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Michigan State looks to create perfect soccer grass for 2026 men’s World Cup

Harvey Rouleau

It’s a big-time project, making sure the playing turf in 16 stadiums across North America will be at peak for the World Cup.

EAST LANSING – The most-watched worldwide sports event, soccer’s World Cup, is coming to North America in 2026. FIFA awarded the men’s version of the tournament to be played in 16 different cities across the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Unfortunately, and quite obviously, mid-Michigan is not lucky enough to be one of the areas that will host matches. But, the Lansing area and more specifically, Michigan State, will be involved in an even more exclusive way then the host cities themselves.

At the start of 2023, FIFA announced the University of Tennessee and MSU as the groups tasked with providing the grass for the 2026 World Cup. It’s a daunting assignment, but also a showing of confidence in the two universities’ reputations in turfgrass conception and management.

The leaders on this project from both Tennessee and Michigan State have a past together from the 1994 World Cup - the last time the tournament was in the U.S.

“Dr. John Sorochan and Dr. John Stier got this opportunity with FIFA. Stier and Sorochan were both involved in the 1994 World Cup when they were PhD students for Dr. Trey Rodgers of Michigan State. Fast-forward to now FIFA reaches out to Sorochan and also asked Rodgers if he would be interested, so that is how we got involved in this,” Ryan Bearss said.

Bearss is a MSU research assistant, PhD student and a part of the World Cup turfgrass project team. His main job is to be readily helpful wherever and whenever necessary.

“(My job) Making sure things are where the team needs them, when they need it. Helping them put out their trials. Maintaining all of the trials once they have been put into the ground. At least, help maintain wherever possible,” Bearss said.

The project team is led by long-time MSU turfgrass management professor, Dr. John ‘Trey’ Rodgers. Graduate Research Assistant Jackie Guevara is also playing a major role for the project team.

This years-long process seemingly got a bit easier after the MSU Board of Trustees voted to build an indoor testing facility for the team to help their research. The vote came in early February of this year and construction on the FIFA-funded facility should be up and running by mid-late summer. The sooner the better, as research and finalization of the project takes years to complete from start to finish.

“Typically, the methods to get answers must be run consecutively for two years, sometimes even 2-3 years. We are basically piece-mailing each of our objectives. Sub-air components, the seeding ratio, the best species (of grass). We have been doing these for the past two years. Once we have the perfect method, Sod-on-plastic actually takes about 6-8 months to establish, and then it can be harvested. Once it is harvested, you are looking at installation in one of these stadiums as quick as one day,” Bearss said.

Sod-on-plastic is a method of grass-growing that ensures toughness and strength in the grass which makes a safer playing surface for athletes on the field.

The best example of the capabilities of sod grown on plastic is the iconic Rose Bowl. The stadium has a long, historic past of hosting the most prestigious college football bowl game. But, it is also well known for its strong and safe field, thanks to sod on plastic.

The Rose Bowl has been a beacon of proof for using sod on plastic playing surfaces but for the MSU research team on this project, a trip to the Middle East late last year gave them more insight.

Bearss and a few others traveled to Qatar before the 2022 World Cup began to learn more about the fields, what went into them and the process in its totality.

“We went to see the trials and tribulations they had with the research and give us an idea of what we were going to be facing. Things like a sub-air irrigation system, a vacuum-ventilation system that goes below the grass. How the species and plants were established,” Bearss said.

FIFA invited the group to specifically understand the systems that they want implemented into their playing surfaces. Perhaps, the most important part of that experience was understanding the biggest challenge they face for 2026: distance.

“The biggest takeaway for us was the giant difference in footprint size. We have a 3,500 mile travel distance between Mexico City (the most southern host city) and Vancouver. In Qatar it was only about 75 km (roughly 46 miles). This raises questions of how we will achieve uniformity and consistency given we have such a northern climate like Vancouver and such a warm-season climate like Guadalaraja, Monterrey and Mexico City (Mexico). We are facing a very different beast from what was faced in Qatar. Not to say they did not have their own challenges. But it was more of a perspective check for us,” Bearss said.

This is a challenge the teams at Michigan State and Tennessee are facing that the outside world does not see. It is also extremely new, with little research behind it because of the sheer size of North America and the distance between host cities.

Harvey Rouleau

Every four years the World Cup is in a new country. All of the other countries that have ever hosted a World Cup are nowhere close to the size of the United States, even in the case of Russia. The Russians hosted the World Cup in 2018 and although Russia by land mass is the only country bigger than the United States, it still did not face this challenge. The farthest distance between two stadiums was less than 2,000 miles away and one of them was not even in mainland Russia.

The difference in climates and environments is a part of the distance challenge and ensuring that playing conditions are at the highest quality possible.

Guevara’s role is important, as she is working on finding the best combination of grass species for the different areas based on climate.

“In the southern climate, these (fields) are likely going to be Bermuda grass, that is a warm-season grass. The northern climates will be Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass. (Jackie) is working on finding the cool-season species’ blend (best seeding ratio). For example, what is the most amount of Kentucky blue grass we can use and least amount of perennial ryegrass,” Bearss said.

Bearss discussed an upcoming trip the team is taking to Mexico City. The trip is centered around trying to grow Kentucky bluegrass because of the high elevation in the mountains of Mexico City.

The sooner the team identifies the best possible blend of grass species, the easier it is to continue with the sod on plastic growth method.

The science behind the process of making turfgrass for playing surfaces is extensive. On top of that is something that never stops evolving as scientific technology advances and becomes more prominent.

It is one of the things that makes this project most interesting. The mass amount of field that must be made in order to complete these stadiums is unlike anything these research teams have undergone.

Dr. Rodgers told the State News, “We did the project for the ‘94 World Cup, we’ve done a couple of the Olympics where we’ve built fields. But we haven’t done anything quite this large.”

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