Though less than twenty-five years old, Los Angeles Galaxy is the best-known soccer franchise in the USA. The signing of David Beckham in 2007 catapulted the club onto the global stage and a conveyer belt of big-name players have followed since. This 'star-centred' business model has brought success both on and off the field. But, behind the LA glitz and glamour, there is a vital element to this prosperity - the groundskeeper and his crew. The team behind 'The Team'. ALS Technical Sales Area Manager Mark Allen travelled to the LA suburb of Carson to meet Shaun Ilten, the man responsible for the highest profile soccer surface in North America.
ALS Technical Sales Area Manager Mark Allen (right) is greeted by Shaun Ilten
As a first-time visitor to the USA, I'd prepared myself for the fact that everything was going to be 'BIG'. With hindsight, I had no comprehension of just how big 'BIG' could get.
I realised things were on another level as we landed at Los Angeles airport. Gawping out of the aeroplane window at the sprawling city below, I spotted another aircraft landing parallel to ourselves, within what felt like touching distance. Why have one runway, when you can have a pair? Or, in fact, four parallel runways, with eight possible approaches. It was time to redefine my idea of what 'BIG' meant.
And 'looking down on LA' is an appropriate analogy from an Englishman as, since the very first wave of British players migrated to the USA in the 1970s, we have always metaphorically looked down on 'soccer' played across the pond.
Major League Soccer (MLS) has frequently been dismissed as a retirement home for ageing European superstars and, to make matters worse, we tend to believe that they don't even play on 'real turf'. It's fair to say that us Brits can be quite snobbish about the things we hold dear - and playing football (not soccer) on real grass (not artificial plastic) most definitely falls into this category.
Yet, are our long-held stereotypes a reflection of the truth or are they just a series of common myths? I'm here representing Pitchcare.com to gain a true insight. Is the quality of the game worthy of the hype that surrounds it, and are the quality of the playing surfaces worthy of the players that the big money can attract?
It's often said about the NFL Super Bowl that the TV adverts are better than the game. Having spent the previous evening watching the showpiece final, I concur. As much as I want to like Gridiron, the game just leaves me cold. English football, on the other hand, still has the capacity to enthral, inspire and disappoint me in equal measure - even after thirty years of playing and watching the sport. Visiting an English football stadium still gives me a buzz of excitement and, even on a non-match day, I marvel at the sense of atmosphere that four empty stands and a green pitch can create. And now here I am in America, with the opportunity to explore another iconic venue - the home of the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Dignity Health Sports Park
Dignity Health Sports Park is a fifty hectare site on the campus of California State University in the suburb of Carson. It is important to realise that LA is not really a city in itself, it is a county that encompasses approximately eighty cities within its boundaries. Once again, BIG!
The suburb of Carson is fourteen miles from downtown LA and has a population of 90,000 people - that's the equivalent of a place the size of Barnsley or Stevenage.
I arrive at the stadium on a drizzly Monday morning in February (that's right, drizzle. In LA, where it hardly ever rains) and, walking towards the entrance, I consider those who have come before me. Over the last decade, a sizable contingent of British footballers have made their way up the imposing boulevard to the 'Dignity Health Care Sports Park'.
The site houses an 8,000-seat tennis stadium, a 5,000-seat facility for track & field and a 2,450-seat indoor velodrome for track cycling. The jewel in the crown, however, is the 27,000-capacity stadium - a light and modern arena that has been purpose built for soccer, though currently also hosts the Los Angeles Chargers American Football franchise, who are awaiting completion of their own swanky new home in nearby Inglewood.
Amusingly, the ground has endured three name changes in the last seven years, having originally opened as the 'Home Depot Centre' in 2003, before a rebrand as the 'StubHub Centre' in 2013. On January 1st 2019, it was renamed once more by 'Dignity Health', a company that operates hospitals in the USA. I say amusingly as, given the furore that often surrounds stadium naming rights in the UK, there appears very little fuss about the constantly changing moniker. Perhaps, as a young sport, there is less of the historical burden which can hinder British clubs, or maybe the US soccer fan is simply less romantic about the whole concept of their club. In the greatest meritocracy in the world, monetising your assets is probably considered a sensible way to fund your ambition.
