Canales Daily: Just Not Good Enough For Grass

Andrea Canales ponders what to make of the fact that grass is brought in for teams on tour, but not yet planned as the surface for Major League Soccer's championship.
By Andrea Canales

The recent friendly games in the U.S. with visiting foreign teams present something of a sham to fans who come out for matches, and that's the shame that Major League Soccer has decided to ignore.

It's not just that fans will see, even though the touring squads are in preseason, a higher level of soccer.

It's also that the game will be presented on the proper stage - on grass.

Yes, for these meaningless exhibition matches, MLS has ponied up the money to replace the artificial fields at Qwest Stadium in Seattle and BMO Field in Toronto.

However, did the league bother to make such an effort for MLS in last year's All-Star Game in Toronto? Oh, no.

This year, is the league going to replace Seattle's turf for what ostensibly should be the biggest game of the year for MLS - the championship final?

The silence so far on the matter from the league is deafening. Qwest was announced as the location for the MLS final months ago, and the time for planning a grass replacement is growing short, but still no word has arrived of any move in that direction.

In contrast, Barcelona and Real Madrid used their clout early on to assure that the favored feet of their stars would never touch a synthetic surface, getting assurances from MLS management that sod would be placed especially for their matches on tour.

After all, with Cristiano Ronaldo's legs insured for $80 million each, Real Madrid isn't going to take chances on them suffering the pounding that all professional players who perform on turf complain about.

As for Barcelona and their own superstar Leo Messi - well, they're not about to make their little Messiah inhale crumb rubber if he takes a tumble during a match.

MLS, as accommodating hosts, fulfilled the demands of these organizations for their players to perform on the classic surface of the game - authentic grass.

What's undeniable, though, is that everyone in the tour of European teams involved is going through this trouble for matches in which it is simply not crucial for the ball to roll and bounce as true as it would on normal grass, and where players are disinclined to tackle with any risk involved. The reason is simple - it's not a competitive match.

The Los Angeles Galaxy's Eddie Lewis shrugged his shoulders when asked about the worth of the touring games.

"They're exhibition games. They're a chance to get certain guys a few more minutes than they've had in the past, to play against different opposition and a different style. In any league around the world, the friendlies are fun for the fans because they're different."

Ideally, however, there should be no game more competitive and hard-fought than the one in which the last two teams left standing throw down for the MLS title. Players will be going all out, and that's part of what makes it disheartening to think that MLS is going to cheap out on them and refrain from spending to install grass at Qwest.

It's not coincidence that no major soccer final has ever been played on artificial turf. No, not even in MLS has that travesty taken place for a final.

Even for the recent Open Cup final, which was awarded to D.C. United's aging RFK Stadium, the word was that trying to avoid the turf was a factor in the successful bid over Seattle as host.

If one puts on the conspiracy theory hat, however, the turf could play into Seattle's own willingness to let MLS save money by shortchanging the players at the final. Statistically, it's proven that MLS squads who play on home stadiums with turf have better records on the surface, both at home and away, than non-turf squads.

It simply makes logical sense, that if Seattle's players are used to the way the ball runs on their turf, to how best to weigh a pass or measure a bounce, that it gives them an edge over players without that knowledge and experience. That advantage, however slight, would be eliminated if grass was brought in for the MLS final. It would be an even playing field.

Now, Seattle hasn't made the final yet, but they're one of the top contenders to do so, so why wouldn't they want every factor in their favor possible?

Yet it's time for the league to take a hard look at the situation and realize that if Seattle (or any other turf-home-stadium playing team) makes the final, the game shouldn't come down to who is more familiar with a tricky surface. Seattle will get plenty of advantageous support from their local fans, and they shouldn't fear playing any team on grass. After all, that's how they're facing Barcelona.

Ultimately, it's about the message the league is sending to both its players and fans. Actions speak louder than words, and right now, MLS is clearly saying that Barcelona and Real Madrid are good enough for grass.

The MLS final? So far, the lack of action to insure it will be played on grass indicates that MLS believes it's not worthy of the honor.

Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of North America

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