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Canales Corner: MLS players pay the price for popularity

A cacophony of sound explodes when the Portland Timbers score a goal at Jeld-Wen Field. The sold-out crowd cheers themselves hoarse, Timber Joey fires up the chainsaw and hews a slice out of the log kept there for that purpose, and the waving flags and banners would rival many of those in Europe.

When the confetti stops falling, however, it rests on a surface that is unnatural, no matter how fancy the technology behind the latest I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-Grass field purports to be.

With the New York Red Bulls finally settled into their gorgeous stadium with real grass, and with Toronto FC converting BMO Field to the genuine growing article, it seemed that plastic pitches were on their way out of Major League Soccer.

However, the Pacific Northwest has fueled a resurgence. The Seattle Sounders, the Portland Timbers and the Vancouver Whitecaps may all share names that evoke Mother Nature, but when the home teams take the field, they are stepping on chemical compounds.

Empire Field | Fans in Vancouver watch their side play on artificial turf

Natural grass is clearly the ideal for the game, and as MLS strives to improve their product, getting quality, authentic turf for every team should be a priority.

Yet the league has looked the other way on getting the expansion teams to conform to the ideal, partly because the success of the new clubs has been unprecedented in every other aspect.

"Portland has always had great fans," Bryan Jordan, a former Timbers players back in their USL days who now plays with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

He shook his head when asked about playing on a turf field, as Timbers players must now do.

"Nobody likes that," Jordan explained. "It's hard on your legs."

Forget the odd bounces, the near-instant puddles in rainy weather, or the way what seemed like a good pass easily results in the ball running merrily on to oblivion - artificial turf is most detested by those who actually have to perform on it.

"Of course the business people, the league officials, the ones who decide which teams enter the league, they're going to look at which teams bring in fans and money and not care so much about the turf," said Galaxy coach Bruce Arena. "The players pay that price."

No one will defend a poorly maintained, chewed surface of a few blades of weeds as better than an artificial field, but a lush, verdant live field is always the ideal. For players, the more forgiving nature of actual nature is a boon to joints and ligaments.

"I’ve been fortunate to not have to play [home games] on a turf field," USA star Landon Donovan said recently to, "but any guy in the league that I’ve talked to that’s played on turf, trained on turf for a number of years said it’s taken years off their career."

When former Galaxy teammate Edson Buddle was questioned about his lack of goalscoring production before he joined the Los Angeles squad, he would invariably grin and say his difficulties were due to playing on the synthetic stuff New York used to have.

R.I.P. | The Old Giants Stadium: Former home of Red Bulls, also recently demolished

Though all league players have to put in stints as visiting teams on the fake fields, Donovan was most sympathetic to the players bound to those clubs.

"Over the course of the season, a lot of injuries occur from playing and training on turf every week," Donovan explained. "That’s pretty obvious."

What's also obvious is that money is the controlling factor in turf being allowed in MLS, otherwise a grass field would be a non-negotiable requirement. It's also clear that if the league lowered the franchise fee for joining the league by a few million or so (it's currently around 40 million), more clubs could afford a lawnmower instead of a squeegee.

With dollar signs in their eyes, though, MLS officials have grabbed the cash and looked the other way regarding how much of a toll the polyester turf takes on players.

"We are hopeful that that doesn’t have to happen in the future when teams come into the league," Donovan ventured optimistically. "We’re also hopeful that teams will switch like Toronto from artificial turf to grass."

Sadly, the opinions of the players have been relegated to a low priority.

It's likely that only if fans make a big enough fuss against the turf, as was partly the case in Toronto, will the league be forced to changed its turf-tolerant stance.

Right now, too many of the supporters newly arrived to MLS are dewy-eyed at the experience - too distracted by the bells and whistles to demand that the game's field fundamentals be sound and genuine. They're busy glorying in the points their team wins, not in the pounding their players are taking.

"It’s unfortunate that we take the brunt of those decisions,
" Donovan observed.

Andrea Canales is an editor of North America and is trying to remember to update her Twitter account.

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