0 MLS's 'turf' problem: can a league be world-class on artificial grass?

Despite their annoying penchant for calling football 'soccer', and artificial 3G 'turf', a recent poll suggests most of the league's players are put off by a surface that can put strain on joints. But there are good reasons for its place in MLS.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Reliably unconventional, Zlatan Ibrahimovic spurned a $100m offer from China in order to take a $1.5m-per-year offer from the Los Angeles Galaxy, according to Sports Illustrated. But will the striker be eccentric enough to turn up for an away game against the New England Revolution?

After his matchwinning debut in last Saturday's Los Angeles derby - the most deranged 90 minutes in MLS history - everyone wants to see the Swede play.

Still, the 36-year-old has recently returned from a serious knee injury, so Ibrahimovic and the Galaxy's coaching staff will have judgment calls to make later in the season as the league's most famous name tries to stay healthy. The Galaxy have four MLS fixtures on artificial turf scheduled between June and October (though Ibrahimovic may yet play at this summer's World Cup). Fearing injury, some veteran stars have skipped games on artificial surfaces over the years, dealing blows to MLS's reputation.

The only time Thierry Henry played on the widely-reviled artificial turf of Gillette Stadium, the home of the Revolution, was a play-off game in 2014 that turned out to be the last match of his career. Didier Drogba also sought to avoid fake grass. David Beckham, usually so emollient in interviews, was an anti-turf absolutist: "Every game, every team should have grass, without a doubt," he told reporters in 2007.

We wait to see whether a man who once termed France a "shit country" merely because he thought a referee had a bad game will have any thoughts to share on a subject that tends to provoke strong emotions.

The league added to its synthetic collection last year when Atlanta and Minnesota - who face off last Saturday - joined Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and New England. (Minnesota's permanent home, set to open next year, will have grass).

This clearly matters to the players. An ESPN anonymous survey of current MLS members published last month asked whether an artificial surface would influence a player's decision to join a team: 63% said yes. Perhaps not unrelated, another question asked them to name the toughest place to play in MLS and four of the top eight answers were teams with artificial turf.

The Portland Timbers are one of the MLS teams who do not play on grass

Turf wars are commonplace in North America. Earlier this month the cost of laying temporary grass at BC Place was reportedly among the factors that caused Vancouver to withdraw from contention as a host city for the 2026 World Cup bid, while the use of artificial fields at the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada was the subject of failed legal action.

True or not, artificial fields are perceived to increase injury risk and enhance home advantage in a league in which road results are notoriously poor. They are freighted with memories of the North American Soccer League's dire surfaces, and away from Portland, where complex factors influence the choice, are a sign of MLS's subservience to American football in shared venues.

Pitch variations invite us to define what counts as "authentic": a perennial concern for MLS, which is adolescent and distinctive yet obsessed with tradition and how it stacks up against more established leagues. In a quest for instant credibility, newborn franchises such as Atlanta and Minnesota drape themselves in Anglicized affectations such as "United" and "Football Club". The branding glances towards England where, as the Premier League's rules tersely state: "No League Match shall be played on an Artificial Surface". It's an homage to the kind of Euro superclubs who insist on temporary grass pitches being installed over artificial surfaces when they visit the US on summer tours.


You can read the full article from The Guardian HERE

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