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‘Turf’ in the Pacific Northwest: The spectrum of MLS’s three Cascadia venues

Sep 25, 2013, 4:50 PM EST

turf Getty Images

Thierry Henry isn’t going to play this weekend against Seattle. Jamison Olave’s hamstrings are likely to take a pass, too, but that’s no big surprise. While it’s easy to say this weekend’s is a huge game and Henry should suck it up, he’s never played in Seattle. And ultimately, this is just a regular season game. You can’t both have a playoff system and claim the regular season matches are huge. If Henry and his doctors are concerned certain chronic issues are more likely to flare up at CenturyLink, then he shouldn’t risk his health for a regular season match. It’s just one of 34.

Where this issue becomes particularly interesting is when you compare Seattle’s FieldTurf surface to that of their rivals. Portland brags about their turf, perhaps rightly so, as there’s an obvious difference between it and CenturyLink’s. Timbers owner Merritt Paulson enjoys telling the anecdote about how notorious turf critic David Beckham eventually conceded JELD-WEN’s surface is not bad; both he and Henry choose (chose) to play in Portland.

[MORE: Thierry Henry likely to miss New York’s big clash at Seattle.]

Contrast that with Vancouver, which may compete with New England as the league’s worst. But whereas the Revolution’s is FieldTurf struggles with issues distinct from other FieldTurf instances, BC Place uses LigaTurf, a product of the German company PolyTan. In previous posts, I’ve equated it to felt on a pool table, a distortion intended to convey how slick the surface is (and how hard the slab is underneath). No field in Major League Soccer sees balls roll or bounce as much as Vancouver’s, a potentially huge advantage based on familiarity alone.

source:

The Portland Timbers announced in May that JELD-WEN Field’s surface has received FIFA recommended 2-Star status for the third straight year, one of two fields in the U.S. to earn that distinction.

If you were to put them on a spectrum of worst to best (or, to use the Arena range, “disasters” to ‘whatever, I guess’), Vancouver would lie at the far left. You don’t have to go very far to hear complaints. Seattle’s is less criticized but still draws Henry-esque caution, while Portland’s main criticism’s along the lines of “well, it’s still turf.”

[MORE: Bruce Arena calls artificial turf “disasters”]

Across all venues, recovery time’s going to be an issue, a reason why you’ll see any number of veterans skip Cascadia calls (even in Portland). Late in the season, when players are worn down, it’s not worth the risk.

And the games obviously play different, as Mikael Silvestre found out when a high bounce on JELD-WEN’s surface saw him caught out in his MLS debut. And as anybody who even rolls a ball at B.C. Place finds out, games are going play much faster in Vancouver.

But not all turf is the same. Across Cascadia even, there are drastic, important differences – distinctions so pronounced, the blanket term “turf” has almost no value.

  1. charliej11 - Sep 25, 2013 at 5:12 PM

    What a troll comment:

    You can’t both have a playoff system and claim the regular season matches are huge

    Ummm tell that to almost every time in MLS right now that might miss the playoffs…including NY a few weeks ago.

    • Richard Farley - Sep 25, 2013 at 5:33 PM

      Obviously “huge” is a relative term. A game b/w 5th and 6th place terms is huge to those teams, but in the broader scheme – when talking about the benefits of a season+playoff scheme (a debate the pasted comment prompts) – it’s certainly not “huge.”

      But I can see why others would disagree with that, and I totally see their point(s). What I can’t understand is such a rude response. Seems “troll comment” is a bit disproportionate, if not outright inappropriate.

      But to each their own. I just thought that was particularly rude; hence, this comment.

      • cvo105 - Sep 26, 2013 at 11:50 AM

        If NYRB finish 2 points behind Seattle for SS, and either don’t make it to Finals (to get a CCL spot) or have to go back to Seattle for the MLS Cup, then yes, this match is huge.

        I realize this is tangential to your article, but still am surprised by all of the backlash the playoff system gets, not for how it’s setup, but that it even exists at all, from U.S. uberfans (i.e. those with less tact than yourself). I find it much more exciting then “Oooh, we’re in 8th-12th…again.” Pro/rel is soooo boring, and getting excited about saving oneself from the drop is, well, pitiful and depressing, not exciting.

      • Richard Farley - Sep 26, 2013 at 2:47 PM

        I have no preferences either way. It’s all interesting to me. I like the MLS system, a lot. I also like a one-table, one-tournament model as well as the split-season approaches. They’re all interesting, to me.

        However, when you see a W4vE5 matchup in last year’s MLS Cup finals, it’s a reminder that the regular season only holds so much significance. And it’s not like it’s uncommon for a low regular season finisher to to well in the MLS playoffs, of late.

