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FIFA goes to college to study how to grow grass indoors for the 2026 men’s World Cup

World soccer's governing body has hired a University of Tennessee professor to lead research on a subject that's much more complicated than it looks on TV.

SoFi Stadium in suburban Los Angeles is one of eight stadiums set to host 2026 men's World Cup games that currently has artificial turf. MLS brought in temporary grass for a soccer exhibition in August.
SoFi Stadium in suburban Los Angeles is one of eight stadiums set to host 2026 men's World Cup games that currently has artificial turf. MLS brought in temporary grass for a soccer exhibition in August.Read morePatrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images

As the bidding to host 2026 men’s World Cup games reached its climax, one of the many questions out there had to do with stadiums’ playing surfaces.

Eight of the 16 venues chosen to host games have artificial turf fields. Would players have to play on them, as infamously happened at the 2015 women’s World Cup? Or would temporary grass surfaces be installed, with their own major risks if the installations aren’t done well?

The answer always was going to be the latter, and it didn’t take long to make that official. But this is not a subject for short-term thinking. It takes some time to grow the grass, build the installation system, and put it all together — as happened in 1994, with Giants Stadium in northern New Jersey and the Silverdome near Detroit.

This time, the challenge will be even bigger, and not just because there are more stadiums. Four have retractable roofs (Atlanta, suburban Dallas, Houston, and Vancouver). Three turf venues are fully outdoors (north Jersey, suburban Boston, and Seattle), but one of those climates is not like the others. And one (suburban Los Angeles) is open-air but has a translucent roof and no climate control.

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To tackle all of this, FIFA has turned to a University of Tennessee professor with considerable experience in the world’s and America’s forms of football. World soccer’s governing body hired John Sorochan to lead researchers at Tennessee and Michigan State who will work on growing grasses in different conditions at 4,000-square-foot facilities on each campus.

It isn’t a coincidence that Sorochan has teamed up with Michigan State. He did undergraduate work on the Silverdome project, then earned a Ph.D. at Michigan State in 2002 under longtime professor John N. “Trey” Rogers — the man who led the Silverdome crew.

Sorochan has worked with big Spanish clubs Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, and Athletic Bilbao, and counts FIFA’s head of pitch management Alan Ferguson as a close acquaintance. When it comes to American sports, Sorochan is a field inspector for the NFL Players Association and an adviser to field managers across Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer.

When Ferguson reached out on FIFA’s behalf about 2026, Sorochan said, “it was a no-brainer to get the band back together.”

Watching grass grow

The science of growing grass might sound like — well, you can guess the cliché. But when players step inside the white lines, it will matter a lot.

In Qatar, all eight stadiums had the same kind of grass. That isn’t possible for 2026, when games will stretch across Canada, the U.S., and Mexico.

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“We can’t have Bermuda grass in Toronto, and they can’t have Kentucky bluegrass in Miami at sea level,” Sorochan told The Inquirer. “And then we’ve got five indoor stadiums that we have to also contend with, and then Mexico City at 9,000 feet [altitude].”

FIFA has tasked Sorochan’s team with helping to “identify the grass types and playing surfaces and conditions … that are going to play as homogeneously as possible,” he said.

“So the ball is going to bounce the same,” he continued, “[and] the footing is going to feel as close to the same for players that play on a different kind of grass versus another. And then how to keep grass alive indoors for 12 weeks, potentially, in some of these domed stadiums.”

The five retractable-roof venues are “our biggest challenge and our biggest focus,” Sorochan said. He believes it could end up being easier to have them keep their roofs closed for the duration because that consistency would be better than dealing with changes in weather such as pop-up thunderstorms. He also noted that not all of the roofs open to expose the whole field to sunlight, with Atlanta the prime example.

This makes the 12-week window that Sorochan mentioned a key factor. A separate source with knowledge of the situation said FIFA wants to have the venues cleared of all other events two months before the World Cup kicks off. That might not be possible in Atlanta, suburban Boston, Seattle, and Vancouver, where the stadiums host Major League Soccer teams.

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No one knows yet what MLS will do with its 2026 schedule, Sorochan included. But he knows he has to draw up plans for a lot of potential scenarios — including for practice facilities that currently have turf and will need grass installed to match their local stadiums.

What it really means

“The longer, the better, so we can get [the grass] to establish and be in place,” he said. “But the technologies today, with the sod drawn on plastic, capabilities that we didn’t have back in, say, ‘94 — sod that we can move in with a hybrid reinforced system for instance. You can come in and retro[fit] a field pretty quick and in a matter of time, just have it knit together on the seam lines, and it’s not going to lift up or go anywhere.”

If the idea of growing grass on top of plastic sounds unusual, Sorochan understands.

“It matures faster on top of the plastic,” he said. “And we can control the soil profile that it’s being grown in.”

The “hybrid reinforced system” that Sorochan referred to is one widely used across Europe: grass with artificial turf stitched beneath it, on top of a sand base that helps with drainage.

“They’ve got a giant sewing machine that comes in and stitches artificial fibers,” he said. “They go in, they go six inches down and stick up about three quarters of an inch above the surface, three-quarters to one inch — just below the height of cut [of the natural grass]. … It acts like rebar and stabilizes the surface.”

That’s why these days, you rarely see one of soccer’s classic old sights: a big mud patch in a six-yard box formed by players tromping on it all day.

“You don’t get the bird bath,” as Sorochan put it. “You still get a nice surface, but it plays like grass and it just keeps it a little bit firmer and more stable surface.”

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Sorochan said there are hundreds of hybrid-field stadiums across world soccer, including much of England’s Premier League. But they’re rare in the United States because they limit how many other things you can have at a stadium — especially concerts.

Put a concert stage over grass for a few days, and the grass dies. Do that to a hybrid surface, and it needs a lot more repair work than just replacing a swath of sod.

Praise for the Eagles

Sorochan knew his audience when he gave an example: the Eagles’ director of grounds, Tony Leonard.

“In Philly, Tony Leonard will come in and after a game on a Sunday night, rip it out, and it’d be ready again for next weekend,” he said. “For Temple, even, on Saturday.”

The Eagles had a hybrid surface for a few years, as did the Denver Broncos, but they got rid of them. Now the only NFL stadium with a hybrid surface is Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, which usually hosts only one big non-Packers event per year. This year, it was the first soccer game on the summer tundra, Manchester City vs. Bayern Munich on July 23.

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As great as the Linc’s grass is, the Eagles still will have to do some work to have the stadium ready for the World Cup. Sorochan said the closest venue to being fully ready on field-level terms is Toronto’s BMO Field, which still has a big project coming to expand its seating capacity.

For Sorochan and grounds crews across the continent, there’s a lot of work to do. But the motivation is easy.

“We’re going to provide evidence-based research,” he said, “to identify the best system to provide the highest-quality surface for World Cup events, whether it’s for a game or practice.”