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Reader Generated Content: Fake Field Farces

Dec 28, 2012, 8:30 AM EDT

CenturyLink Field

This is something I’ve wanted to do for some time, but for whatever reason — be it subject matter, lack of dialogue, or insufficient time — there’s never been a chance to circle back on a post and redress the discussion.

Yesterday, however, I jumped head first into an unpopular position – defending the quality of FieldTurf. Between the site and one prominent reader on Twitter, we had a number of people furthering the conversation.

And that’s really what this blogging business is all about. While we do our fair share of reporting and analysis on the site, the backbone of ProSoccerTalk is people like Steve, Noah, and myself adding what little views we can to discussions that started elsewhere. Be it on long standing debates, the significance of transfers, or giving a story an extra layer of context, the mandate underlying our work is to bring the soccer world to you.

Yesterday, I built on Grant Wahl’s reporting on Pacific Northwest qualifiers by making the case for FieldTurf. The basic thesis: FieldTurf should not be exclusionary criteria for hosting important matches. Synthetic surfaces may never be as ideal as pristine sod (perhaps a debate for another time), but a good instance of the turf will beat a lot of grass fields.

You guys had your say. Here’s a selection of the comments along with my latest attempts to kick the can:

… this conversation is not a problem in many countries today. Russia has consciously used artificial turfs for Euro qualifiers and their opponents have not made a stink about it. Why does the USSF work to thwart the optimal turf for the stadium? Their reasoning is not persuasive.

– “corgster”

This might be the part of the debate I find most disturbing. No, just because other countries use fake turf doesn’t mean we have to do the same, especially when (in most places) we have the economic capability of maintaining a sod fields. But the only other place in the world where you find such disproportionate, unjustified (and frankly, paranoid) opinion on fake fields is England. And I’m always wary of instances where U.S. soccer culture blindly inherits from England (see style of play limitations).

Every pro player, (lets say this again, EVERY PRO PLAYER), that speaks on the subject says field turf makes their bodies hurt more, requires longer recovery, and produces unpredictable bounces and plays different than a good grass field …

– “donjuego”

The first sentence is an exaggeration. Based on my first hand experience covering the league, it’s nowhere close to true. Many players harbor apprehensions about playing on synthetic fields, but it’s nowhere close to “Every.”

Or “EVERY.”

But we can’t ignore the fact that a lot of player opinions may be products of the same biases that have led the new, perfectly playable synthetics to be stigmatize. It’s an attitude that’s carried over from the time of artificial turf – the thin green carpet, usually used with only a thin pad separating it from concrete, that sacrificed more than one player’s career for economic considerations.

While those lingering healthy concerns are understable, they’re also antiquated. Nobody plays on artificial turf anymore (even Olympic Stadium in Montreal replaced their AstroTurf last decade).

It’s true that players always prefer grass, but it’s an exaggeration to say every player “speaks” out on the subject. For some, FieldTurf is a non-issue, if suboptimal.

On a good FieldTurf pitch, none of the qualities the reader lists are necessarily true.

Sure, Field Turf is better than a crappy, hard grass field like I played on in high school. But there is no comparison between Field Turf and a high quality field like any grass field USSF chose would be.

– “creek0512:

A high quality grass field under ideal conditions will always be preferable to turf. However, there are times when conditions are less than ideal.

– “arbeck”

I just think if fake turf were actually, truly fine then many more would be playing on it Simple. It’s not about conspiracies or whiny, Luddite players.

– “scottp11″

This range of comments underscores what should be the guiding principle as it concerns any pitch. Fields don’t exist in a real versus fake, good versus bad duality. They fall on a spectrum from completely unplayable to perfect conditions. And if we’re judging purely on playability and discard our clichéd maxims derived from the days of artificial turf, the best fake pitches are going to fall closer to the right end of that spectrum that some perfectly good grass fields.