        The mere fact Petke’s willing to rest his two best players speaks to the underlying significance of the regular season. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We’ll have a great postseason tournament as part of the trade off.

        We don’t have to treat ever aspect of MLS as precious any more than we have to find huge significance in the distinction between 12th and 13th in the Premier League. Some will say the prize money between those two places makes battle meaningful. Nobody believes this. It’s just a counterpoint for the purpose of debate.

        We don’t have to get so sensitive about everything MLS, people. If one coach is willing to rest his two best players in a late season, battle of conference leaders because of turf concerns, it probably says a lot about the significance of that game. And again: That’s okay. But just because you want it to be a “huge” game doesn’t make it so …

        Particularly (as two people have done here) if you’re going to be rude about engaging the debate.

        “Huge” is a relative term. One man’s titanic battle is another’s ho-hum. Petke seems to be approaching this as somewhere in the middle. Dempsey and Donovan were spared from last year’s LA-Seattle game. Not sure what other evidence we need.

      • talgrath - Sep 26, 2013 at 7:27 PM

        Last year was an anomaly though, usually the MLS cup involves at least one of the top seeds. MLS started seeding teams in 2005, all but two of those seasons have seen an MLS cup featuring at least one of the top two seeds. Three of those MLS cups have been between the top two seeded teams of their conference. In a league where parity isn’t just a buzz word, where a single win might be the difference between 1st seed and 4th, that is pretty statistically significant. As a note, if the Sounders took the Supporters Shield, two of the teams that won the Supporters Shield in that time since seeding began have won it all; 6 of 16 all time is the shield winners’ record and 7 of 16 times the shield winner at least made it to the MLS cup.

        Throw statistics aside for a moment though, any team that won’t play to their fullest due to the preference (and I believe it is a preference) of their stars not to play on turf don’t have the mental toughness to win the MLS cup. If the Sounders make the final and if the Red Bulls make the final and the Red Bulls don’t take the shield, they will find themselves at Century Link for a final on turf, what will they do then?

      • danielofthedale - Sep 27, 2013 at 12:49 AM

        @talgrath I don’t think Beckham played in Seattle and they won back to back MLS Cups so that disproves your sitting players because turf makes them to weak mentally to win the MLS Cup.

        As for the success of SS Winners: Since 2003 or the last 10 seasons the SS Winner has won 2 MLS Cups (2008 and 2011), lost 1 MLS Cup (2003), lost 2 Conference Finals (2006 and 2010), and lost 5, I repeat 5, Conference Semi-Finals (2004, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2012)

        So over the last 10 years the SS Winner literally has a coin flips chance of making past their playoff round. Four of the 10 MLS Cup Winners where one of the bottom 3 teams in terms of points to make the playoffs.

        It makes no real statistical difference where a team places in the playoff field when it comes to chances of winning the MLS Cup. So if there is no real difference between the first seed and last seed why should a team bust its butt to finish any higher than the last seed?

    • danielofthedale - Sep 25, 2013 at 5:59 PM

      How is a game between teams that are all but assured a playoff spot a huge game?

      Also you can’t deny the fact that playoffs do devalue the impact of most regular season games. I mean I would argue that half of the spots are virtual locks right now and playoff seeding has been poor indicator of playoff results. So while the Management want those home games for added gate revenue, the teams have very little incentive to push the issue.

      • cvo105 - Sep 26, 2013 at 11:43 AM

        Playoffs actually enahnce certain aspects of the season. I persoanlly like it alot better than the malaise of pro/rel.

        Anyways, it’s a huge game, because of:

        1.) Supporter’s Shield race. That CCL spot, and the alloation $$ that comes with it, are huge, especially for a team like NYRB whos cupboards are bare.

        2.) Home field advantage. If it all plays out, NYRB could end up having to come back to Seattle to play a final on this supposed terrible turf. A warmup match now would be better than one playing on it for the first time ever during a final. Regardless of that, I’m sure NY would want to host the MLS Cup, and in order to do that, you need to finish ahead of Seattle.

        Beckham had a bad achilles, and still played on these fields. Seems silly to me to sit it out. Cowardly.

      • danielofthedale - Sep 26, 2013 at 12:51 PM

        The SS winner has a poor history of making MLS Cup and a worse history of winning it. The Same is true of the SS of the NHL, The Presidents Cup. The teams with be records in the AL/NL or AFC/NFC have also seen a decline in their playoff win percentage. The one sport where regular season success is a reliable predictor of post season success is the NBA which is the league with the least competitive balance.

