Monday, August 17, 2009

Soccer on Grass

OK, I have soccer on the brain after the Arsenal's magnificent 6-1 season opening victory at Everton ... on grass.

Which brings me yet again to the possibility that PGE Park as a soccer specific stadium might stick with turf because, well, the climate might not be too suitable for it.

Rubbish. Oregon's climate during the MLS season is perfectly suitable for a natural grass playing field. English professional soccer is played exclusively on grass throughout the extraordinarily wet and gray English winter, and most English stadiums host many more games than the typical MLS season.

In addition, the game is much better on grass, particularly for spectators. Even modern turf, while much better than the old stuff, causes the ball to bounce too high, roll too fast and the game quickly becomes more like ping pong than top quality soccer. Players are reluctant to tackle and so the game looses its element of physicality that makes it compelling to watch. I, for one, plan to attend many games if a grass field in installed, but will be only an occasional patron if they don't. I don't think I am alone.

Evidence that success in Toronto and Seattle with turf fields is meaningless - once the thrill of a new team wears off, a quality product on the field will keep fans returning year after year. The success of the team concerns both the owners of the team and the city, which has a financial interest in the success of the franchise and the number of people they are able to draw to the stadium.

Not having natural grass jeopardizes the team's chances of hosting national team matches and top European clubs, most of which refuse to play on turf. Temporary installations of grass for this purpose are incredibly expensive (reports of $100,000 for the one use field recently installed in Seattle) and of poor quality making the game even worse to watch and probably ruling it out as a surface for a national team match that matters. As these games are huge draws and important for stadium revenue, this is an important consideration.

Besides, grass may cost more to maintain, but additional groundskeeping staff is in keeping with the idea that and MLS PGE Park will provide employment and economic stimulus. (okay, I have pushed it too far, perhaps?)

Finally, this is Oregon, grass-seed capital of the world and a place that thrives on being an outdoor paradise for visitors. Not having grass because of the climate goes against this heritage and image and further reinforces the stereotype that Oregon is always rainy which is detrimental to tourism.

The fact that PSU plays about five football games at PGE park does make the task of maintaining a top quality field for soccer more difficult, but not impossible. A number of MLS soccer specific stadiums host football and many of the games will be played after the end of the MLS season. Modern grass fields with top quality drainage systems and synthetic fibers sewn in to keep the turf in place can withstand both weather and wear much better than in the past. English soccer stadiums often host rugby matches which are equally rough on the field.

For these reasons I hope the Timbers soccer team to install a natural grass field, but the Portland City Council should insist on natural grass at PGE Park as it has a real interest in the success of the team. Or it should do it for me....

Speaking of success and the Timbers, it looks like they may be finding a little offense to go with their fantastic defense: A great result at Rochester this weekend.

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