But I suspect we’re still a generation away from the bias dissipating. It’s going to take a new generation of players growing up exposed to FieldTurf for the most vehement opposition to be drowned out. By then, some different viewpoints will have crept into decision making seats at U.S. Soccer.

Last but not least, an interaction I had on Twitter yesterday with a Major League Soccer player. As with all things Twitter, it took a while for us to establish our places in the conversation, but as you can see, new San Jose Earthquakes defender Dan Gargan and I ended up with similar (if obviously differentiated) positions:

source:

source:

To be certain, almost every player favors natural grass. But that’s not really the point. As Gargan says, ideally Jeld-Wen and all fields would be grass, but when they’re not, they can still be acceptable. And while being merely acceptable might not be enough to win a World Cup qualifier over other venues, it shouldn’t preclude a site from consideration.

There may be other factors taken into consideration. And that’s why this whole Pacific Northwest-thing keeps coming up. Seattle can move 70,000 tickets for an important qualifier. And Portland can produce an unmatchable atmosphere. If it weren’t for the perceived value of those qualities, this discussion would be pointless. Instead, coming to grips with the benign reality of FieldTurf could actually benefit U.S. Soccer.

Attitudes toward artificial surfaces aren’t going to change any time soon. But the debate we’re having right now (beyond this site)? Where people seem to be juxtaposing the visage of an idyllic grass field against the old turf at Veterans Stadium? It’s farcical.

  1. dfstell - Dec 28, 2012 at 8:43 AM

    I hear you on starting a debate. I do some of my own blogging and there’s nothing more rewarding than when the conversation spins beyond the original post like this one did. It’s a moment when you feel justified in doing what you do and makes up for all those “zero comment” posts. :)

    But, related to this…..I think the fact that we have so many good grass fields is the most compelling reason not to bother with these artificial fields. I mean…..we only need 5 fields for the qualifiers, right?

    Heck…..put a Gold Cup game up there this summer and see what people say. I know it’s a B-list tournament this summer, but that’s where to start. But a B-List game up there and see what the players candidly say and by that, don’t shove a microphone in their face after the game. US Soccer should come around to them afterwards and see what they say in private.

    • charliej11 - Dec 28, 2012 at 10:49 AM

      No need to put the B tourney up here, I already say no before hand and would vote with my pocketbook.

      Seattle should have a qualifier. Period. Work out the details USSF and let me know.

  2. charliej11 - Dec 28, 2012 at 10:58 AM

    Interesting that Dan G says 99/100 percent of the players agree.
    But he grew up in Philly ( I looked it up ), so maybe he just didn’t grow up with the turf fields ( bad turf back then ) and is making assumptions.

    In the end it is ALWAYS about the money and Seattle will get their qualifier.

    The Pros of Seattle having the best soccer stadium in the world, a great fan base and overall tone of they should be hosting one
    versus
    The Con of Seattle field turf……………..becomes irrelevant.

  3. ndnut - Dec 28, 2012 at 11:03 AM

    With the constant rain in Seattle I think that a grass pitch would be waterlogged and the turf is much more practical because of its performance in those all too common situations.

    • arbeck - Dec 28, 2012 at 11:26 AM

      It’s not the constant rain that’s a real problem with the grass. There’s a list of problems with trying to do grass at Century Link. Rain is an issue, but where as most places get a pretty normal amount of rain each month; our rain is highly variable. We had zero precipitation from early July until early October this year. This means that you need a significant irrigation system in place to water the grass during the summer months. But then October through March we average nearly 4 inches of rain a month with November and December getting nearly 6 inches each. So you also need a very high quality drainage system. Plus the playing surface is actually below sea level which makes drainage highly complicated.

      Then there is the problem with light. Seattle is very far North. We are significantly North of other cities thought of as Northern like Boston or Minneapolis. What this means is that our light during the winter is very limited. We have less than nine hours of daylight during the winter. Plus we usually have significant cloud cover even during the day. They would have to install some sort of grow lighting system to make sure the grass would do ok. Here is the picture from one at the Emirates in London (http://www.flickr.com/photos/10833852@N02/2620940258/). I can’t imagine it would be cheap.