        I was not saying that playoffs are a bad thing, just that they do reduce the week to week mean of most games. I think many times playoffs don’t crown the best team as the champion but since no league in the US plays a balanced schedule so a playoff is required.

      • talgrath - Sep 26, 2013 at 6:55 PM

        Out of the 16 times the Supporters Shield has been awarded, 6 of those times the shield winner took the cup; that’s 3/8ths of the time, better than 1 in 3 in a tournament that has had at least 8 teams in the playoffs for the duration of its existence. 7 of those teams have at least made the MLS cup and 11 of those teams have at least made the conference finals. If the playoffs are such a statistical crap shoot and the Supporters Shield doesn’t matter the math doesn’t seem to show that. Last year saw a lot of upsets, no doubt, but the top-seeded teams usually win the series. MLS is very competitive though, the difference between 1 and 4 might be as little as a single win (the western conference in 2009), so a few upsets should be expected.

  2. hildezero - Sep 25, 2013 at 5:42 PM

    Ever since Deuce’s return to MLS, a lot of Seattle games have been considered as the biggest game of the season. Seattle vs. Portland, Seattle vs. Real, Galaxy vs. Seattle, and now this one. Yet there’s still the Seattle vs. Galaxy game next month when Deuce and LD actually face off against each other unlike the one that happened awhile ago when both were out.

    • talgrath - Sep 26, 2013 at 7:05 PM

      Seattle has had a lot of big games lately on their rise to the top of the west; Seattle vs Portland is always a biggie for MLS (the best rivalry they have). Seattle vs RSL was literally for 1st in the west. Seattle vs NYRB is literally for first overall. Any game where you have two of the top teams going at it in the late season is a big game because it tells you a bit about how the teams might shake out come the playoffs.

  3. jjkusowski - Sep 26, 2013 at 10:16 AM

    Couple comments.
    First, in the third to last paragraph, I assume “now worth the risk” is supposed to be “not worth the risk”? Otherwise, I don’t understand.

    Second, I’d like to understand what makes the turf in PDX better than CenturyLink and Gillette. Sounds like they are the same brand. Are they the same model? Age? Was CenturyLinks equivalent to Jeld-Wen’s when it was new? Maybe it’s just the American football, concerts, and supercross that do the damage. Not sure if that information is available.

    As a Seattle fan, if we’re going to have turf, I’d obviously like to have the best turf available and see all the stars come to town to play. While the Sounders fan in me is happy that Henry likely won’t be here this weekend, the soccer fan in me is sad that the level of the game won’t be as high as it should be.

    • mlsconvert88888 - Sep 26, 2013 at 1:08 PM

      When I clicked on this article I was really hoping they would get into the details of the differences between the fields. Do these turf manufacturer’s have technical data sheets on their respective turfs that could be compared? That would be cool.

      And I totally agree that it’s a bummer to have marquee names opting out of playing due to the turf and supposed injury concerns. It’s robbing the fans, and all I can think of when people talk about injury concerns on turf fields is; What about the players who play half their games at these venues? The Henry situation makes it out like playing on turf is gonna wreck him, but if that’s the case, you would expect injury stats to be night and day with a team who plays at home on turf and one that doesn’t. I don’t have the actual numbers, but at first blush it doesn’t seem like that is the case.

      • DemonJuice - Sep 26, 2013 at 1:42 PM

        One of the main differences is the presence of an expensive, permanent underlayment at JELD-WEN Field called an “e-layer” which is basically a shock pad under the turf. The other venues don’t have it.

        Merritt Paulson has stated that gridiron teams prefer the harder surface without the shock pad, which is why it’s unlikely the other MLS teams who are secondary tenants in their stadiums will ever have it.

      • Richard Farley - Sep 26, 2013 at 2:51 PM

        I’ve read some numbers but I’m not comfortable quoting them. I’ll just relay the general, caution you not to take it too seriously, and encourage corrections if I’m wrong:

        Some have found that, in general, turf is worse for dealing with chronic muscle/tendon/joint injuries, whereas the bigger, rarer, one-time injuries (think ACLs) are more common on natural surfaces.

        Please remember my caveat, above. This isn’t something I’d put into a post. I’m only speaking as a casual commenter, here.

      • jjkusowski - Sep 26, 2013 at 3:09 PM

        Thanks, DemonJuice. First time (I think) I’d ever heard that difference. Makes sense.

    • Richard Farley - Sep 26, 2013 at 2:53 PM

      Thanks for the spot on the typo, JJ. I /think/ I got that one this morning. Otherwise, some nice colleague of mine stepped in. Regardless, I appreciate the help.