Shaun Ilten, Director of Turf & Grounds
I'd heard from colleagues in the turf trade that Shaun Ilten was an approachable, hospitable guy and, sure enough, he doesn't disappoint when we meet. From the moment we shake hands, he keeps me (and my travelling companion) engaged and entertained.
Yet, as nice an individual as Shaun is, I quickly realise that there must be more in his locker than just being a great fella. To have progressed from a summer intern to the position of Director of Turf & Grounds by the age of twenty-seven, he clearly possesses an array of skills - not least, drive and determination to succeed. He also needs to be very good at growing grass because, let's be blunt, a business strategy that centres around attracting huge global superstars can't function properly if the most important tool of the trade (the pitch) is not up to scratch.
Zlatan Ibrahimović was reported to have refused a $100m offer from China in order to take a $1.5m-per-year offer from the Galaxy, and an elite standard grass pitch was very much part of that decision-making process. David Beckham also turned out to be a 'natural grass' advocate during his time in the MLS - famously telling reporters in 2007 that "every team should have grass, without a doubt,"
I begin by asking Shaun, just what an impact the arrival of Beckham had, both on the club and on his eighteen-man agronomy department?
"Quite simply, it was a game changer; both for the Galaxy and for the MLS in general. Even before Beckham, our standards were pretty high, but once he came in everything got magnified"
'Game changer' David Beckham with his statue - the first to be erected on the Legends Plaza
I question whether having such a figure in the ranks bought extra stresses, not least, the constant demand to produce a safe, fair, aesthetically pleasing surface every time the team took to the field?
"Not at all. I mean, we'd do all that stuff anyway. In fact, I would often approach David for his opinions, as he'd played on most of the best pitches in the world. Having access to a guy like that was brilliant for me and, despite soccer and its infrastructure being quite new over here, he never once criticised the surface the whole time he played for us".
Talking as we walk and regaling us with stories of soccer royalty, Shaun leads the way through the bowels of the enormous stadium and out onto the pitch.
What greets us is an expanse of turf that has been in place for only three days, having just received its close season renovation. Surprisingly, this had been a re-turf (or 're-sod' to use the local vernacular) rather than a new seed establishment and, more intriguingly, one of Shaun's guys is traversing the length of the pitch with what can only be described as a 'heavy roller'. Coming from the UK, where anything weightier than a human is rarely allowed upon a stadium pitch, this is quite a shock. Shaun must have sensed my surprise and immediately explains the reasoning behind the process:
"The NFL season finished at the very end of December and the first soccer friendly kicks off at the beginning of February. As much as I would love to establish a pitch from seed, the timescales just don't allow it"
"We re-sodded three days ago and the soccer boys kick off in seven days' time. I appreciate that a two-tonne roller isn't text book but, in my current situation ... well, I've just got to get this field flat. Aerification and decompaction can come later"
It's a fair point. Sometimes, unconventional thinking provides the greatest solution plus, this being Shaun's umpteenth renovation cycle, it's fair to assume that he knows what he is doing.
A surprising sight - a 2-tonne roller / The LA Galaxy pitch marked out for football
Standing on the newly turfed pitch, it's clear that the sward structure differs slightly from what we are used to seeing back in Blighty. Here in California, the sun loving 'Bermuda grass' is the go-to species, as it grows easily, roots deeply and is tolerant of most soil types. It also recovers quickly from damage and responds well to feed and water. It sounds ideal; and it is. In fact, the only issue comes when the weather turns cooler and cloudy. That's when the addition of some Ryegrass is required to provide additional strength and quality to the mix.
Having endured drought conditions during 2018 back in the UK, I ask Shaun about the water situation over here.
"Despite an almost constant drought problem in Los Angeles, we are not restricted in the amount of water we can apply. We irrigate the stadium pitch and all nine training fields with reclaimed water, which is piped in from a treatment plant ten miles away at El Segundo".
Whilst appreciative of the freedom to run the irrigation system without limits, the quality of this recycled or 'dirty water' is not necessarily of the highest standard. This can bring its own problems.