      Thirdly, although we are generally mild we do get cold snaps and snow at times so you’d also have to install heating elements to make sure the ground doesn’t freeze. Not hard to do in and of itself but when combined with the other problems it’s just one more thing that needs to be factored in.

      Finally there is the problem of use. This year two football teams played their home games there besides the Sounders. One other team played an exhibition there. Next year there will be two college games, plus the Seahawks home games, plus the Sounders, plus various high school games, concerts, and graduations. That’s a lot of punishment for a surface to take.

      Field Turf is not a perfect option, but sometimes it’s the best option.

      • dhagentj - Dec 28, 2012 at 4:33 PM

        One additional light issue;
        The north-south alignment of the field, combined with the roof that covers… 60%? of the seats, means that even if conditions are perfect, the grass is only going to get a handful of hours of sunlight each day.

      • genebrooklyn - Dec 28, 2012 at 6:06 PM

        I will buy the penultimate paragraph—heavy use and expense—which are perfectly reasonable rationales for the use of Field Turf.

        The rest is bogus and something we always hear from the Pacific Northwest. The playing surface at CenturyLink is 17 feet above sea level (Seattle is not New Orleans) and similar to that of Red Bull Arena or Citifield in NY/NJ and they are perfectly capable of growing grass. Seattle is 47 degrees north while London is 51 and Glasgow is 55 north and I have been led to believe somewhat cloudy, but somehow they can grow grass without grow lights (notwithstanding Emirates). And lo and behold it can freeze and grass is not killed (they do have heating though to prevent a hard slick surface for soccer (but American football lives without that in much colder places and MLS does not play through the winter). And amazingly Eugene is the home of the largest collection of turf farms in the world.

        Just admit it is the expense and leave it at that perfectly legitimate rationale.

  4. buckyball77 - Dec 28, 2012 at 11:35 AM

    I think that in both Seattle and Portland, the major reason for the FieldTurf is not the soccer usage but the pointyball field usage. In both cities, the use of the field by American football is mandated, either by ownership or city lease requirement. In neither city is the facility a pure soccer venue for the MLS team.

    With our current MLS season mostly in the driest months of the NW, if it was just about waterlogged fields, some advanced (probably costly) drainage systems would do the trick for the problem shoulder months.

    So, the venue economic model really drives the choice, not the November thru March rainfall.

    • corgster - Dec 29, 2012 at 1:03 AM

      Another myth: American football use it why there is artificial turf.

      There are times when just soccer use is enough to destroy the field under the conditions found in Portland and Seattle. In the 1960s then Civic Stadium in Portland adopted astro turf, the carpet on concrete kind. Let me reiterate: in 1960! Baseball was about the only sport using the stadium regularly at that time. PSU football did not play there and of course there was no professional soccer team yet. Baseball is hardly intensive use of the field. Portland’s stadium adopted the field early because even with just a baseball team the field was absolute junk. Talk to real old timers around here and the field condition varied from muddy to very muddy.

      You may come back that we’ve improved field maintenance. Yes, but you can’t change topography or the urban setting. Lack of sun cannot easily be cured with heat lamps either because no one has yet to tell me where they will stores those suckers. You may not realize that Jeld-Wen is built into a hill side. A mere 10-40 feet below everyone’s feet is a steep slope of rock. It’s not hallow under there for any lamp storage, only a few locker rooms, equipment and concessions storage. And if you’ll install a drainage system, I’d reckon the field would need to be raised several feet to get some distance from the diverted creek only 7 feet below field level.

      It wasn’t about pointy ball. It was about all other uses that could be had with the grass gone.

      • buckyball77 - Dec 29, 2012 at 3:50 PM

        I would bet that in 1960 the economic siren song of zero field maintenance sales pitch swayed the decision to go Astroturf in Civic Stadium. Buy an expensive outdoor carpet; put it over an asphalt pad and, aside from an occasional vacuuming by a small grounds crew, ignore it for the next 7-10 years. Plus back then teams bought in to the “it’s just as good for the players” – until player careers started shortening or ending abruptly.