  4. therealzer0cool - Sep 26, 2013 at 11:45 AM

    “You can’t both have a playoff system and claim the regular season matches are huge.”

    Mr. Farley, I assumed you knew a bit about MLS. Guess I was wrong.

    You see, there is this thing called the Supporters Shield which carries with it a major amount of allocation money because the team which wins it qualifies for next years CONCACAF Champions League.

    NY in their 18 year history has never won it or any other meaningful silverware for that matter and their fans would love to win it as would Seattle’s.

    Just thought I’d pass along that hot lead…

    • Richard Farley - Sep 26, 2013 at 2:27 PM

      See previous comment.

  5. SD1 Timbers Special Forces - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:22 AM

    **This is a rant**
    So the argument that regular season games don’t matter that much has the example of a 4th seed and 5th seed team playing in the final. So, with that logic, why have a single playoff game? Whats the point if you’re disappointed in the possibility that the teams invited to play all have the possibility to win? You know, like every single American sport, which all happen to be the most successful and profitable leagues in the entire planet. Those. Not to mention this thing called the UEFA Champions League. Or the Champions League in England. Both of which are playoff systems, that *unfortunately* allow teams with questionable records to be allowed to participate. It really just ruins them.

    Ugh. I really hate the old timers who can’t adapt to change and progress. Yeah, having 2 teams that most people expected to lose didn’t, and that’s a failure? Only to those who’ve grown up on the same boring and oh, did I mention PREDICTABLE outcomes of Europe. Richard, your example of the failure of the playoffs is exactly the example I’d use as evidence of it’s success.

    How is having drama, excitement and upsets not a good structure? How is that not the best in entertainment? Have you ever heard of Michael Jordan? Of course, you know why? Because the team he was on, had to EARN their championships. And because he had to EARN them, he’s a legend. For a reason. Even though the Bulls were the best team in the NBA in 1991, they lost to a lower ranked team. Did that make the regular season games meaningless? They were the 3rd seed in 1992, and guess what? They won the Championship. Did the NY Knicks and Phoenix Suns complain that since a lower seeded team won, all those games were meaningless? Of course not. They didn’t grow up on boring predictable European “Football”. Did the Atlanta Hawks or Seattle Sonics win it in 1993? Did they complain? Actually, did anyone complain? Were there record ratings? Was the 1994 regular season meaningless because a 6th seeded team won the Championship? Really? Didn’t they have record ratings? Was the 1995 regular season legitimate because the team with the best record won? Or the 1996 season? Isn’t the reason we know who Michael Jordan is ONLY because of his regular season, AND his playoffs which led ultimately to Championships?

    I didn’t realize that giving teams that have earned a spot in a tournament made the games they’d played to get to the tournament, meaningless. How does that make any sense? It seems to you that somehow, making the tournament is guaranteed and thus, the games that are played to get invited are meaningless. How can you have that opinion when some teams have never made it? How arrogant is it to be so presumptuous that the teams who don’t make it and their fans, are just so inept that they deserve to be left out. You’re obviously not a fan but a analytical writer who ignores the playoffs in Europe and England. Seriously, who complains about the playoff system in Basketball or Am. Football? No one? Which leagues have their highest rating during playoffs? Oh, right, all of the American sports. How boring.

    If it’s easier to accept, imagine the playoffs as a second season where only those who’ve earned the “promotion” to the tournament are allowed.

    It really seems that Richard, you don’t like the number of teams that are allowed. But isn’t the fact that a 4th seeded team can win it all, the proof that every single regular season game is crucial? Isn’t one or two losses in regular season the difference between making it or not, proof that they are very important? It’s like saying teams that get relegated in the world, those games are meaningless, because, in hindsight, they were going to be relegated anyway. Funny, how in hindsight, it just seems so predictable and meaningless.

    And that argument holds so much weight during the closest playoff race ever. Yep, the rest of these games are meaningless. Let’s just call NYRB the champions and be done with these useless games. I wonder if that first game vs Portland was meaningless, today? For both teams. Or that loss by Chicago on Sat. was meaningless.

    If you want people to watch Soccer, they want to watch THEIR team. When you allow only 4-6 teams to playoffs, the ratings and interest in MLS will blow. Which is why America has playoffs, they make money because more people watch and care. Which is lost on people who don’t really care who makes it or not.

    • Richard Farley - Sep 30, 2013 at 2:32 PM

      According to my browser’s find function, the only time the term “meaningless” appeared in this thread before my comment was in yours. In other words, nobody is calling any game meaningless.

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