Turf Files, Week No. 2: Ryan Nelsen’s gibe brings CenturyLink’s field into focus

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Last week, Vancouver’s field was in focus as New York withheld Thierry Henry and Jámison Olave from their visit to BC Place. That didn’t work out so well.

This week, with Toronto FC visiting Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, a different version of the turf debate is in focus, with TFC boss Ryan Nelsen opining the Sounders not only have “artificial field, it’s a bad artificial field.” Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid responded, taking umbrage with what he saw as Nelsen “making it seem like Seattle’s is worse than the others.”

It’s all a bit droll and predictable, but at the same time, it’s indicative of the state of debate around MLS’s artificial surfaces. Visiting coach launches barb, one that reflects a combination of folklore and unsubstantiated conventional wisdom. Home coach defends his team’s circumstances, sounding slightly too defensive in the process. To his credit, Schmid acknowledged the preference is natural grass, but in a debate where the other side won’t recognize the injury issue is a mostly unsettled one, it’s difficult to have a meaningful discussion.

To their credit, the Sounders are starting to get ahead of what’s an unfair conversation. With today’s comments from General Manager/Owner Adrian Hanauer, the organization is explaining their challenges. Partnered with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, their CenturyLink Field co-tenants, the Sounders’ surface is part of a larger, more complicated discussion.

From Seattle’s News Tribune, Hanauer speaking to Seattle’s assembled media on Thursday:

But the reality is that we are partners with the Seahawks and we follow their lead in terms of surface. The reality is that the football guys prefer a field that is a little harder; the soccer guys prefer a field that’s a little softer. For us in this stadium with our partners the Seahawks, it’s going to be a continual partnership and area of compromise to optimize for both teams.

That compromise meant the turf at CenturyLink wasn’t replaced this offseason. Hanauer called it a “combined decision,” explaining the Sounders would err on the side of more frequent changes, if they had their way. That they don’t means detractors will have another reason to criticize Seattle’s field.

As one Seattle fan told me this week, the frustrating part of the debate is the two sides talking past each other. On one had, old school options influenced by truly poor experiences on AstroTurf continue to dominate the debate. But nobody uses AstroTurf anymore. Even Vancouver and New England’s fields — two problematic surfaces — are better than the hard, thin surfaces the previous generation of players came to abhor.

Those players are in management now, though. They’re on coaching staff, and they’re in the press. Disdain informed by creaking knees and back pain have them justifiably cautious about more modern versions of turf. It’s going to be a while before those voices fade and a real debate can start.

Before briefly writing about turf last year, I informally (and, unscientifically) asked players about the Pacific Northwest’s three surfaces. The results were consistent with the current narrative. Portland pretty good, for turf (“it’s fine”). Seattle’s is a step down. Vancouver’s is kind of weird (it’s LigaTurf, not FieldTurf). None have won hearts or minds. None have swayed the debate.

We still get situation’s like last week’s in Vancouver, where two of New York’s most influential players were scratched. We still get situations like this week’s in Seattle, where paranoia about CenturyLink Field casts Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe as greater doubts than they actually are. And we get conversations like last week’s, were we only touched on the tension between protecting veteran players and sacrificing points.

Given the lack of conclusive evidence saying artificial surfaces, particularly modern FieldTurf, leads to injuries, coaches’ caution seems presumptive. Or, as Seattle-based podcaster and blogger Aaron Campeau recently said on a Seattle fan site:

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Right now, that data isn’t even part of the discussion.