        Ameri-football tears up a field when it’s most vulnerable – fall and winter. Like rugby, the action is always a lot of large men churning up the earth as they strain against each other. So the damage is disproportionate.

        I think that current field design has made natural turf more viable. And, compare Jeld-Wen to Euro venues. It’s at the same lattitude as northern Italy. Lots of grass pitches above that line! Most soccer-specific stadia in Europe are urban, and are stacked very vertically with stands right to the touch line. The same light issues that the J-W has.

        It’s really a question of the economic will to make grass work in the NW. MLS soccer is still a second tier pro sport so the coffers aren’t overflowing like with the NFL. It’s a cost-benefit decision.

      • corgster - Dec 29, 2012 at 10:36 PM

        Slow down there.

        Did you try to compare the latitudes of Northern Italy to North America’s latitudes? Stockholm is hundreds of miles north of Minnesota, but Minnesota is much colder. When they landed in Virginia in 1607 they thought the winters would be like Spain’s. And they died in great numbers because of it.

        You didn’t answer the problems that still exist with trying to grow grass in Portland’s stadium, namely growing the grass and drainage. Money be damned.

  5. tylerbetts - Dec 28, 2012 at 12:44 PM

    I recognize that Soccer and (American) Football are two very different sports. However … the whole debate reminds me of when Ohio Stadium replaced their playing surface with Field Turf.

    Because of the changing weather/climate, and because of the number of games/events, the grass field just stopped being sustainable. Even with changing it out, it wasn’t setting properly.

    And, it took a while and much gnashing of teeth for people to realize there was almost no detriment to the Field Turf. This is not astroturf. This is not the turf of the 70’s that was a torn ACL, a broken ankle, and three concussions waiting to happen. This is much better. I’ve played on field turf. It’s wonderful, even for amatuers. But, hey, don’t take my word for it. Let me quote Jim Tressel (again, noting that soccer is a different game, but I think this point holds solid): “With FieldTurf, there’s never any question of playability”

    To me, the reason people complain about turf and don’t want to use it in major events is that they had a bad experience with it a long time ago and can’t accept/realize that it has changed and advanced. They remind me of someone who tried an Apple computer 20 years ago, and won’t buy a Mac today because they didn’t like the Apple IIe.

  6. Dan Haug - Dec 28, 2012 at 1:03 PM

    I have a problem with the way you’ve framed this entire discussion.
    1) You start by calling the debate a “farce” and then, when you get challenged on that, you admit that, all things being equal, virtually every player would prefer not to play on an artificial surface. In other words, you either, a) deliberately distorted the nature of the discussion, or b) honestly believed that the discussion itself was farcical, and saw the error in your ways.

    Bottom line is, when you see managers making decision not to play “fragile” or “brittle” players (players that are older, or coming off of injury). On these surfaces even though it could cost them a win, you know that there is still a problem with these surfaces. When you have Duane DeRosario publicly criticizing Toronto for the surface they play on, you know there is still a problem.

    So here’s the crux of the issue. If we schedule a qualifier in Seattle, and Klinsman comes into the match with a Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley, and/or Clint Dempsey coming off of an injury, is he going to feel that he cannot put that guy on the field because of the surface?

    If the answer to that question is “Yes”, then we should not be scheduling qualifiers in those venues.

    • Richard Farley - Dec 28, 2012 at 1:37 PM

      The farce of the discussion is the distortion of FieldTurf. I can both believe that the discussion is based on a fallacy and acknowledge the truth of player’s positions. There’s no inconsistency in that.

      RE: the rest of your comment, that adequately reframes the need for this discussion, but (as evidenced in my posts), I don’t think biases lingering from the AstroTurf era should go unchallenged when plenty of players have no problem playing on FieldTurf.

