Tuesday night may come and go with marginal impact from a sketchy choice made by U.S. Soccer, without any dent to the U.S. national team’s drive for Brazil 2014.
If so, the United States soccer establishment will have luckily escaped its own poor choice regarding Tuesday’s big match against Panama.
In order to finally bring a World Cup qualifier to Seattle, certainly a deserving market, U.S. Soccer and the Sounders arranged to install a temporary grass surface inside Seattle’s CenturyLink Field.
It was a bad decision, one that poses unnecessary risk. These temporary fields tend to be consistently unruly, highly imperfect at very best, potentially injurious and difficult to navigate at their worst.
Some tend to behave better than others, but we are generally talking about degrees of imperfection when it comes to the troubling seams, the tendency to be slippery and the listless bounce of the installed sod. Does anybody remember how bad it was at Ford Field three years ago as the United States topped Canada to open that year’s Gold Cup? It would have been comical how awful that thing was, except that it was actually dangerous.
What then-U.S. manager Bob Bradley told Reuters: “For the players it is very, very hard. Recovery is hard, it is tough on the legs during the game, you see guys slipping. Hopefully we can find a better way because we love coming to amazing stadiums like this.”
U.S. midfielder Clint Dempsey was even more to the point about that highly flawed surface at Ford Field: “It’s tough. I don’t know why they would schedule [games] in venues where you have to lay the grass over the turf.”
Again, it’s great that Seattle and the Pacific Northwest get the match. The crowd will be great and the atmosphere will bubble with brilliance. But it’s this simple: If the United States soccer federation wanted to stage a match in Seattle they should have just accepted the artificial surface, one that is FIFA approved for World Cup qualifiers.
I know that might generate some player push back. A bit of outdated thinking still infects some of the athletes (and their agents, and their clubs, two elements that have financial interests in their players’ health) regarding artificial surface. But players will generally acquiesce and perform on plastic when the big occasions call for it.
If Tuesday’s surface is tricky or slow or lacks bounce – anything that would muck up or slow the match or otherwise mitigate the U.S. edge in skill – then luck and fortune become a larger element. And that is not what’s best for the home team here, not what is best for a United States team looking for safe arrival into seventh consecutive World Cup.
Artificial turf is certainly not ideal for soccer, but it plays predictably, at least. This is why Costa Rica has long staged its home matches on the new breed of plastic grass; better that than risking a muddy quagmire in the rainy land.
U.S. Soccer’s stance on this through the years, as relayed numerous times through several staffers and coaches, was always consistent: these matches are too important, so nothing can be left to chance. That was always enough for me.
So what changed here?