The Albuquerque Isotopes are not the only team playing at Isotopes Park this season — as they now share their stomping grounds with New Mexico United, the new professional soccer team. That means the 16 year-old stadium will undergo transformation from a baseball field to a soccer pitch 17 times for the United home matches.
Peter Trevisani, New Mexico United’s Owner, President and CEO said he had no doubt Isotopes Park was to be the rightful host for the team’s inaugural season.
“Before we were awarded the franchise we needed a place to play, and on my mind the only place to really do that was at Isotopes Park,” Trevisani said. “It is a phenomenal park, it is the only professional park we have in New Mexico, and it is a good one at that,”
A comparison of both team schedules shows there are eight occurrences where the groundskeeping crew has only two or three days to convert the field from soccer to baseball or vice-versa.
That’s a challenge for Clint Belau, the Head Groundskeeper at Isotopes Park.
“They have all gone really well. Players and coaches, everybody has been really happy with how the field plays” Belau said.
Belau joined the organization in 2013 as a stadium operations assistant working under long-time head groundskeeper Casey Griffin. Since 2017, he has been the man in charge.
Belau is no stranger to grooming a high-level baseball field. In 2018, Belau received a Presidential Commendation from the Pacific Coast League for his exempletory work in sports turf management.
But Belau admits to having no experience with soccer field maintenance.
Field requirements are complex. Not only must Belau comply with MLB/Triple-A regulations — he must also implement the standards of The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and USL Championship.
“They come in, tear down the mound, bring sod to fill in the infield and some of the foul lines to get the pitch size that we need, which is FIFA and U.S soccer regulations. It is pretty much hands off for us,” Powers said.
The specific requirements pertain to field surface, field markings, length and width of the pitch, goal size, goal area, penalty area, penalty mark, penalty arc and more according to the 228-page FIFA Laws of the Game.
Isotopes Park is owned by the City of Albuquerque. The baseball team are tenants with a 25-year lease that began when the stadium was opened. The newest tenants, New Mexico United, are leasing the stadium from the Albuquerque Isotopes as a sub-tenant.
The four-way relationship between the City of Albuquerque, NM United, Isotopes and Mountain West Golfscapes is responsible for the smooth transition of merging two sports realms into one stadium.
According to Belau, a field conversion from baseball to soccer takes about 18 hours of labor. The pitcher’s mound — which stands at 10 inches in height — is transformed first since the process takes about an hour. Then, three-quarters of an inch of dirt from the diamond is removed so that the sod grass will sit completely flat. Once the laborers have a flat surface, they begin to lay out the sod and make the appropriate cuts in order to fit the shape of a USL regulated pitch.
On the following day, Belau and his assistant will add the goal posts, create the associated soccer lines, and paint them on the field.
Once the soccer action is over, the groundskeeping crew removes all soccer evidence from the field including the sod grass, which can be reused in public places and recreation areas around the city.
Amanda Powers, New Mexico United’s Chief Operations Officer is in charge of the logistical aspects of the team. When New Mexico United chose Isotopes Park as their home field, they knew a field conversion had to be done for every game, and it would not be cheap.
“That was a big risk, which meant more money, so we have to fill that park. When we did not have a brand last year or anything like that, you only hope and pray that you can pack that whole stadium with 10,000 people,” Powers said.
Fortunately, the team has been phenomenally successful with fans. After 3 home games for New Mexico United, the attendance was among the highest in the league. The team also set a record in the USL Championship as the expansion team with the longest undefeated streak, with 7 games unbeaten.
Powers wouldn’t reveal the exact cost of transforming the field, but Belau said it isn’t cheap.
“The estimates that we got when we were looking into it, were anywhere from $10,000 to $55,000, for each field transformation,” Belau said.
Long range, the soccer team hopes to eventually have a home of their own.
“We needed to bring the team here, take a chance, get in Isotopes Park,” Trevisani said. “Then, given that the crowds that we have seen, a couple sellouts averaging over ten-thousand people per game in our first four games, I don’t think that is going to slow down. I think that sends a signal that we can support a larger stadium, and now we are going to go out and get one.’’
New Mexico United is undefeated in their first four home matches. Overall, they have a single loss. Their next home game will be May 5th– Cinco de Mayo– against San Antonio.