glycol heating system controls soil temperatures through conductive heat and allows turf to break dormancy earlier in the spring and later in the fall. 

The system was installed between layers of stone and 12 inches of USGA-specification sand. Four two-million-BTU boilers generate the necessary heat, yet only two are usually fired up at a time. Heggie feeds such information as root zone temperatures into a computer, allowing the system to regulate flow, heat and valve position to achieve the ideal temperature the plant requires.

Drainage and aeration
A SubAir system was installed in 2010 that allows surface water to be sucked in without waiting for natural drainage to occur. If the field is aerated and is soft enough, suction can be applied to the lines to pull water through the soil profile, allowing percolation. When the system isn’t being used for suction, it can be pressurized, allowing air to blow through the profile and aerate the root zone without the need to pull cores and disturb the surface.

Robert Heggie, head groundskeeper at BMO Field in Toronto. Photo: Robert Heggie

“It allows me to aerate my field without actually aerating my field and disturbing ball roll and disturbing play.”

Drainage lines are situated below the heating system lines, enabling air to be blown through the heat and the 12 inches of sand. When the field is tarped, a microclimate is created by trapping the heat.

“If the plant isn’t too confused why my roots are nine (degrees Celsius) and why the air is four and why the sun is 11 hours, everything we do is going against the evolution of the plant.”

Heggie said that when the heating system is activated, the plant wakes up but has limited carbohydrates and reserves to get through spring before it starts carb-loading again.

“If I start burning the candle too quickly on this end, I might not get to that point where it can start recovering itself. It’s a little bit of a balance pushing it hard enough but not burning the plant out because grow lights won’t necessarily recover those carbs in February or March.”

BMO Field’s grow lights, which Heggie quipped are Toronto Hydro’s “best friend,” was another major aspect of the city’s investment into the property. The field has nine large grow light rigs and six smaller rigs which can bathe about 65 per cent of the field in artificial light and heat.

Field preparations are especially challenging during late winter and early spring. Tarps are removed when it might be minus five degrees Celsius, yet the grass is mowed and fed even though it’s freezing and re-tarped. 

“So, it’s one step forward, two steps back, one step forward, two steps back. I can turn it green, but it doesn’t mean I can grow roots. It doesn’t mean I can carb load and doesn’t mean I can have a healthy plant.”

Other challenges
Heggie has dealt with other challenges since BMO Field’s conversion to natural turf. The NHL’s Centennial Classic game was played on the field in January 2017, allowing less than two months of remedial work to be done to have the field ready for the FC’s home opener in March. Resodding of the field was required following the hockey game at a time of year when sodding isn’t traditionally done. A year later, snow that had covered the tarp was itself encased in ice following a storm. Heggie said if it wasn’t for the infrastructure beneath the surface, it likely would have led to an unsuccessful recovery.

Season preparations include fraize mowing with different teeth and the removal of 15 per cent of the field’s organic matter at a time. About 60 per cent of the field’s organic matter was removed last year and it was hoped 90 per cent will be offed this year, Heggie said.

“If you can remove 60 to 90 per cent of the organic matter off the top of the surface every year and not have that clog up my system, I get to start winning.”

He said the process also helps to “flick” back up the artificial turf fibres which tend to sink into the soil from cleated foot traffic during play.

Traditional aeration isn’t done at BMO Field for fear of damaging the sub-surface array of infrastructure tubing. Heggie said even the stitching in of the artificial turf fibres, which was completed over the course of eight days and 24 hours a day, “gave me a heart attack with every movement.”

Heggie and the other head groundskeepers for the 2026 World Cup had spent time in Qatar – site of the 2022 World Cup – to get a first-hand look at field set-up and other pre-tournament considerations.


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