Fake plastic unease: Can MLS become a world-class league on artificial turf? | MLS
IIn every other way it was a marquee. The sight of 69,274 fans, a record stadium visit to CenturyLink Field, was enough to illustrate this, though the elaborate TIFOs, pyrotechnics, and “March To The Match” from downtown Seattle to the venue only added to the spectacle. Indeed, last year’s MLS Cup Final had all of the components of a big match except one: the pitch.
Like every Seattle Sounders home game since the club was introduced to the league in 2009, last year’s MLS Cup final was played on artificial turf. FieldTurf, to be precise. It was the same season before that Atlanta United hosted the Portland Timbers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. That too was a great sporting opportunity to be able to keep up with everything that was produced in the Champions League, Europa League or any other European competition. Just like in Seattle, however, the plastic field was out of place.
Artificial surfaces are allowed in the Champions League, but not for the final. In 2008, just a few weeks before the Champions League final between Chelsea and Manchester United, a new grass pitch was hastily laid out because the usual plastic pitch in the Luzhniki Stadium was considered unsuitable for such a big game. This gives an idea of how Uefa really feels about their commitment to the elite level of the European game.
There is no artificial turf in the Premier League or in the championship. In fact, there is no man-made space in any of England’s 42 Senior League venues. Even in countries that use plastic surfaces like Scotland, they are highly malignant. “I don’t like plastic courts, I didn’t like playing on them. I think they are dangerous, ”said Steven Gerrard, former England and Liverpool captain and now Rangers manager, after playing on artificial turf last year, his views reflecting the wider football community.
MLS and the owners of its member clubs were outrageously optimistic about becoming one of the best leagues in the sport in the not too distant future. But can that really be achieved if so many teams are still playing on artificial playing fields?
While MLS has made great strides in building football-specific stadiums in Canada and the United States over the past decade, the sight of plastic fields in the division is a reminder of the compromises it continues to make. With the exception of Portland Timbers’ Providence Park, every man-made playing surface currently in MLS will be installed in a multi-purpose stadium.
In the case of Atlanta United and the Seattle Sounders, it could be argued that playing on FieldTurf is a necessary illness. After all, these are two clubs with such large fan bases that they can only be accommodated in NFL-sized super stadiums. The benefit that comes with this makes it worthwhile to play on an imperfect field, or so some might say.
Of course, it should be noted that not all artificial pitches are created equal. Some are better than others. Portland Timbers’ FieldTurf surface, for example, is generally better than the man-made surface at Gillette Stadium. Nevertheless, artificial turf plays a little differently than natural turf. Some players refuse to play on them because they fear it will make knee or ankle injuries worse. See how Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed almost every game on plastic during their time in MLS. This is a problem for a league that is still using aging European stars like Henry and Ibrahimovic as marketing tools.
There is little scientific evidence to suggest that players on man-made playing fields are more prone to injury. A 2013 US study examining female college soccer players actually showed a lower incidence rate for total injuries and a lower incidence rate for serious injuries on man-made pitches than grass – but there’s no doubt about the stigma attached to the Use of artificial parking spaces is connected.
A survey conducted anonymously by ESPN found that 63% of MLS players would consider whether a team is playing on grass or plastic or not when making any transfer decision. Back in 2007, when David Beckham had just started showing up at the LA Galaxy, there was growing disagreement about the existence of man-made surfaces in the league. “Every game, every team should have grass without a doubt,” Beckham said at the time. The discussion of plastic spacing in MLS isn’t new, but that’s a big part of the point. Players continue to feel like they are not being heard.
The scientific argument against artificial playing fields may not be particularly convincing, but the adverse effects they have on football as a product are worth discussing. Games on grass tend to be faster. The ball doesn’t bounce that high and gives preference to teams that prefer to play on the floor. MLS is more concerned with its packaging than most of the other leagues and this is certainly a consideration to be given.
The argument in defense of artificial turf usually includes the point that it is still better than a bad turf pitch. But the best leagues, the kind of leagues MLS wants to be one day, don’t play on bad grass courts. You are playing on green carpets, which are usually of a natural and synthetic consistency. There is certainly no grass pitch in the Premier League like the one New York City FC plays at Yankee Stadium.
MLS is still in a development phase in 2020. The league is only celebrating its 25th anniversary this season. This allows some margin of maneuver, but just as there is pressure to raise or remove the division’s salary cap so clubs can build fuller and more balanced squads, thereby increasing the quality of the game, a step towards an all-grass league should be a stated goal. If the Champions League final was not played, the MLS Cup final should not be played either.