John Stier’s portable turf helped make World Cup history

When John Stier watches World Cup soccer or any other match, he generally keeps one eye on the game and the other on the grass. It’s what you’d expect from a lifelong fan who also leads one of the nation’s top turfgrass research programs.

But in 1993, in the biggest game of his life, he didn’t care about the score. What mattered was the reaction of officials from the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the governing body of world soccer. They had come to Detroit’s Pontiac Silverdome to inspect the world’s first portable soccer field, which Stier and a colleague at Michigan State University had spent two years developing.

The stakes were high. If the grass did well, Detroit would win its bid to be a host city for the 1994 World Cup, the biggest event in the world’s most popular sport. If not, the Motor City could kiss the World Cup goodbye.

“We joked to ourselves that if the field failed, we’d have to go overseas and hide,” recalls Stier, now a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of horticulture.

They had faced two big obstacles. One was learning how to grow grass indoors under low light. The other was making the field portable, to accommodate other events scheduled between the soccer matches.

The latter part raised eyebrows on the FIFA team. They arrived at the Silverdome expecting to see the field, but instead saw the stage for a Paul McCartney concert. The “field” was sitting outside: 1,900 hexagonal aluminum trays, each containing about 50 square feet of grass.

“They were shocked,” Stier recalls. “But we moved the field into the stadium on flatbed trucks, and it worked great.” That summer the field stood up to a grueling match between England and Germany for the 1993 U.S. Cup, as well as to play by the U.S. women’s soccer team and others. The next year, the U.S. played Switzerland there in the first indoor game in World Cup history. Three more World Cup games followed.

The field’s moments of glory were fleeting. At the end of the summer, it was dismantled. The metal was sold for scrap, while the grass was used to sod a soccer field in the Detroit area. But its legacy lives on. Today, a number of arenas around the world use portable fields. Some employ the modular technology that Stier helped design. Others move in one piece — like the Arizona Cardinals football field, which rolls on tracks.

The Silverdome field also helped propel Stier into a career in turfgrass research and education. He frequently fields questions from athletic field managers from around the world, and usually the answers are close at hand. In 1993, he recalls, that wasn’t the case.

“Nothing about that project was obvious,” he says. “We poured blood, sweat and tears into that project for two years. We were flying by the seat of our pants.”