Soccer

Gillette Stadium rolled out the grass carpet for Copa America

“It’s a sense of pride for the staff here that we’re hosting tournament games here.”

Bolivia team members gather on the field during a Copa America Centenario soccer practice in Foxborough. AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Upholding a tradition of bringing world-class international soccer to New England, Gillette Stadium is hosting three games in the Copa America Centenario, including a quarterfinal matchup. Taking the field in Foxborough for the prestigious tournament, players will be stepping out onto a grass surface.

It all represents a success for management of the New England Revolution.

“Everyone who works here wants to be associated with a global tournament such as this,” Revolution team president Brian Bilello said in a recent interview. “It’s a sense of pride for the staff here that we’re hosting tournament games here.”

The process began for Bilello and his team even before the announcement was made in May 2014 that the United States would host the 100th anniversary edition of Copa America.

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“I think I knew that the tournament was possibly taking place here,” he explained. “We had already started thinking about it from a Gillette Stadium standpoint.”

By December 2014, the stadium bidding process began. Working with other key personnel at Gillette, along with the Kraft ownership group, Bilello took the lead in trying to bring Copa America games to the Foxborough venue.

“They want to understand what the bid is and how it’s going to work,” Bilello said of the Kraft group’s involvement in the process. “Also, how it’s going to impact our partners and our fans. I’m obviously the driving force of the details, but certainly they’re engaged.”

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Gillette Stadium, like Foxboro Stadium before it, has a rich history of hosting international soccer.

In 1994, Foxboro welcomed the World Cup, hosting six matches. This culminated in a classic quarterfinal game between Italy and Spain, with the Italians winning 2-1.

In 1999, Foxboro hosted six matches of the Women’s World Cup. En route to winning the tournament, the U.S. team topped North Korea 3-0 before a crowd of over 50,000.

Since Gillette Stadium replaced Foxboro in 2002, more international soccer has been played in New England, including several different versions of the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Throughout this time, the ongoing subplot has been how stadium organizers bid to host games despite having a turf field. Turf fields have long been a point of controversy for soccer players.

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In the past, grass has been installed on top of the turf for a short period of time. As Gillette applied to host 2016 Copa America games, the temporary grass option was looked to once again.

Bilello believes that the history of U.S. venues installing grass for previous tournaments helped places like Gillette make a case to be given Copa America games:

In terms of turf vs. grass, this part of the world had to deal with that in ‘94 in a number of the venues then. So, I think the bidding parties understand that of the larger venues, the ones they want to be at, some of them do have artificial surfaces. Whether it’s us or MetLife or a couple of the other ones. So, I think they were prepared for some of the venues bidding were going to have turf, and so a good plan was needed for going grass. I think part of what made Gillette Stadium an attractive venue, and I’m hypothesizing since I’m not the one who ultimately made the decision. But I think our history of hosting international soccer here, both on grass and also in our time installing grass over turf, I’m sure played a part in ultimately getting comfortable with having games here at Gillette Stadium.

However the decision was made, Copa America officials agreed with Bilello. Gillette Stadium was a venue that they wanted to include. And after applying for games in March, 2015, word filtered down in November that the application had been approved.

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From that point, Bilello said the next priority was to ensure that crucial details were worked out. Mostly, this centered around the stadium’s most regular soccer fans: Revolution season ticket holders.

“There are definitely some things that you need to work out, particularly around our Revolution fans and what kind of access they’re going to have to tickets,” said Bilello. “Whenever we do a soccer event at the stadium, we look at it as how it benefits the soccer community in the area, and how it benefits our Revolution fans and season ticket holders.”

Ultimately, Revolution season ticket holders were included in the earliest pre-sales of tickets, ensuring that they were given the best possible chance to see Copa America when it came to their backyard.

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And thanks to the venue’s history of hosting soccer events, the transformation was a process that the stadium staff has experience with. One unique aspect of hosting Copa America will be the extensive signage and branding that will be highly visible.

“When you drive up the stadium you’ll know it’s a Copa America match,” Bilello said.

As for the possibility of Argentina possibly playing in the quarterfinal match on June 18 at Gillette Stadium? Bilello is unable to hide his enthusiasm.

“I don’t think you can really work in sports and not be a fan of the sport that you’re associated with, so the prospect of having Argentina here and Lionel Messi playing here is pretty exciting.”

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