John Torres is not just a groundskeeper.
To Union head coach Jim Curtin, he's as important as any player. Sporting director Earnie Stewart says he sets the standard for Major League Soccer. And amidst a struggling season, the club remains confident that because of Torres, Talen Energy Stadium will always be one of the best fields in the league.
It might be hard for fans — who don't see the hours spent on the field, who don't listen to him analyzing the grass, the sod, the paint each day — to understand the importance of what Torres does.
But in soccer, the grass of the pitch is considered hallowed ground. A groundskeeper is tasked with maintaining, nurturing, and respecting the grass that defines how the ball moves for 90 minutes.
For Torres, the 9,000 square yards of grass nestled into the curve of the Delaware River are a daily passion. Through snow and rain and smothering heat, he spends each day caring for the field that the Union calls home. And he'll be the first to tell you — in a game of inches such as soccer, every inch of the field matters.
The Union builds its attack out of its backline, requiring quick cross-field passes and deft ball-handling. If the grass is long or patchy, the ball won't zip across the field, making it difficult to break down opposing defenses. Small imperfections make it easy for players to miss shots or take poor first touches, causing the game to be unpredictable and difficult to control.
A poor field throws off the game, Torres says, negatively affecting both teams. But a beautiful field means beautiful soccer.
"That's what gets me to come to work with a smile on my face," Torres said. "I never dread coming to work because I'm gonna be part of a job that means something. That's what gets me going."
It's a Wednesday, warm and sunny, and by 1 p.m. Torres is already pacing the field. Tonight, the Union faces Columbus in a rematch of a bitter road loss. The smell of fresh-cut grass is heavy as mowers rumble across the field.
Today is easy — it's summer, and his typical staff of two has been augmented by three college interns. As his team cuts the grass, rolls the patterns and paints the lines on the field, he watches and manages, inspecting each inch of the field.
"I know what soccer players want, I know what soccer coaches want," Torres said. "Being in the soccer world, I know what everybody expects. When nobody comes to me about the field, that's when we know we've done our job."
Torres is a self-described perfectionist. Ask anyone at the stadium — Stewart and Curtin, the grounds crew, the security staff, the vendors — and they'll have a story.
He's known to chase anyone who's not in a jersey off his field before games. When the stadium was opened to fans for an overnight camping event, Torres prowled through the tents, reprimanding families for dropping popcorn or rolling coolers across the grass. When a play tears up the field during a game, he'll simply turn away, unable to watch.
"He wants to make sure that every grass blade that comes up is as green as possible," Stewart said. "I love that. Passion is the most important thing in everything we do and it carries over to everything in the team."
Torres' love for the field comes from a love for the game that has been the constant for his entire life. A son of Mexican immigrants, his were eyes glued to the TV screen as he listened to Argentine announcer Andres Cantor's energetic cries of "Goooaaalll" as Mexico battled in the 1994 World Cup.
Torres played soccer with his brothers, then on high school and college teams. So after playing at Ohio's Owens Community College, he transferred to Ohio State to study turfgrass science. Along the way, he realized that soccer is played on fields that need care, and that he could turn his passion for the sport into a lifelong career.
Since then, he's never been far from soccer. He worked for the MLS' Columbus Crew SC, for high school and soccer complexes in Washington, D.C. and even for Arsenal FC in London for a summer.
Along the way, Torres met his wife, Christen Karniski, who played for the Washington Freedom. When she retired from pro soccer, Torres invited her to join his co-ed team for fun. She was a defender and he was a striker. The rest, he says, is history.
Life for Torres revolves around soccer. He competes in two leagues, playing two to three times a week on teams with his wife and friends. At home, the TV is always tuned to a game.
"Every day, if I'm not working then I'm playing," Torres said. "If I'm not playing, I'm watching it. It's soccer every day."
This passion for the game drives Torres in his day-to-day work. He keeps in touch with groundskeepers in different leagues, researching new techniques and ideas. He orders equipment from England — push mowers without wheels, traditional line stripers — to achieve a neater, cleaner cut.
Most importantly, Torres is never satisfied with "good enough." He's been with the Union for seven years, since the days when the grounds crew consisted of two people, when he wore a hard hat while mowing the field of a stadium still under construction. Through front office shake-ups and new coaching hires, his dedication to the Union has remained consistent.
"He's part of the team," Curtin said. "He wants us to win, he wants us to succeed and he takes it personal. Any little thing where he feels like he can help us, he's gonna do. He's just like any player to me."
The Union cruises to a 3-0 victory over Columbus. The team has been fitful, stagnant on offense throughout the season, but here on their home field, they look confident.
Torres watches from the sidelines. The Union has only lost two games in their stadium this season. Their home field advantage is significant, tallying six wins over the last seven home games.
Maybe it's because of the field. Maybe it's not. To Torres, it doesn't really matter.