Canales Daily: One Step Forward, Another Back

Sure, MLS has beautiful fields and stadiums like the Home Depot Center and Rio Tinto Stadium, but others are downright painful to both watch and play on.
By Andrea Canales

It's easy to see the signs of progress in Major League Soccer. This year, none was more pronounced than the pristine view from the seats at Rio Tinto, the newest soccer-specific stadium in MLS.

I've been to all but one of these venues intended to specifically capture the intimacy of the game and the crowd. Rio Tinto is beautiful. For me, one of the best sights, after watching RSL play so many matches on the American football-lined fake grass of Rice-Eccles, was the gorgeous green lawn on which the players ran about.

One visit, or even viewing Rio Tinto during a match on television, is enough to convince anyone that MLS is really going places.

It's less of a convincing view when the games are played in stadiums that are clearly second-rate or not intended for the game at all.

I've long despised artificial surfaces in the professional game. If anything says, "this is the game at a high level", it should be a beautiful carpet of the stuff the game has historically been played on. Nothing manufactured replicates the bounce of real grass, the cushion for the player's legs, the give during a slide tackle.

This isn't to say that synthetic grass doesn't have any place in the game. After all, many Brazilian stars honed their games as youngsters playing street soccer, and FieldTurf is undoubtedly better than that. However, housing MLS teams in stadiums with that stuff is the equivalent of asking certain NBA teams to play some of their games on playground blacktop.

But that's exactly what MLS will be doing to its new Seattle team next year. Qwest Field won't have real grass. This will likely affect Seattle Sounders FC far more than the other tenant in the stadium, the National Football League's Seattle Seahawks.

I won't get into all the dynamics of different player movement and running patterns in American football versus soccer and the injury risk involved.

Let me instead point out the most obvious contrast. In the NFL, the ball isn't meant to touch the surface. In soccer, the movement of the ball on the playing surface is a crucial part of the game.

So while MLS takes a step forward with a beautiful stadium for Real Salt Lake, the entry of another team with a fake field and NFL lines during games yanks it backwards again.

It's something of a sad travesty that some of the league's best teams play in the worst venues, surface-wise. The New England Revolution, for example.

Poor surfaces, sadly, aren't limited to artificial fields. Houston's Robertson Stadium has a grass field that got visibly chewed up towards the end of the season, when the MLS team was forced to share the venue with the college football squad.

Similarly, the number of matches at the Home Depot Center due to two MLS squads and more often, concert activities that leave the grass unwatered and vulnerable, takes a toll. The otherwise pristine stadium annually has to lay down new turf in the middle of every season because of the X-Games that take place there. Newly-laid sod is inevitably lumpy before the grass has time to settle into place.

Still, there was a reason that the Houston Dynamo begged Robertson Stadium not to put in a synthetic surface. There's a reason why players all around the league hail Toronto as a great place to play "except for that field". There's a reason why Canada's own national team doesn't want to play there. There's a reason why Darren Huckerby would rather play in Buck Shaw Stadium than BMO Field.

Players simply prefer grass. Fans do too. About the only people I can think of besides management who prefer artificial turf are those who also like nothing better than mocking MLS for its various shortcomings. A game on turf with football lines and unpredictable bounces that can make even skilled players look silly is comedy gold for them.

Progress in MLS is clearly not linear. Even as the league attracts the attention of a respected entity like Barcelona, who hopes to launch its Miami MLS venture in 2010, the prestige of the connection is undermined. The Miami team wants to start play in a college stadium, with yes, another synthetic surface. So while New York leaves the toughened plastic turf of Giants Stadium behind next year, with Seattle and perhaps Miami entering the league, players will still have to deal with as much manufactured grass as ever.

If MLS really wants to prove it is the real thing in soccer, it needs to be sure it plays on that.

Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of