FIFA: Offers to lay down natural grass for free didn’t fit the bill (but come on…)

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The latest salvo in the battle between FIFA and some of the top women’s players in the world comes from the world’s governing body, and it lands with a thud.

Abby Wambach claimed last week that FIFA rejected offers for “free grass” to be laid at World Cup venues this summer. Wambach is the leader of a group of players who claim FIFA’s refusal to replace the artificial turf at World Cup venues amounts to discrimination. The group dropped its lawsuit in January.

[ REPORT: Carlos Tevez wants MLS move ]

This week, FIFA admitted that the grass offers came in, but were turned away because they only covered the game pitches, not the 18 training pitches.

Because, you know, there aren’t any other suitable grass practice fields in all of Canada, and FIFA doesn’t have the money to meet the free offer with help.

From the Associated Press:

The governing body, based in Zurich, maintained that Canada’s bid for the event included the artificial turf, which FIFA accepted on the condition it met competition standards.

“The contact (with the natural grass companies) was informal and didn’t include any range of price for any service,” FIFA said in the statement Monday. “The proposals were for the official stadia only and not for the various training sites (18 in total) to allow the players to train on a consistent surface throughout the tournament.”

FIFA changed its rules in 2004 to allow sanctioned matches on certain artificial surfaces. A few games at the 2010 men’s World Cup in South Africa were played on grass that had been reinforced by artificial fibers.

FIFA rules also state that all matches and practices for the World Cup must be held on the same surface. Canada’s bid for the event stipulated that the final be played on an artificial field at BC Place in Vancouver.

Oh, so they were informal. No need to explore it further then. Seems like if someone informally offered FIFA $400 billion, they might explore it further.

While the science behind turf being more dangerous than natural grass is within question, there’s no question FIFA’s answer to Wambach’s claim is weak. While there’s a decent case to be made that the science behind the claims is far from exact — and some studies have even backed FieldTurf as equal — “Yeah but the practice fields” isn’t a shining excuse for FIFA.

And we’re talking about an issue that has reportedly led to FAs threatening the suing players with their World Cup rosterslots, though, so we won’t be acting surprised at FIFA’s lazy reasoning.

Late Cahill equalizer gives New York result in Seattle (Video)

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This a good result for both sides, once you zoom out and see in the big picture. For New York, playing without their two best players, this draw will only look better on closer examination. For Seattle, while a late equalizer leaves the feeling of points lost, they’re still in-control of their Supporters’ Shield fate, a position which would have been slightly more precarious had they contrived to lose on Sunday.

But with the 1-1 result, the Sounders remain one point behind East-leading New York in the Supporters’ Shield chase, and with two games in hand, the Western Conference co-leaders remain  favorites to claim their first regular season title. This weekend’s results did see Real Salt Lake pull even with them in the West, but still holding two games in hand on their Rocky Mountain foes, Seattle can only be so disappointed with the weekend’s results.

Against New York, Sigi Schmid’s team took the lead just before intermission, finally coming good on a slew of late-half chances when Brad Evans converted from the spot. But Seattle lost their edge in the second, allowing New York to hit the woodwork twice before Tim Cahill, lost in the left of the penalty area, buried a late equalizer. The right-footed curler inside Michael Gspurning’s far post gave Red Bull a well-earned point from a match few saw them winning.

That’s because Thierry Henry, with a chronic Achilles condition, was a no-go. Jamison Olave was scratched, too, his knee costing him the battle of conference leaders on Seattle’s FieldTurf surface. Though highly-debated during the week, the decision proved prescient as a unexpectedly heavy storm saw Sunday’s match played beneath a downpour. In those conditions, without their two best players, New York have to be happy with the point, even if they failed to deal a blow to Seattle.

For the Sounders, the result may be disappointing, but they didn’t lose any ground. Against a backline that had not played together before this season, the team may not be satisfied with a draw, but now seven unbeaten and with only one loss in their last 11, the Sounders continue to position themselves for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

‘Turf’ in the Pacific Northwest: The spectrum of MLS’s three Cascadia venues

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Thierry Henry isn’t going to play this weekend against Seattle. Jamison Olave’s hamstrings are likely to take a pass, too, but that’s no big surprise. While it’s easy to say this weekend’s is a huge game and Henry should suck it up, he’s never played in Seattle. And ultimately, this is just a regular season game. You can’t both have a playoff system and claim the regular season matches are huge. If Henry and his doctors are concerned certain chronic issues are more likely to flare up at CenturyLink, then he shouldn’t risk his health for a regular season match. It’s just one of 34.

Where this issue becomes particularly interesting is when you compare Seattle’s FieldTurf surface to that of their rivals. Portland brags about their turf, perhaps rightly so, as there’s an obvious difference between it and CenturyLink’s. Timbers owner Merritt Paulson enjoys telling the anecdote about how notorious turf critic David Beckham eventually conceded JELD-WEN’s surface is not bad; both he and Henry choose (chose) to play in Portland.

[MORE: Thierry Henry likely to miss New York’s big clash at Seattle.]

