Keeping up with the Crew
The Columbus Crew hold their own story in the history of Major League Soccer. As MLS’ first franchise, its evolution has mirrored the league’s, and on and off the field, it's been a case of keeping up with the Crew.
Opening in 1999, Historic Crew Stadium was the United States' first purpose-built professional soccer arena, signalling the league's development. Many teams have followed in building their own soccer-specific stadium, but the Crew haven’t stood still.
The possibility of relocation loomed over the franchise, but in 2019, Dee and Jimmy Haslam, Whitney and JW Johnson and long-time team physician Dr. Pete Edwards received operating rights of the club and made their intentions known with investment.
In 2021, the 20,371 capacity Lower.com Field and the renovation of OhioHealth Performance Center (OHPC), connected to Historic Crew Stadium, ushered in a new era for the two-time MLS Cup winners.
For nine years, Head Groundskeeper at OHPC, Andrew Northeim, has been part of the Crew’s journey and seen the transition to best-in-class facilities. When he joined in 2014 after graduating from The Ohio State University with a Bachelor’s of Science, Andrew worked at both facilities and gained valuable knowledge before taking his current role in 2018.
The development of OHPC was an opportunity to gain field construction experience and, with the positive backing of the new owners, embrace the best field technology the industry had to offer.
"When we were initially brought in on the build and heard that SubAir and hydronic heating was included, it was a pretty big thing," Andrew explains. "Knowing that our ownership was willing to invest in the facilities and fields was a big step.
"At our old training facility, we barely had drainage. It was clay soil with maybe a couple of inches of sand on top, and anytime it rained, we had puddles across the fields, which we called bird baths.
"So, getting 10 inches of sand for our soil system was great, but having the SubAir and hydronic heating on top of that was the icing on the cake."
Having these technologies in two of the three and a half fields is one thing, but controlling and monitoring them is another. After being introduced to Soil Scout and all it would do for the groundskeeping team, Andrew quickly utilised them across the site.
"Over the years being in groundskeeping, my biggest positive is that I'm not afraid to try anything new technology or equipment based. I love the latest technology, trying it out, seeing what I like, and seeing if there is anything bigger and better out there.
"Seeing what Soil Scout could do with SubAir and our hydronic heating was eye-opening – how they control and automate those systems together seamlessly, while watching the data, moisture and soil temperatures from wherever you are is a game changer.
"Once I looked into it, I saw Soil Scout isn't a new technology, it's a technology that keeps improving, and more and more people are realising it's a benefit to groundskeepers across the globe like it has been in agriculture.
"We have SubAir in two of our training fields, but we have three and a half grass fields. After about six months, I quickly realised that I needed to get more Soil Scouts in the other fields. We were given 36 sensors from the original build, and we’re currently on our way to 60+.
"The sensors are just as valuable on the fields without SubAir, because we can see which fields don't dry out as quickly. They need their inputs at different times, and with Soil Scout in them, we can measure that and prevent waste."
Subtle differences have become easier to spot for Andrew. Noticing when pitches are beginning to dry out is one, but watering that area separately without concern for the rest of the field and saving water is the real benefit.
By using the Soil Scout cloud, he has streamlined his view of the pitches. A glance can reveal any variabilities in soil moisture or temperature, whilst looking a little deeper reveals short and long-term trends.
The placement of the sensors drives this information. Andrew is already working at multiple depths of three and six inches, but a successful trial of the new Soil Scout dual sensor has shown him how that process will be enhanced further.
"Multiple depths are significant for us because that is what runs the hydronic heating," he explains. "It goes off of the three-inch average soil temperature. If that drops below a half degree, then the heating kicks in.
"You have to rely on those to run the system, and we have no issues with that. It's an awesome technology to have once you have it and know how reliable it is."
Time doesn't stand still in MLS for long. Superstars such as David Beckham come as players and return as club owners, and the league's stature grows to attract this generation's greatest player, Lionel Messi.
Matching the pace of change is imperative so you're not left behind, but in the Crew, MLS has a team setting the pace from a grounds perspective, which Andrew thinks benefits the league.
"Being in this league for nine years, it has grown immensely. Just being on the groundskeeping side, you see all of the new facilities and teams coming in, building new stadiums and training fields, and putting in the right technologies for those fields.
"I think that goes a long way from the groundskeeping side in improving the league for the long term. It's been crazy from where we've come from at our old training fields and even our old stadium.
"Our old stadium was great, other teams loved coming here, but it was just a sand-based system that hadn't been replaced since 2006. So it was a 14-year-old field we did what we could with, and going from that to having all this, it shows there's a lot of new technology in the groundskeeping world that will help us become even better.
"Ours was the first stadium built, and we were the first team in the league. Now we have our second stadium and OHPC, so I'd say Columbus Crew knows you have to keep growing with the league."
Words by Blair Ferguson | Pictures by Drew Horton © Columbus Crew
This feature was first published in ’Sensor’ the magazine of Soil Scout, to read the article in full please click the magazine cover below.