Coolray Field might be hardly recognizable to the ballpark’s regulars in 2018.
The former Gwinnett Braves, now rebranded as the Gwinnett Stripers, are replacing the traditional red associated with the Major League Baseball parent club and some of its minor league affiliates with a color called Striper Green. The giant neon sign mounted on the side of the stadium’s office building that faces northeast toward Ga. Highway 20 is obscured by a Gwinnett Stripers banner draped over it.
In addition, on 17 days between March 24 and Oct. 13, the field will be transformed into a soccer pitch to accommodate Coolray Field’s newest tenant, United Soccer League expansion team Atlanta United 2. One of the pitch’s sidelines will be shared with the third-base/left-field line, while one goal line will run the span of the first-base line.
It’s not uncommon for USL teams to host home matches on soccer fields. The Harrisburg City Islanders, Louisville City FC, Reno 1868 FC and Tulsa Roughnecks FC all played on baseball fields in 2017. USL veterans such as second team defender A.J. Cochran don’t lose sleep over playing half of the season at Coolray, and he even suspects it could be an advantage at some points during the season.
Defender Jack Metcalf has expressed his confidence in the Coolray Field turf management staff to create a functional, level pitch that will not disrupt the natural flow of home matches.
His confidence is mirrored by Stripers Sports Turf Manager McClain Murphy — Mac, to his colleagues — who is ready to seize the novel challenge of converting the field.
“It’s different,” he said. “This is the first time we’ve ever done an outside event that wasn’t either baseball, softball or a concert. It’s a whole ‘nother dynamic, a whole ‘nother sport. I’m not familiar with it to the point I’ve never played. It’s going to be fun, though. It’s going to be unique for fans to come out, see the remnants of a baseball field and see a soccer field when they watch Atlanta United 2 play.”
ATL UTD 2 will play on 419 bermudagrass, the same grass the Stripers trample in the outfield at Coolray Field. Murphy and the turf management staff work with a Gwinnett County-based company called Precision Turf that will supply new rolls of sod for each conversion. The rolls of turf will be approximately 40 feet long and will cover any dirt on the infield, warning track and slivers of foul territory. The pitcher’s mound will be uninstalled for each ATL UTD 2 match. The mound is dug out, the hole is leveled with sand and sod is placed on top.
Turf management will grade the grass levels down to fractions of inches to accurately match the sod patches flush with the outfield grass for, ideally, a seamless a transition.
“There will be a few little differentiations from a normal, flat field — coming on the infield will be a little different — but you’re talking less than one quarter of an inch of fall, one way or another,” Murphy said.
The biggest challenge may not have revealed itself and will require a trial run to become apparent, Murphy said. Finding the precise grade could take repetition to perfect over the course of the season, but field management staff size, cooperation between the two clubs and weather are all variables that could affect the transition.
While rain would postpone or delay a Gwinnett Stripers game, ATL UTD 2 will play through any damp weather as long as the conditions aren’t deemed dangerous to players or fans. There will be no tarp to protect the infield while ATL UTD 2 plays.
“They’re going to play like normal, and the water should drain,” Murphy said. “We have a fantastic draining system, so the water should drain during that window of play. We haven’t done this before, so if it is raining during a conversion, we’ll figure it out as it comes.”
Fortunately, the Stripers’ season will not start until 13 days after ATL UTD 2’s first home match, allowing staff to ease into the first conversion. The Stripers’ schedule usually provides at least a two-day buffer before and after a scheduled ATL UTD 2 match before the baseball team requires the field to be converted. In some cases, the soccer team plays two home matches during a Stripers road trip. ATL UTD 2 is scheduled to play at Penn FC and Tampa Bay Rowdies during the International League playoffs and the Triple-A championship series if Gwinnett should advance. ATL UTD 2 closes out its regular season with seven home matches from Sept. 21 to Oct. 13.
Residents of Gwinnett County who are also MLS fans might be excited the Five Stripes brand is sprawling into the northeastern suburbs, but it’s a trek for players and management, who train and work out of the club’s training ground and offices in Marietta.
USL requires affiliates to host home matches in stadiums that seat at least 5,000 people, so sharing a stadium was essentially inevitable. Kennesaw State’s Fifth Third Bank Stadium met those seating requirements but already hosts college football, soccer and lacrosse as well as the Atlanta Blaze Major League Lacrosse team. Atlanta United management also considered establishing the Atlanta United brand in the Charleston, S.C., market, given the relationship between Atlanta United's former USL affiliate, the Charleston Battery, for the past two years.
Gwinnett County provided both proximity for athletes and better access to professional soccer under the Atlanta United brand for fans north of Atlanta in Forsyth, Hall and Habersham counties, and the precedent of field conversion in USL convinced the soccer club to settle in Lawrenceville.
“Fundamentally, it’s all about our fans,” Atlanta United VP of Business Operations Catie Griggs said. “We have thousands of season ticket holders for Atlanta United in Gwinnett County. We know when we look at the ZIP codes where our fans reside, we have a sizeable base in that area.
“We’re both (Atlanta United and Gwinnett Stripers) going to learn over the course of the season, and we’ll get stronger (and cooperate) with what makes the most sense. They’ve been good partners, and I hope we’ve been good partners.”