Contrast that with Vancouver, which may compete with New England as the league’s worst. But whereas the Revolution’s is FieldTurf struggles with issues distinct from other FieldTurf instances, BC Place uses LigaTurf, a product of the German company PolyTan. In previous posts, I’ve equated it to felt on a pool table, a distortion intended to convey how slick the surface is (and how hard the slab is underneath). No field in Major League Soccer sees balls roll or bounce as much as Vancouver’s, a potentially huge advantage based on familiarity alone.

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The Portland Timbers announced in May that JELD-WEN Field’s surface has received FIFA recommended 2-Star status for the third straight year, one of two fields in the U.S. to earn that distinction.

If you were to put them on a spectrum of worst to best (or, to use the Arena range, “disasters” to ‘whatever, I guess’), Vancouver would lie at the far left. You don’t have to go very far to hear complaints. Seattle’s is less criticized but still draws Henry-esque caution, while Portland’s main criticism’s along the lines of “well, it’s still turf.”

[MORE: Bruce Arena calls artificial turf “disasters”]

Across all venues, recovery time’s going to be an issue, a reason why you’ll see any number of veterans skip Cascadia calls (even in Portland). Late in the season, when players are worn down, it’s not worth the risk.

And the games obviously play different, as Mikael Silvestre found out when a high bounce on JELD-WEN’s surface saw him caught out in his MLS debut. And as anybody who even rolls a ball at B.C. Place finds out, games are going play much faster in Vancouver.

But not all turf is the same. Across Cascadia even, there are drastic, important differences – distinctions so pronounced, the blanket term “turf” has almost no value.

In the wake of Seattle, is it too soon to rekindle The FieldTurf Conversation?

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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?

Last minute news: Weather, turf, atmosphere and tonight’s U.S. qualifier

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SEATTLE — Five hours before kickoff, and the grey skies that had imposed themselves over CenturyLink Field have broken, casting tonight’s venue in the much-reputed beauty of the Pacific Northwest’s summers.

But wait 10 minutes. The clouds could very well comeback.

Most Monday forecasts put Tuesday’s chance of rain at over 50 percent, and with showers reported in the northern portion of downtown (CenturyLink’s located in “SoDo”), there’s still a chance Mother Nature will wreak havoc with the sod trays covering Seattle’s FieldTurf surface.

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Top: View from the north of CenturyLink Field. Bottom: View looking north, away from CenturyLink Field.

Whether that happens remains a coin-flip in the hours before kickoff. Looking south on the stadium from Jackson Street, two blocks north of “the CLink,” serene puffs of white clouds were all that broke up steel blue skies. Turn 180 degrees, and a small swarm of stratus hovered like star destroyers around Hoth. They’re either waiting for the deflector shield to fall, or their attack could be timed for kickoff.

Final word about the turf: Don’t trust anything players and coaches are saying about the surface. Nobody’s going to openly court controversy before the match. Even afterward, it might not be worth the trouble.

The field, however, was terrible on Saturday despite many’s insistence it was better than previous temporary surfaces at CenturyLink. Seams were evidence before kickoff. The turf started coming up during warmups. Teams started slowly before realizing they had to overhit passes to get them to their targets. Sigi Schmid conceded he told his team to take it easy until they acclimated to the challenge.

Come Monday, the field looked better, but long seams that spanned the distance of multiple trays could be see running the length of the pitch.

As Michael Bradley noted, the conditions are certainly lacking:

It’s far from ideal. When you talk about playing home games in World Cup qualifying, especially for us, you’d like to be playing on a field were it’s cut real short and you’re able to get some water on the field before the game. That creates a fast, wet surface that’s really conducive to how we want to play.

Clearly, there are a lot of things that go into these decisions. Seattle certainly deserves a game. But the field leaves a lot to be desired.

Fabian Johnson offered an interesting perspective on the issue. Playing in a league (the German Bundesliga) renown for the overall quality of their venues, the Hoffenheim player answered a quick “yes” when asked if he finds the pitch conversation a strange one:

In Germany, nobody talks about the pitch. Nowhere in Germany do we play on this kind of grass, like here … I’ve never seen something like this before. It’s strange that we’re talking about the pitch.

Seattle’s contribution to qualifying atmosphere: As with most U.S. men’s national team games, the American Outlaws are in town, U.S. soccer’s most renown fan group throwing a party in association with Golazo last night. Today, “AO” will host a prematch party at Fuel, a downtown bar that serves as a focal point for fan activity ahead of Sounders’ games.

A few blocks from there, fans will replicate one of Seattle’s unique traditions: the March to the Match. Gathering at Occidental Square, four blocks north of the stadium, fans will sing and chant through downtown Seattle, hundreds of supporters making their way south an hour before kickoff.

For visitors taking in Sounder games, it’s a must-see event, but today, the march will likely be made up of a disproportionate number of fans from outside Seattle – people who not only get to witness the tradition but take part. For all the negativity that’s surrounded the buildup, the march is one of many small, positive contributions Seattle’s made to the game day experience.