"All of the junk that's in recycled water - the high sodium, high nitrates, high bicarbonates - makes it really challenging to keep the grass alive. Plus, with very limited rainfall, I'm not getting the acid rainfall to flush that stuff out."
However, the upside of using reclaimed water is a reduced requirement for artificial fertiliser applications:
"Yeah, we don't go as heavy on the fertilisation as the British stadium guys" smiles Mr Ilten.
At the mention of the British guys, I'm keen to know if Shaun has any links to the UK network of groundsmen?
"Absolutely. I really value the relationships that I have been able to foster with the UK stadium guys, and not just those based in Great Britain. Paul Burgess of Real Madrid, for example, has been a massive help to me over the last seven or eight years. Paul has been here several times, and I have been lucky enough to visit the Bernabeu stadium. I genuinely value that professional connection"
With the rain starting to fall more heavily at this point (what did Shaun say about the constant drought problem?), we move back inside. Looking around at the maintenance equipment area, you would be hard pressed to tell much difference between the Galaxy and a top end UK stadium ... except it's BIGGER, obviously!
The kit on display is all fairly standard gear - including SGL lighting rigs, an Air2G2 machine, Dennis G860 pedestrian mowers and a number of Graco spray linemarkers. Clearly, it's not only the UK groundsmen that have had an influence on Shaun. Many of the leading figures from the European Sales and Manufacturing sector have also assisted with raising the standard of pitch preparation in the USA.
With dual sports usage on the stadium pitch, I ask Shaun if he is more a soccer man or an NFL fan?
"I'll be honest, before working at the Galaxy, I had no interest in soccer whatsoever. The game here was still very much in its infancy and I'd grown up following the NFL from a kid"
"In truth, even now, watching soccer for me is all about observing how the ball rolls, what cuts up, that kind of thing. But I would say that the standard of play in the MLS is getting better every year and I think we are doing a great job of shaking off the 'retirement home' label"
As the song goes; 'it never rains in California'
This is a key point. Ten years ago, the game needed 'stars' in order to gain a foothold on the sporting landscape - especially in a BIG country with lots of sports competing for an audience. Today, it feels like the hard work creating interest and demand has been done. Attendances continue to grow, and they are now seeing talented homegrown players moving through the ranks. The fact that these players are now given the very best 'real grass' surfaces on which to compete, would suggest that the British portrait of the MLS is years out of date.
Having discussed various demanding aspects of life at the Galaxy, I'm intrigued to know what is the biggest challenge of all for Shaun and his crew?
"I'd say it's the MLS season as a whole, especially when, as a multi-use facility, we get concerts scheduled mid-season."
I pause to consider what I've just heard, then repeat the words back to him. "Concerts? Mid season?"
"Yes!" he laughs. "It's not ideal, but it's something we've adapted to. Mind you, the Coldplay gig was a real stamina test!"
The Coldplay gig, to which he refers, was a full-on stadium show on July 18th 2009. Two days later on July 20th 2009, the Galaxy hosted Millan in an International friendly. "That was a hell of a shift" he shudders.
As we come towards the end of the interview, I ask Shaun, if he could meet his sixteen year old self, what single piece of advice would he give?
"Don't become a groundskeeper!" he laughs. "It's not so much a job, more of an affliction! The days are long, the work is hard, but honestly, my ethos has always been 'find something you love to do, and you'll be just fine'."
As we say our goodbyes and pause for a few souvenir photos, I very much get the impression that Shaun is a square peg in a square hole - a Southern Californian boy who has found his calling in life and goes about his high-pressured work in a convivial, unflappable way.
The stadium pitch he presides over has to withstand the full gamut of multi-use - soccer, gridiron, concerts - and often all around the same time of the year. In order to cope with that, he genuinely needs to believe his own ethos - or to broaden things slightly, the sapience of another revered American, Mark Twain, which goes:
"Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life."
And, regardless of whether you are a soccer player, a groundskeeper or just a writer that gets excited about visiting stadiums, who could possibly argue with wisdom like that?