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How I learned to stop worrying about artificial turf undermining Seattle’s World Cup bid

Temporary grass is suboptimal, but more than half the candidate cities will need to use it.

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The newly laid grass field at CenturyLink Field. (Photo courtesy of JB Instant Lawn)
The newly laid grass field at CenturyLink Field. (Photo courtesy of JB Instant Lawn)

At some point this year, FIFA is expected to select the host cities for the 2026 World Cup. Seattle is currently among 17 U.S. cities still in the running, from which somewhere between 8-12 will be selected as part of the “United” bid that will also include three cities each from Canada and Mexico.

It’s undeniably a huge opportunity for Seattle and the local soccer community. The Seattle Sounders have put significant resources into helping support it, with Senior VP of Legal and External Affairs Maya Mendoza-Exstrom taking a lead role. A recent story in The Athletic shed some light on her part in the bid and some of the lessons learned from Seattle’s ill-fated bid to be a host city during the 1994 tournament.

By most accounts, Seattle is among the favorites this time around, in no small part because of the soccer culture we’ve all helped create here. Make no mistake, it will be a massive disappointment if Seattle is somehow left out.

But any number of reasons could be used to exclude it, not the least of which is that we’re relatively isolated up here in the Pacific Northwest and Lumen Field is among the older facilities still under consideration. The logistics, availability of suites, local politicians’ relative unwillingness to “play ball” with FIFA officials or any number of other variables could ultimately leave us out.

What I’m skeptical of — which seems to be prominently mentioned whenever our bid is considered by locals — is that the lack of a permanent grass playing surface will significantly factor into the decision.

2026 U.S. bid cities

Bid cities Type of surface Capacity Year opened
Bid cities Type of surface Capacity Year opened
Atlanta* FieldTurf CORE 73,019 2017
Baltimore Tifway 419 Bermuda Grass 71,008 1998
Bay Area Tifway II Bermuda Grass 68,500 2014
Boston* FieldTurf 65,878 2002
Cincinnati* Shaw Sports Momentum Pro 65,515 2000
Dallas* Hellas Matrix Turf with Helix Soft Top 105,121 2009
Denver Kentucky Bluegrass 76,125 2001
Houston* Hellas Matrix Helix 72,220 2002
Kansas City Latitude 36 Bermuda Grass 76,416 1968
Los Angeles* Matrix Turf 100,240 2020
Miami Tifway 419 Bermuda Grass 64,767 1987
Nashville Tifsport Bermuda Sod 69,143 1999
New York/New Jersey* Fieldturf 82,500 2010
Orlando* AstroTurf RootZone 3D3 65,194 1936**
Philadelphia Bermuda grass 69,796 2003
Seattle* FieldTurf Revolution 360 72,000 2002
Washington, D.C. Latitude 36 Bermuda Grass 82,000 1997**

First things first, the games will be played on grass regardless. This has plenty of precedent at past World Cups, with temporary grass being used for virtually tournament since at least 1994 (which even featured the first-ever indoor World Cup match, when the Pontiac Silverdome hosted games). FIFA may require that those temporary surfaces be in place for months in order to let them truly take root, but doing something like that is likely more a matter of money than anything else.

The reality is that almost no matter how decision-makers at FIFA feel about the issue, some stadiums without permanent grass are going to be selected. A majority of the stadiums still under consideration have artificial playing surfaces, and the only way for FIFA to avoid picking at least one would be to limit the field of US venues to just eight stadiums. That would leave out Dallas, Houston, New York and Los Angeles. Simply put, there’s no way a World Cup is going to happen without at least one of those cities, and all four seem likely to make the final cut.

And it’s not like the Sounders are unaccustomed to bringing in temporary grass. They’ve done so at least six times since 2009, most recently in 2016 for Copa America Centenario. Notably, players were either complimentary of the playing surface or at least found it unremarkable. If the Sounders make a bigger investment that allows for something akin to semi-permanent grass, there’s no reason it can’t be a top-notch playing surface.

My suspicion is that concerns about the playing surface will only be used as a convenient excuse, possibly to avoid places FIFA doesn’t want to go in the first place. Seattle’s summer weather, the robust supply of world-class training facilities, the stadium’s proximity to downtown, and the ample hotel rooms — to speak nothing of the soccer culture — are all aspects of the bid that will compare favorably to the other bid cities.

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