No one has ever assumed that MLS was a well-oiled machine. Throughout the life of MLS we have seen countless changes ranging from team names and colors to the newly instituted Designated Player Rule which was created for the arrival of David Beckham. It is safe to say that MLS has good intentions and an appetite for success. MLS commissioner Don Garber has to be commended for his efforts in instituting new policies but also for quickly disposing of ones that have not worked. One of the policies that must be altered is the requirements for the playing surface. If MLS wants to improve their product, they must prevent teams such as the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders from playing on artificial surfaces.
Yes, FIFA has approved artificial grass, but the issue is not getting away with what you can by law but rather improving the product. That product is suffering monumentally as a result of the artificial surface. This weekend’s marquee matchup between Michael Bradley’s Toronto FC and Clint Dempsey’s Seattle Sounders was a perfect example how much the surface can affect the game. Dempsey’s ability to control a bouncing ball made his game look very sloppy and prevented him from using the creative genius U.S. fans have come to love. Additionally, Bradley, who is the best passer of the ball American fans have seen since Claudio Renya, looked rusty on the fake grass. His passes were all too often poorly weighted and arrived in incorrect locations.
This game was a microcosm of what is holding the U.S. back. Foreign players are reluctant to ply their trade in the U.S. as a result of the surface. If you remember back to Beckham’s initial season in MLS he mentioned the two biggest issues were the surface and refereeing. Refereeing is at the forefront of this season’s debate and is a conversation of its own, but the surface should have already been addressed. Soccer as a game requires immense technical abilities, and any glitch can cause a player, and team, to get off track and prevent them from performing at maximum efficiency. With the artificial surface, one touch passing becomes extremely difficult and often breaks down after the second or third pass. The ball gets on players quicker with too many bounces resulting in sloppy play and diminished results. The surface is not only affecting the offensive game but also on the defensive side of the ball. A defender’s ability to slide into a tackle is limited by the surface and often results in more forceful and harsh tackles.
Even though the MLS has 15 of its 19 teams playing on grass, the four that don’t are far too many. The Sounders, Timbers, Revolution and Whitecaps make up the four, and while there is no correlation to their wins and loss record or attendance it is an issue needing to be addressed. The field turf is leaps and bounds better then the Astroturf of the Cosmos day, but it is still not grass!
With that said, field turf does have a place in American soccer. It provides youth soccer players the ability to play on a true flowing surface at a fraction of the cost. Ten years ago a majority of youth soccer games were played on fields that exhibited rocks and spotty grass patches which affected the players’ ability to mature, but that issue has now been resolved. So there is definitely a place in soccer for field turf; it just is not at the highest level in MLS.