By Andrew Sartorius
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Destroying the Beautiful Game: Why Artificial Turf Fields Should Be Banned in MLS – Andrew Sartorius
This past Saturday, the New York Red Bulls and the Los Angeles Galaxy played out a 2-2 draw in front of a bumper crowd of 46,754 at Giants Stadium. Although the match was certainly nothing like last year’s epic 5-4 victory for the Red Bulls, it was entertaining, with the ball flying from end to end. Thanks to a brilliant piece of individual skill from Juan Pablo Angel, the Red Bulls were ahead 2-1 going into stoppage time. In the second minute of injury time, as Los Angeles pushed for an equalizer, Landon Donovan whipped in a seemingly innocuous cross that Jon Conway should have easily dealt with. However, as the ball was served in, Edson Buddle made a run across the box, attempting to head the ball, and shielding Conway. Buddle’s run was enough to freeze Conway, allowing the ball to bounce at the back post. After the bounce, it appeared that the ball had gone out behind the goal until Donovan ran into the net and picked up the ball. The score was 2-2 and the whole of the stadium sat in stunned silence. Replays later showed that the ball had bounced outside of the far post and had curled in, thanks to a turf irregularity on the pitch.
Now, we’ve all been saying for years that the Red Bulls/MetroStar franchise should leave the hulking shell of Giants Stadium for a smaller, soccer-specific stadium. This incident has merely confirmed and highlighted these sentiments. I could deal with lack of atmosphere, low attendances, and could sometimes ignore the giant “NFL” logo in the center of the field along with the slightly muted white football lines, but when the horrendous quality of the pitch significantly alters the outcome of a game, it’s time for a change. While some say that the turf at Giants Stadium gives the Bulls a sort of home field advantage, I believe it acts more as a home field disadvantage since the majority of the league plays on natural grass. I’m not just saying that a change should only be made only at Giants Stadium, but across the entire MLS, from Real Salt Lake to Toronto to New England. The league needs to develop a set of pitch regulations, like those that exist in UEFA, to ensure that something like this does not happen again.
First of all, turf lowers the standard of the game as a result of the high and irregular bounces that result from ball striking turf. This past weekend, the Red Bulls debuted Venezuelan Jorge Rojas, signed from Caracas FC. Although he assisted Dave Van den Berg’s goal with a lovely no-look pass, the Venezuelan struggled on the playing surface at Giants Stadium, losing the ball more than once because of the strange skips the ball took on turf. If a seasoned veteran and the captain of his national team loses the ball on turf, you know it’s a difficult surface to play on.
Consider the rest of the world’s stance on turf. England briefly experimented with “plastic pitches” in the late 1980s, with teams such as QPR and Luton Town experiencing great success on them, but they were banned by the English FA in 1988 because “the ball pinged round like it was made of rubber, the players kept losing their footing, and anyone who fell over risked carpet burns” ("Pitch battle over artificial grass”). This past year, the UEFA Champions League final was initially scheduled to be played on turf at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium until UEFA ordered the turf to be torn up and replaced with natural grass. Although UEFA does allow turf in their competitions, it is usually reserved for teams that play in extreme climate conditions (i.e. Scandinavia). After the Scottish FA banned Dunfermline Athletic in 2005 from using a turf pitch, the MLS became one of the few leagues in the world to continue to allow the use of turf fields.
For the life of me, I can’t understand why MLS continues to allow turf fields. While turf is perfect for high schools because of its ability to be used for many sports, surely the MLS clubs would have at least a little money to invest in something more professional? And it’s not as if a New England winter is as bad as a winter in Norway or Finland, because it’s definitely not. The fact that the MLS still allows turf fields shows that there is a deeper problem: the league, which has ambitions to compete continentally with Mexican and Latin American leagues, is falling behind its rivals by allowing these fields to persist which ruin the quality of the game. On turf, one little irregularity could decide the game, as was the case on Saturday night. Until the MLS comes to its senses, for those of us wanting to watch the beautiful game in America instead of the badly distorted turf version, we’ll just have to wait for the foreseeable future.
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