Should MLS Care About Turf?

Football dictates the surface for some, but turf becoming more common
by Ray Marcham   |   Thursday, February 12, 2015

Major League Soccer (MLS) 2012 Season Preview

It’s the never-ending debate, one that always seems to send soccer fans spinning into arguments that seemingly never end.

No, not that one. The other one. Turf.

With Orlando City playing this season on a fake surface at the remodeled Citrus Bowl, that means five MLS clubs will have their home matches on a rug in 2015. The Florida club joins New England and the three Cascadia sides (Portland, Seattle, Vancouver) in having turf for their home pitch, at least for this season.

Of course, none of the five clubs have complete control of the surface they play on. Seattle and New England play in stadiums built for NFL clubs (though Seattle’s was also designed for soccer, as well). Vancouver shares BC Place with the CFL, though the turf that was chosen for the remodeled former dome was chosen with soccer in mind.

College football is king in Florida, but with a stadium of their own on the horizon, Orlando City likely isn’t concerned about playing their first season on turf. Besides, they control what they’ll play on in 2016.

Portland would seem to have the most control over their turf situation, as the Timbers are the primary tenant at Providence Park. But their plans to switch to a grass field in 2016 have hit a roadblock, with the stadium’s secondary tenant, Portland State University, objecting to the planned surface switch. If that can be overcome, then Providence Park could still have its first permanent grass field since 1968.

But, often, it’s the environment that helps dictate the surface, and MLS clubs have had to suffer for that. In New England, for example, Gillette Stadium had a grass field for the first four years of its existence. But after a heavy rain during the 2006 NFL season made the field a mess, the Patriots quickly installed FieldTurf. The Pats started winning, and the hope of grass returning to Foxborough, other than for a temporary basis when a big friendly is scheduled, is pretty much gone.

It’s the NFL that dictated turf for Seattle, as well, but that was an unusual path. CenturyLink Field was originally supposed to have grass, and when voters approved the stadium in 1997, a grass field was part of the deal. But when the Seahawks installed FieldTurf at the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium for when they played there in 2000-01, the team discovered that they liked the new turf, a lot. As such, the plans for grass were scrapped and the Seahawks were able to get turf installed at their new stadium.

While turf is often panned by those who think the game is more pure on a natural surface, players in many northern areas grow up playing on turf. In the Pacific Northwest (the area I’m most familiar with), many high schools play their games on turf, as do a number of club sides. Many of the clubs in the PDL Northwest Division and in other leagues also play on turf, as the facilities often available to them are those with artificial surfaces. Those with grass facilities in Cascadia are often universities (all five NCAA Division I schools in Washington state play on grass fields), large soccer complexes and small schools that can’t afford to switch to turf. But when a field is expected to be heavily used, often for more than just soccer, the more likely turf in some form will be the playing surface.

If nothing else, the artificial surfaces being played on now are much better than the horrible rugs that were common around the NASL (and even showed up on a few fields in Europe) in the 1970s and 1980s. In the Northwest, seeing games on the hard turf at the Kingdome, Civic Stadium or Empire Stadium, and all of the rug burns that eventually happened, was just part of the local soccer landscape. Many smaller stadiums in the region also had the hard turf, so soccer players often just had to deal with it. Some places in the NW even set up soccer fields that had no turf or grass, but had a sandy, clay-like surface that was supposed to soak up the rains better (often, it didn’t).

Even a temporary grass surface doesn’t always work. Seattle installed a temporary grass pitch at CenturyLink Field for the World Cup qualifier between the US and Panama in 2013 (and, as such, a Sounders-Whitecaps match), and it turned out to be quite bad. Portland used temporary grass field in the 1990s for World Cup qualifying and the Women’s World Cup, but they weren’t great, either.

Critics of turf have to realize at some point that it’s not always feasible to have grass in some spots. A number of clubs in Europe now play bon turf, and the France-USA women’s friendly on Sunday in Lorient, France was played on turf. Five of the NWSL’s stadiums and every stadium in this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada have turf. Turf is becoming more common in Mexico and Central America, where conditions and limited funds often make maintaining a grass field difficult. In most places, turf is just a common part of the game.

The turf debate will always rage. Players may prefer grass, but they’d rather play on good turf than a bad grass field. The surfaces that MLS teams play on in Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and New England (and, for this season, Orlando City) will just need to be dealt with. Grass isn’t possible in those places, as the clubs don’t control what they play on (though Portland is trying). All supporters can do is that the turf gets changed often and doesn’t detract from play, as Seattle’s field tends to do.

But, turf is always good for starting discussions and arguments. 

Ray MARCHAM

Nationality:
USA
College:
Washington State
Club Domestic:
Portland Timbers
Club Foreign:
Arsenal
Cascadia native and a fan for as long as he can remember, Ray was brought up on the old NASL. Learned to love MLS. Wanted to play like Clive Charles. Then like Tony Adams. Only dreams, of course.
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