      • scottp11 - Dec 28, 2012 at 3:05 PM

        The last comment of the article is a bit of a poor metaphor, tongue-in-cheek or not. Nobody with a reasonable bone in their body (or with an actual, real say in it) compares or lets the stigma of a Veterans Stadium AstroTurf to that of the new age FieldTurf obstruct their view or opinion. There’s just no way, no how. So that is an embellishment.

        Agreed, the article and discussion ran around a bit and I’m just confused about how it’s been presented now.

        Saying that since players (many) who simply don’t speak up about pros/cons of Turf indicates that it must not be all that bad and therefore doesn’t bother them is incorrect. Lack of vocalizing opinion does not give the green light. People largely didn’t vocalize about Hitler and the Nazis either, until it was way out of hand. Does that mean everyone was ok with it? No.

        There’s an embellished metaphor. lol, oh boy.

      • Dan Haug - Dec 28, 2012 at 6:00 PM

        While you do talk about assessing the quality of surfaces on a case-by-case basis in your original post, to me this is the salient quote:

        “Unfortunately, as this debate regarding Portland and Seattle has evolved, nobody has ever paused to note this is not an actual issue. The complaints of “fake grass”or “artificial turf” are farcical when you walk Jeld-Wen Field and see how games are played. Seattle’s turf used to be a source of player complaints, but this year’s version was much improved. There’s nothing wrong with Portland or Seattle’s fields.”

        That’s a pretty strong statement that has been pretty clearly refuted in your discussion with Dan Gargan, comments on the post, and this subsequent post. There IS something wrong with the fields in Portland and/or Seattle. The question is whether or not that “something wrong” is outweighed by things that are “right” about those venues. But then again, that discussion is not a farce.

        If you are claiming that an argument stating AstroTurf = FiledTurf is a farce, I think you’re making a straw man argument unless you can point to people who are actually makiong that argument.

        (Sorry for going on about this… promise to let it go now) :)

      • Richard Farley - Dec 28, 2012 at 6:26 PM

        Except for the fact Dan Gargan called Jeld-Wen’s field acceptable?

      • Richard Farley - Dec 28, 2012 at 6:32 PM

        I think the structure of the Veterans Stadium sentence speaks for itself. In the same way nobody talks about “an idyllic grass field,” nobody talks about Veterans Stadium as the standard. It’s essentially figurative language used to illustrate opposite ends of a hypothetical spectrum.

  7. seaskipt - Dec 28, 2012 at 2:15 PM

    I’d first like to address donjuego’s comment that top players do not like to play on Field Turf. A quote from FieldTurf’s website state- “Elite clubs that play/practice on FieldTurf:
    FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, Mancester United, AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus” I find it hard to believe these clubs would use FieldTurf practice fields if it was creating additional wear and tear on their world class players.

    Sure grass fields are preferrable, but Field Turf is better than some alternatives. Here is my order of preference to watch games on. Players may disagree, but I think this is best for style of play and player’s health.
    1. Solid grass pitch
    2. Field turf
    3. Torn up/inconsitent grass- A&A or other Central American Fields
    4. Temporary grass

  8. valiantdraws - Dec 28, 2012 at 2:24 PM

    As long as the Sounders play at Century Link, they will never have a grass pitch. The multi-use nature of the stadium prevents it, and frankly, Field Turf is a decent trade off.

    Both Portland and Seattle have similar issues, not just with usage, but drainage, sun, etc. In that sense, the Field Turf is almost like a condition of the geography, much like synthetic fields in cold European climates. It’s just a part of living in that region. Vancouver has the same situation, not the least of which is because their stadium is quite enclosed, even when the roof is retracted.

    My concern about grass in multi-use facilities also centers on a rather shallow line of thinking, but one that is REALLY relevant to the growth of the sport in North America: Gridiron lines.

