SEATTLE — At some point, we’re going to have this debate. Why not now? Because if we don’t talk it out now, we’ll just put it off. Again. And then next time a Pacific Northwest match is suggested, everybody will forget the lessons of Seattle, fall back on the old arguments, and we’ll either have another game on an unacceptable surface or another 36-year gap between Seattle qualifiers.
The main lesson from this process: Temporary grass is terrible. If this was 1994 and groundskeepers had months to cultivate the grass and were able to lay it weeks ahead of time, this would be a different discussion. That’s the process that can’t happen in the middle of a qualifying cycle, nor it is worth it. If you want to play on grass in Seattle, you’re going to have to sacrifice field quality.
I know, last night everybody was saying the right things, giving the Seattle ground crew the respect they deserved. Whomever worked on that field over the last week took if from “oh my God, why” to “well, this could work.” It was the grounds keeping equivalent to reconstructive surgery, and the operation was successful.
But you saw the players slipping around, whether it was Geoff Cameron flopping onto his hip in the middle of the field or Carlos Rodriguez falling face-first near the byline after sprinting past Brad Evans. And if you saw Saturday’s Sounders-Whitecaps game, a match where neither team had a chance to train on the newly laid surface, you witnessed two teams who couldn’t come into the match for 10 to 15 minutes, after which both sides compensated for the uneven surface.
In both games, not only did the quality suffer, but the players had to adjust to the self-inflicted circumstances. For a team that complained mightily about the cricket ground conditions in Antigua and Barbuda, it was surprising to see such deleterious compromises were deemed acceptable.
Late last night, the same doctors who performed the field’s reconstructive surgery wasted no time ruining their work. As stadium staff were restoring the CenturyLink stands, the groundskeepers doing the same to field, with the process of bringing the normal surface forward hitting its stride today. As you can see in the image above (via Twitter user @bartwiley), Seattle was more than ready to trade that TempSod for their FieldTurf.
It all seems so useless. Seattle paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring in a maligned field when they had a perfectly good surface underneath, all at the behest of U.S. Soccer. They didn’t want to do it, but as a tradeoff to get a World Cup Qualifier, they were willing to bring in the sod, reduce the quality of play, all because of some dated idea of what turf is or is not.
When most people think turf, they still think of the early MLS, rug over concrete, career-breaking carpets that were too prevalent back in the day. Even now, at BC Place and when Toronto and Montreal play in their alternate homes, poor fields see time in Major League Soccer, instances that muddy the discussions surrounding Seattle and Portland. The first step in having a real discussion about the tradeoffs of turf is recognizing not all turf is created equal.
Seattle and Portland are perfectly fine. For those who have played there, covered games there, or even watched games on television, you can see the difference in play between the roll forever rug in Vancouver and the games further south.
Does CenturyLink, JELD-WEN have perfect conditions? Are they well-maintained grass surfaces? Of course not. But players — from Major League Soccer professionals down to youth players throughout the country — constantly play on those surfaces. They’re different, but they’re fine. Even David Beckham and Thierry Henry have played games in Portland, and while the common refrain ‘players don’t like turf’ still gets thrown out, a more constructive statement is ‘players prefer grass.’ No player in Seattle or Portland speaks ill of their surfaces. Nobody’s going to turn their back on those clubs because of field issues.
And with young players all over the country playing on these new, improved surfaces, it’s possible this is just a generational issue. The new players coming up won’t have the same biases. They won’t have the scars of knee operations brought on by artificial turf. They won’t have that innate reticence to go stay up for fear of bring on turf burn. They’ll have a completely different concept of turf, ideas that should will likely permeate through the soccer masses, making games on good turf surfaces more acceptable.
The real question, acknowledging that well-kept grass surfaces are the ideal, is whether the trade-off of Seattle’s atmosphere, undoubtedly replicated (if in a different way) in Portland, is worth the compromise. But how can everybody that’s been so effusive about Tuesday’s display say it’s not worth the small sacrifice – playing on Seattle, Portland’s turf in exchange for that kind of support?