There are many things in the sport of soccer that are taken for granted.
The clean first touch to bring down a long ball, a target forward's oft overlooked hold-up play, and the timeliness of a second half substitution (what's up, Alan Gordon?) are things that we've grown so accustomed to in MLS that we sometimes forget their integral nature to the game we love.
Then, there are the variables. The elements. Wind, rain, heat, a rock-solid ball on a rock-solid pitch when it's below freezing in Kansas City in December. That's about as bad as it gets in MLS. Though the league's nature is unpredictable in terms of the on-field product, the dependability of the field itself is usually a guarantee.
But you've all seen at least a couple of CONCACAF Champions League matches. Or World Cup Qualifiers. The game might as well be taking place on a Wal-Mart parking lot. The quality on the field suffers, players get injured, and the fans are treated to more of a rugby match than a soccer match.
It takes a lot to produce a beautiful version of the beautiful game, and it can't be done on anything less than a beautiful pitch.
The LA Galaxy are fortunate enough to play their home matches at the StubHub Center which, nine times out of ten, is in pristine condition when the team takes the field. The fact that such quality has become something of a given is attributable in no small way to Shaun Ilten, the guy who makes the StubHub Center's groundskeeping operation tick.
Shaun oversees a thirteen-man crew who are responsible for the upkeep of StubHub. Inside and out, they make sure that the stadium is ready for the fans and the players, week in and week out.
Shaun, now a member of the Sports Turf Manager Association, started as an intern at the StubHub center in 2005, and has paid his dues along his way to the top. He told LAGConfidential about his days spent "doing the types of things that nobody else wanted to." Such tasks included cleaning out drainage canals and other invisible-yet-invaluable endeavors: all of the little things that a field can't perform well without.
Even though he was less than happy about being subjected to that type of work, those kinds of jobs are what he credits with giving him the knowledge of what it takes to run a successful operation, and helped set him up for a leading role.
In this role, he's worked closely with the Galaxy to develop a method that works every week. "We talk to Bruce, we like to get his input whenever we can," says Ilten, "sometimes he'll want a little more zip on the ball, so we make the grass shorter, other times he wants it a little bit longer."
As many will remember, StubHub also served as the home of Chivas USA during their period of existence. Now that they're gone, Ilten says his job is "no less hectic" but that his ability to work closely with the Galaxy has increased.
"It was tough before, because not only am I employed by the StubHub center, but also AEG, who own the Galaxy. So it's always been a fine line when you talk about accommodating Chivas but also doing things the way that the ownership wants them done."
That close relationship has been good for the Galaxy as well, who have enjoyed a more tailored feel to their home ground. However, they're still not the only ones who use the stadium, nor is soccer the only purpose for the versatile venue.
A couple of weeks ago, StubHub hosted a concert event called Wango Tango, during which the surface of the field was subjected to quite a bit of torment. After a three-day turnaround of removing the concert equipment from the field, re-sodding, and watering, the field was ready for the next Galaxy match.
In recent years, Ilten has faced even bigger challenges. The X Games have been held at the stadium in the past, the field being converted to a motocross arena. According to Shaun, hundreds of truckloads of dirt were trucked into the stadium during a 24-hour period. Then came the hard part. Shaun outlined the attitude of his fellow workers very simply:
"June was always an interesting month... The guys knew that they would be working 18 hour days, but they knew what they were going to be doing every day and they knew they'd get a nice three or four day break at the end of it..."
Covering the field with that much dirt, coupled with the strain of a four day event, meant that the field had to be totally redone before the next match. Even though the X Games are no longer held at StubHub, the grounds crew still deals with other events and conditions, particularly the dryness and ensuing drought conditions that have plagued California.
Luckily, the StubHub Center doesn't have to worry about that. According to Shaun, "We run totally on reclaimed water, so the drought conditions haven't compromised us."
But that doesn't solve all of their water-related problems. Reclaimed water has a high concentration of salt and other impurities, so if it's not handled correctly the grounds crew could run the risk of killing the field. They combat this by leeching the impurities from the field once every three weeks. Shaun says that he'll flood the field during this time, and as the water drains, it creates a suction force that drags all of the salt and other substances down past the soil, leaving the field healthy.
It's an interesting process and a labor of love, but that's what it takes to keep the home of the LA Galaxy sparkling.
It's easy to overlook the work that goes into keeping a place like this in top shape year round. It's almost just as easy to overlook the process of building a team worthy of lifting five MLS Cups. All of the little details that get hashed out behind the scenes have to come together in perfect harmony in order to build something of the highest quality.
So does this mean that Shaun Ilten is the Bruce Arena of grounds keeping? We're not sure yet...
But there's more than one reason that the Galaxy have been consistently dominant on their home pitch.