ST. PETERSBURG — Rowdies midfielder Shane Hill shuffled his feet along the freshly laid Celebration Bermuda grass during the team's first training session on the new pitch Thursday at Al Lang Stadium.
Confidently planting his left foot into the week-old sod, Hill rolled a pass to Bulgarian striker Georgi Hristov, who turned and fired a shot at the goal.
Of particular importance, the pass didn't hop on its path to the forward or skip over Hristov's foot at the last second. The ball stayed along the ground throughout, an unlikely outcome during the spring.
Since moving to Al Lang before the start of the 2011 season, the Rowdies played on arguably the worst grass field in the North American Soccer League. There were divots and unexplained dips and rises where the outfield grass met the sod-covered infield at the converted baseball stadium.
"The old field was difficult because when the ball was rolling, we didn't know if it would stay true or bounce up, so we had to concentrate all the way," Hill said. "The pitch wasn't level. It was kind of uphill in the second half, or the first half, whichever way we were shooting."
In short, the field was unsuitable to the brand of soccer the Rowdies wished to play: a fluid style emphasizing quick passing on the ground over lobbing passes to areas of open space.
"I don't like to criticize the conditions of the terrain anytime, but this past first part of the season has been the worst we've experienced at Al Lang since we've been there," Rowdies coach Ricky Hill said.
"When the field's very hard, very bouncy, very fast, it's difficult to play that kind of controlled game, and it's easier just to play balls into areas and support from behind."
Following the final match of the spring season, a 3-3 draw against spring champion Minnesota United on June 7, the Rowdies went to work replacing the oft-criticized pitch, tearing out the old grass the next day and getting rid of the old soil. The following week, the field was laser graded and leveled, and an updated soccer-specific sprinkler system was installed.
Last week, the new turf was laid on the field in 48-inch rolls of thick cut Celebration Bermuda grass, a process that took four days. The field was lengthened by 7 yards and widened by a yard, making the dimensions 112 by 71 yards.
The Rowdies will get a chance to try out their new pitch in a pair of friendlies before the start of the NASL fall season on July 12. The first comes in the annual Fourth of July meeting against cross-state rival Fort Lauderdale. The Strikers ended the spring with 13 points, while the Rowdies had 10.
"I'm sure if you ask anybody on the team, they'll tell you the most important thing in soccer is the field," Hristov said.
"The ball is mostly on the ground, unlike other sports in America. We'll work with even more confidence and excitement, and we're looking forward for our first games on this beautiful field."
On Sunday, the Rowdies host Orlando City, a team in the USL Pro league — the third division in the U.S. soccer pyramid — that has beaten the Rowdies five consecutive times. Orlando City will move to Major League Soccer in 2015.
"We need to get positive results, and that means victories as opposed to draws," Ricky Hill said. "A draw isn't a terrible result, but a victory makes you feel so much better. We've got to get into that winning habit … from day one, whether they're friendlies or not."