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Turf Files, Week No. 2: Ryan Nelsen’s gibe brings CenturyLink’s field into focus

Mar 13, 2014, 8:32 PM EDT

Sellouts on sellouts, Seattle's stadium success is the envy of other MLS teams. Sellouts on sellouts, Seattle's stadium success is the envy of other MLS teams.

Last week, Vancouver’s field was in focus as New York withheld Thierry Henry and Jámison Olave from their visit to BC Place. That didn’t work out so well.

This week, with Toronto FC visiting Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, a different version of the turf debate is in focus, with TFC boss Ryan Nelsen opining the Sounders not only have “artificial field, it’s a bad artificial field.” Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid responded, taking umbrage with what he saw as Nelsen “making it seem like Seattle’s is worse than the others.”

It’s all a bit droll and predictable, but at the same time, it’s indicative of the state of debate around MLS’s artificial surfaces. Visiting coach launches barb, one that reflects a combination of folklore and unsubstantiated conventional wisdom. Home coach defends his team’s circumstances, sounding slightly too defensive in the process. To his credit, Schmid acknowledged the preference is natural grass, but in a debate where the other side won’t recognize the injury issue is a mostly unsettled one, it’s difficult to have a meaningful discussion.

To their credit, the Sounders are starting to get ahead of what’s an unfair conversation. With today’s comments from General Manager/Owner Adrian Hanauer, the organization is explaining their challenges. Partnered with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, their CenturyLink Field co-tenants, the Sounders’ surface is part of a larger, more complicated discussion.

From Seattle’s News Tribune, Hanauer speaking to Seattle’s assembled media on Thursday:

But the reality is that we are partners with the Seahawks and we follow their lead in terms of surface. The reality is that the football guys prefer a field that is a little harder; the soccer guys prefer a field that’s a little softer. For us in this stadium with our partners the Seahawks, it’s going to be a continual partnership and area of compromise to optimize for both teams.

That compromise meant the turf at CenturyLink wasn’t replaced this offseason. Hanauer called it a “combined decision,” explaining the Sounders would err on the side of more frequent changes, if they had their way. That they don’t means detractors will have another reason to criticize Seattle’s field.

As one Seattle fan told me this week, the frustrating part of the debate is the two sides talking past each other. On one had, old school options influenced by truly poor experiences on AstroTurf continue to dominate the debate. But nobody uses AstroTurf anymore. Even Vancouver and New England’s fields — two problematic surfaces — are better than the hard, thin surfaces the previous generation of players came to abhor.

Those players are in management now, though. They’re on coaching staff, and they’re in the press. Disdain informed by creaking knees and back pain have them justifiably cautious about more modern versions of turf. It’s going to be a while before those voices fade and a real debate can start.

Before briefly writing about turf last year, I informally (and, unscientifically) asked players about the Pacific Northwest’s three surfaces. The results were consistent with the current narrative. Portland pretty good, for turf (“it’s fine”). Seattle’s is a step down. Vancouver’s is kind of weird (it’s LigaTurf, not FieldTurf). None have won hearts or minds. None have swayed the debate.

We still get situation’s like last week’s in Vancouver, where two of New York’s most influential players were scratched. We still get situations like this week’s in Seattle, where paranoia about CenturyLink Field casts Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe as greater doubts than they actually are. And we get conversations like last week’s, were we only touched on the tension between protecting veteran players and sacrificing points.

Given the lack of conclusive evidence saying artificial surfaces, particularly modern FieldTurf, leads to injuries, coaches’ caution seems presumptive. Or, as Seattle-based podcaster and blogger Aaron Campeau recently said on a Seattle fan site:


Right now, that data isn’t even part of the discussion.

  1. imagreatguy76 - Mar 13, 2014 at 9:38 PM

    Nice post, Richard. And Aaron Campeau makes an interesting point. Although, it’s not just about the “injury risk”, right? It’s also about the toll it takes on the body…and thus, the longer recovery times. At least that’s what the athletes say…and I mean, they’re the ones playing on these different surfaces so they should know. Look, I haven’t seen any of this injury data. But I wonder if it takes that into account…not just the injuries that occur on artificial turf but the ones that occur AFTER because of the toll that it has apparently taken on the body.

    • Richard Farley - Mar 13, 2014 at 9:42 PM

      Yes, this is a great point to bring up. I usually mention it in any turf post, but this time, I guess I didn’t find a spot. But yes: Recovery times are another facet of this issue. Thanks for mentioning it.

    • udosean - Mar 14, 2014 at 11:39 AM

      Yea. I definitely agree. Data is always going to be inconclusive if looking at this with a sample size of one season. It definitely requires a more longitudinal approach. An example being following player A from X club that plays on turf and making comparisons against player B that plays on grass

  2. newmanggrrr - Mar 13, 2014 at 11:25 PM

    It is ridiculous why teams in the Pacific Northwest play on turf. Their climate is temperate like the UK and probably the best place on the entire continent for a grass field. Just saying…

  3. davebrett99 - Mar 14, 2014 at 3:46 AM

    I run the NASL Alumni Association. There are a number of NASL players who had to have hip replacement surgery years after their careers ended. They all say they know exactly what caused it: years of playing on AstroTurf. Of course, today’s artificial surfaces are much better than they used to be. So I don’t think MLS players are going to have to get their hips replaced years from now. But it’s important to know what years of playing on AstroTurf did to a generation of soccer players.

  4. anonymous135 - Mar 14, 2014 at 8:02 AM

    Great point and article.. a lot harder on the joints and body the impact you take. Surprised they don’t use a hard layer of density cushioning underneath.

    You must notice it for those who have had the chance when skating, playing basketball, yoga, weight room, dance studio or even flooring while you cook like cork.

    It’s noticeable the immediate benefits, it’s just more expensive – but if you don’t want to go natural… why not. Better for your team and attracting FA’s, especially when trying for top world talent that MLS is attracting today.

    • midtec2005 - Mar 14, 2014 at 9:33 AM

      These new turfs are pretty springy. I forget which field it is, maybe Portland, but they have the newest turf design and it’s so good that even Thierry Henry doesn’t mind playing on it. So having a good turf field is possible… Seattle just needs to upgrade theirs.

  5. emmatiede - Mar 14, 2014 at 9:28 AM

    I agree wit the above comments, Great insight and blog and I think that in the MLS the turf vs. real grass is an interesting debate. For fields like the one in Vancouver cannot have real grass because of the covered stadium and the overall climate in Vancouver; I think if they had natural grass it would be wet a lot of the time and the players and managers would be talking about that instead.

  6. charliej11 - Mar 14, 2014 at 11:01 AM

    If they don’t play their guys, in the words of Zach Scott, “that is their problem”

    Is Defoe not going to play this weekend ? That would be hillarious because Toronto almost surely will be turf very soon !

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