On "fake turf" in Seattle, 2012 edition

Message from editor: The grass v turf debate was sparked again. This take sums up positions I've stated many times, so rather than write more, I'll just frontpage this. Also, I have a computer again, so regular posting will return shortly. - Dave

Dear national soccer writer,

Thanks for weighing in with your opinion on the state of the pitch at Century Link Field. Since you're being directed here, I can only assume that you've made some type of reference to the "fake turf" the teams are playing on, or expressed the opinion that natural grass is "better" than turf, or in some other fashion kicked the metaphorical hornet's nest of this debate. As you can probably tell by the existence of this post, turf is something of a sore subject for Sounders fans, but a real response will necessarily be more nuanced than can fit into a tweet. Here are the basic points you should understand.

First, and most basically, most of us agree with you on the narrow point that, all other things being equal, grass is better for soccer than turf. Having played on turf myself, I can attest that it's terribly annoying to pick all of the little rubber pellets out of your shoes after the game; and you'll certainly get burns from turf that you won't from grass. Oh, the burns! That said, the difference probably isn't as big as you think. Newer turf surfaces play in a fashion very similar to natural grass; Sounders players don't really notice the difference, as Mauro Rosales said in a live chat with the Seattle Times on May 15th, 2012. Neither does FIFA: Century Link installed new FieldTurf in 2012, and it received a two-star rating from soccer's governing body. Hey, that's the same rating as the grass at Old Trafford and Wembley!

All that being said, the question of which surface is better for soccer in a vacuum isn't really relevant; the question is, which surface is best for Century Link Field? Grass has some problems which turf doesn't: drainage can be an issue, particularly in stadiums like Portland's Jeld-Wen Field where the water table is high; and grass requires light to grow properly, which is a problem in the Pacific Northwest where we get nine months a year of cloud cover (a previous investigation by the Seahawks' ownership in have suggested that grass would require a 1.8 million-dollar irrigation and heating system to be installed inside the field). But wait -- England has these problems too, doesn't it? It rains a ton there; you've been there (or else you wouldn't be a national soccer journalist, right?) and they play on grass. What gives?

Well, the NFL, for one. Remember how the English media gets all worked up for the FA Cup final every year because the NFL has played its one stupid game in London and trashed the field at Wembley? Imagine that eight times a year. In fact, for 2012, imagine it fourteen times a year -- the University of Washington will be playing its home football games at Century Link while Husky Stadium is renovated. Century Link Field also hosts other events which require its big capacity, including Supercross races, concerts for bands with big stage shows like U2 and Metallica, and speeches by the Dalai Lama and others.

Are there alternatives? Well, sure. We could put in temporary grass for Sounders games; this has been done for previous big matches, like when Barcelona came to town, but the surface was frankly terrible and worse than the FieldTurf, and it costs $250k a pop. Seattle could also build a soccer-only stadium somewhere; it would be extremely difficult to get approved -- remember the Sonics leaving town? seen the furor over the proposed new NBA arena in SoDo? -- and probably too small, and would probably be redundant since it would be the second soccer-specific stadium in town, but it could be done. More realistically, we could put in natural grass and say damn the consequences, we'll eat the up-front cost and replace the grass as needed. The problem with this approach is that it's too difficult and costly even for the San Siro in Milan, one of soccer's temples, where they're replacing the natural surface with a hybrid natural/synthetic blend because they don't get enough light to keep the current grass alive. It's possible that this approach could work in Seattle as well -- time will tell -- but it's still not natural grass.

So, in summary, when you complain about the turf, please remember that while we're not necessarily wild about it either, it makes more sense than any other approach that I've seen so far. If it really impacts your appreciation of the game, that's fine and I'm sorry; but it doesn't impact mine, and it doesn't seem to bother any of the other forty thousand people at the game with me either. Good luck with your piece!

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