    Seattle and Portland (and Vancouver for the CFL, I believe) can scrub theirs, and leave only soccer lines, and vice versa. I would assume that this might be hard on the surface, or at least, hard in a way that would be quite rough on grass. And gridiron lines are absolutely DETRIMENTAL to the growth of soccer here. It looks bad, it looks bush league, it looks like a joke, it looks like no one cares. It’s embarrassing. It’s ugly. It’s unprofessional. And I would rather covert EVERY soccer facility in the states to synthetic turf than have to deal with one more field with gridiron lines (or running tracks, for that matter).

    Anyway…I know that didn’t have much to do with WC qualifiers. Just adding my own ramblings.

    • scottp11 - Dec 28, 2012 at 3:08 PM

      I was always confused a bit about the Sounders deal at CenturyLink. Thinking back, the MLS had begun to more-or-less mandate the “soccer specific” stadiums. In Portland, they redid PGE/Jeld-Wen solely for soccer. But why did the Sounders get a pass on it?

      Now, obviously, there’s not too much wrong with the Sounders’ current situation! With fans, support, success, etc. But why did not force their hand for a new stadium?

      • dhagentj - Dec 28, 2012 at 4:37 PM

        I think it was because there was free rent, plus the promise that the attendance was going to far outstrip any building they could build themselves.

      • David Josef Clark - Dec 28, 2012 at 7:10 PM

        Because CenturyLink Field was built on day one to host soccer. From simple things like actually being wide enough, to a slightly different angle on the seats than other NFL stadiums, to actually requiring a waiver from the NFL due to the lack of the crown it is a soccer stadium.

        To pretend that other MLS stadia are Soccer Specific/Only ignores that they all host other events. You mentioned Portland, where they host a local college. It is the same in Houston. In Dallas they host high school football. The Home Depot Center hosts XGames and other events. Others host rugby.

  9. speedsterofbeantown - Dec 28, 2012 at 4:20 PM

    For me it’s pretty simple. Real grass, although more high maintenance, is a very natural way to play the game. To me it is like trying to make a golf course turf. Yeah, it’s probably playable, but it is so unnatural and takes away from a game.

    Now the argument to not have a World Cup Qualifier on turf is farce, especially in March when the natural pitch might not be ready. But I do still think that natural grass is always the best alternative, and in a country that seems to love luxury, is it too much to ask for that luxury?

  10. mrtuktoyaktuk - Dec 29, 2012 at 10:08 AM

    Surprising that no one has mentioned (maybe I missed it) the one example where a team had FieldTurf and switched to natural grass – Toronto FC. In that case it was a combination of factors – one, the FT wore out much quicker than spec’ed due to 7 day a week use between TFC and community access required by the stadium agreement. The cost to MLSE to replace the first FT carpet was $750K. The second reason was players didn’t like it and TFC lost prospective signings due to having it (Darren Huckerby for sure, others as well). Neither reason alone would have pressed MLSE to spend the money to switch, but both together did it.

    • mrtuktoyaktuk - Dec 29, 2012 at 10:13 AM

      More – while TFC had FT, there a stance voiced by some that FT offered a competitive advantage to TFC at BMO Field due to home familiarity with it and the favorable home record, especially in 2008, was used as evidence. I wonder if this perception plays into the argument.

      • valiantdraws - Dec 30, 2012 at 10:29 PM

        Toronto also managed to make it so that the community at large no longer had access to the stadium, meaning Toronto FC games were the primary use of the stadium through the year. Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver do NOT have that option at all. Those stadiums are shared with gridiron teams, as well as myriad other events. BMO field doesn’t host concerts much at all, because there are already NUMEROUS other venues of comparable size that are more commonly used, not the least of which is Exhibition Place a few steps away.

        It’s not just the cost, it’s the upkeep. Which can be astronomical.

  11. thiagodaluz7 - Mar 22, 2013 at 4:44 PM

    Huh, not athlete should blame his environment. Neighborhood kids play on the asphalt in Seattle, heck even adults. And they do some damn good plays on it. Real men don’t need “good turf”, because a good athlete is able to overcome more obstacles than just the other team. They can best the environment!

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