Hey, MLS fan: How was your offseason? Sorry, I’m have to cut you off there, because it’s time to talk about turf. Again.
Another season’s here, a handful of teams still play on carpet, but the quality of multiple surfaces still forces visiting coaches to decide if subjecting players to the fake stuff is worth it. Whether that caution is warranted or not, some players even get held out from trips to Portland – thought to be the best rug in the league. CenturyLink’s field draws more mixed reviews, while trips to New England, Vancouver (and the occasional forays to Olympic Stadium and Rogers Center) leave balky hamstrings and aching knees in street clothes.
That’s the issue New York Red Bulls’ head coach Mike Petke is facing on Saturday. The defending Supporters’ Shield winners will open the season on BC Place’s LigaTurf – a surface that would win the league’s honor for “most pool table-esque” (if such an award existed). The field, which was scrutinized after Whitecaps’ captain Jay DeMerit blew out his Achilles last season, is the only one of its kind in the league. Unfortunately, what it offers in consistency for rolls and bounces gets offset but its old school, AstroTurf-like charm. If the injuries don’t get you, the recovery times will.
As far as Petke’s concerned, that means Thierry Henry is unlikely to play. The Red Bulls star has only ventured onto Portland’s fake stuff, and he’s unlikely to make an exception on Saturday. With veteran defender Jámison Olave’s injury history also putting him in the “best be cautious” category, New York is set to lose two of its three best players to a more insidious type of turf monster.
But wait, Red Bull-fan. There’s more. With Tim Cahill and Roy Miller just rejoining the team after Wednesday friendlies (with Australia and Costa Rica), Petke might keep two other starters out of his Saturday XI, according to reporting at the league’s web site. If they join Henry and Olave on the sidelines, New York will open the season without its three best players. And Roy Miller.
Petke’s not making any excuses (from MLSSoccer.com):
“We have two key players who are away with the national team for a Wednesday game, so obviously that comes into factor. There are certain players that perhaps physically, [it] wouldn’t be the best situation to play them this game coming up …
“As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter if there’s one or two positions we’re not sure of, if we go a certain way or not. [The players are] all on board and they all understand what we want out of this game coming up Saturday.”
Such is the state of Major League Soccer, where one game on turf during a 34-match slate gives visiting coaches little incentive to risk long-term injuries to their most vulnerable players. Where “most vulnerable” happens to coincide with “best” or “most popular,” the viewer experience suffers, whether that experience be in-person or on television.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a good solution. Do you force Vancouver and others to find grass surfaces when the evidence pointing to increased injury risk is either inconclusive or folklore? Or do you just live with coaches’ decisions, implicitly acknowledging they might actually be hurting their clubs? The NBA occasionally fines
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich teams for resting players without good reason. In the soccer world, however, “rotation” is tolerated as part of a season’s challenges.
So welcome back, fans. The offseason’s over. It’s time for our first turf debate. Go: