By Randy Vogt
Artificial turf can be a wonderful solution for soccer fields, particularly in urban areas, that are overused. Through the advent of FieldTurf over a decade ago, overused fields have been transformed from dustbowls to artificial turf. In New York City, the best example of this is the historic Metropolitan Oval, which now sees a daily regimen of soccer.
Five years ago, 25 percent of the games I officiated were on artificial turf and now it’s approximately 40 percent and increasing slowly every year.
But it’s a different game on artificial turf as the game is much quicker. Teams with fast players tend to do better on artificial turf as they can take full advantage of the faster surface. Play can move quickly from goal line to goal line, even with less skilled players, so it can be exhausting to referee 3-4 games on turf by yourself (without assistant referees). Having celebrated my 50th birthday last month, maybe I’m also simply getting old!
What’s interesting is most artificial turf fields are used for multiple sports so even if 200 soccer games and 10 football games are played there every year, the intruding football lines are stuck on the turf year-round. Referees can use the football lines to their advantage in determining offside (when reffing by yourself) and in establishing the 10 yards for free kicks. Yet those football lines can pose a problem for keepers as well as refs in easily seeing the penalty area. The halfway line is difficult to spot as well to help determine offside. As there is generally not a flag to mark the halfway line on most soccer fields, refs can put a marker nearby to help them such as a garbage can, their referee case if appropriate, etc.
Games can be played on artificial turf in heavy rain and often even in light snow as the turf absorbs the inclement weather so much better than grass. You need not worry about getting muddy, just wearing wet, black pebbles on your legs, on artificial turf fields. But playing games in very poor weather is not always a good thing as it’s hard to have fun when you are being hit by very adverse weather conditions.
For a player, this could mean being on the field for two hours or less but officials could be on fields up to six or seven hours. I have refereed several college showcases in late autumn in which none of the college coaches showed up that day as the weather was so poor.
As a referee, I’m now used to officiating in the rain as well as officiating on very cold days (or nights). But I don’t think that I will ever acclimate myself to cold days with heavy rain as I get cold and very wet no matter how many layers of clothing I have on and switch into. On those occasions, I cannot wait for halftime or between games to go inside, dry off and try to become warm.
I can remember a boys U-16 cup game played one cold April night several years ago on a turf field 150 yards from the shoreline. It started raining heavily at kickoff and the rain became even more intense in the second half. Yet the field was very playable. So with a tied score late in regulation, both teams moved defenders upfront in order to score a goal. But no goal came so we went to overtime. OT in this competition is Golden Goal, thankfully, and both teams were searching for the winner and a goal was scored in the second minute of overtime. Even the losing team was happy to go home as that night had become so uncomfortable.
Additionally, the surface of FieldTurf and Sprinturf can get hot on summer days but thankfully, not nearly as hot as its Astroturf predecessor.
It has been speculated that there are more serious injuries on artificial turf fields rather than grass. Yet in the games that I have officiated on FieldTurf and Sprinturf surfaces, there have not been any more injuries over grass. I do notice, however, that cramps are more prevalent on artificial turf over grass.
Regarding any link between cancer and turf, there’s concern about the little granules of ground up tires that contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons could be cancerous. Tires often contain toxic substances that prohibit their disposal in landfills and oceans, so it is reasonable to question whether the material is safe for use on fields where people play. Yet four years ago, the Consumer Product Safety Commission took a hard look at turf and determined it was safe. I’ll let somebody far more knowledgeable than me elaborate about any health issues with artificial turf.
Even though artificial turf certainly has benefits, if given a choice, I much prefer a well-manicured grass field.
(Randy Vogt has officiated over 8,000 games during the past three decades, from professional matches in front of thousands to 6-year-olds being cheered on by very enthusiastic parents. In "Preventive Officiating," he shares his wisdom gleaned from thousands of games and hundreds of clinics to help referees not only survive but thrive on the soccer field. You can visit the book’s website at http://www.preventiveofficiating.com/)