Commentary

The 'Field of Play' and the U.S. reality

The first Law in the Laws of the Game is the “Field of Play." Law 1 defines the field surface, field markings, dimensions of the field, different areas of the field, goals, commercial advertising, etc. The field of play or the pitch is one of the most important building blocks of both elite and recreational soccer. Good and standard playing surfaces help both the professional and developmental game.

So let us have a look at the U.S. soccer scene through Law 1.

Law 1 talks about natural and artificial surfaces. Some of you might not be aware but natural surfaces mean grass and dirt fields. Yes, in many parts of this planet soccer is still being played on completely dirt fields. There might be a few in our country also, but when we say natural surface we understand grass -- good or bad quality. Unfortunately, there are no standards for grass surfaces in the U.S. or anywhere else as far as I know.

FIFA has standards for artificial turf. One star standard is for training and local games and two stars standard is for international games. According to FIFA, there are only 32 FIFA approved artificial turfs in the USA. Naturally, the numbers are far more than that, but only 32 of them have artificial turf surface that conform to FIFA standards. Although FIFA has numerous publications that show that there is no increased risk playing on the artificial pitch, still there are various objections. It is still vivid in our memories how some players reacted to the artificial turf-surfaced stadiums in the Women’s World Cup in Canada. Although safe according to FIFA, economical due to low maintenance costs and in some climates it is without a competitor, artificial surfaces are still despised by the elite players of this beautiful game.

We know that most of our high school and college stadiums’ surfaces are artificial. The Turkish men's national team in 2010 came to USA to play three friendly games. As the secretary general of the Turkish FA, I couldn’t find a small (capacity of five to ten thousand) stadium with natural turf in Northeast USA for the friendly game with Northern Ireland. Since Guus Hiddink, the head coach of Turkish men's national team at the time, insisted to play on grass, the game had to be played in a high school stadium with a grass surface in Connecticut. The field was slanted quite a bit on one side due to the harsh winter conditions. The Turkish press made a mockery out of the situation. But the coach was happy to play on a terrible grass field instead of a good surfaced artificial one!

Ten venues were chosen for Copa America Centenario with an average capacity of 70,655. None of the stadiums were soccer specific stadiums. They were chosen because of their capacities and their locations. Only three had professional soccer clubs as their tenants: Foxboro, Orlando and Seattle. Five of the venues originally had artificial turf. Four had natural grass and one had hybrid. In order for Copa America games to be played on natural grass the fields for five venues with artificial turf were covered with sod. Watching from TV, there did not seem to be a serious problem except for the NRG Stadium in Houston. I believe for future international tournaments like the World Cup, a better sod solution should be sought. Since I do not believe in due time that any of the stadiums with artificial turf will switch back to grass, on the contrary some of the grass surfaces might be converted to artificial. On the other hand, the decision makers of international soccer will never be convinced for a major tournament to be played on artificial turf. Though the introduction of hybrid surfaces in the last few years will make grass field maintenance more feasible.

If we look at the stadiums on which MLS teams play, five of the stadiums have artificial surfaces. Of those five, only two conform to FIFA two stars standard, namely the Gillette Stadium and Providence Park.

Law 1 says for international games the field dimensions must be a minimum of 110 by 70 yards. The dimensions of the MLS stadiums differ a lot. There are 10 different dimensions, ranging from 120 by 75 yards (seven of those) to 110 by 70 yards (the minimum allowed). U.S. Soccer in its professional league standards says: “Playing surfaces for all teams must be at least 70 yards by 110 yards and be FIFA-approved.” That is it; not a word more a word less. “FIFA approved” part is a bit intriguing since only two fields out of five have FIFA approved artificial surfaces. The decisions for other aspects of the stadiums – like security, fan comfort, dressing rooms standards etc. are left to MLS and the other professional leagues. But many Federations and UEFA insist on a fixed size for their top level divisions. For example, in order to play in the Champions League your field dimensions must be 115 by 75 yards. Needless to say, different field sizes in the same league give an unfair advantage to the home team.

If you go to the other leagues in the USA, you will see fields of play that you will hardly see anywhere on this planet. I am not talking about the multi-colored lined artificial surfaces to accommodate football, soccer and other sports on the same surface; that is covered with Law 1 though it makes life difficult for the officials. I am talking about football goal cross bar inches above and behind the soccer crossbar. Although there is no mention of this in Law 1, I am sure IFAB did not think of this possibility. This small problem is easily resolvable with a portable football goal.

How about commercial advertising right in front of the benches in the technical area in another stadium? The coach has to go around the ad to reach the bench, although Law 1 clearly does not allow this. This is the reality of the U.S. soccer scene. I am not even mentioning the dressing rooms without a shower; the showers were 50 yards away. Well this is not covered in Law 1!

Have a look at the UEFA standards for stadiums. Look at the details given for security; player, official, fan comfort and others. In our country all of those are left to the leagues to standardize and monitor. Do you know how many permits you have to get from the governing bodies like cities and states to open up a small restaurant? You don’t get those permits from the Restaurant Owners Association.

So much for the elite side of soccer and their fields. How about recreational and developmental soccer? For recreational soccer as long as the pitch is safe, it doesn’t matter whether it is grass or artificial or even dirt. Recreational soccer means fun and nothing else, although in our country it is a bit different. Please read a recent article in Soccer America, if you haven’t done it yet. The article compares the Italian youth calcio approach to ours.

For the developmental level, the surface matters a lot. I live in central Texas and most of our playing and training fields are grass, including for the developmental teams. To start and maintain a good grass field is extremely difficult and costly. For U-13 developmental teams and above, one of the training objectives is to develop their long range passing. Most of the grass fields are bumpy which does not help the developing players with their long-range passing and their possession game. It would be wise to have artificial fields for the developmental clubs instead of badly maintained grass ones.

Artificial or natural; the organizations must choose the surface that is suitable to their needs and budgets while conforming to the standards of the governing bodies.

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet@ahmetguvener.com) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, Texas.

12 comments about "The 'Field of Play' and the U.S. reality".
  1. Bob Ashpole, September 23, 2016 at 3:23 a.m.

    In theory artificial turf seems like an attractive alternative for everyone. There are, however, a number of drawbacks. First and foremost, it does not play like a grass field. The worst problem in my opinion is the heat buildup on the field. Field temperatures can be about 20 degrees higher than ambient. Easy to fix by watering the field to cool it by evaporation, but then you are playing on wet plastic. High level soccer matches, i.e., college and professional soccer, belong on grass. Period. For recreational and youth soccer, I have never seen a local government that planned on adequately maintaining public fields and most public synthetic fields I played on didn't even have water service lines, much less get watered during hot weather. Generally fields didn't get resurfaced until they were badly worn. I think too much concern is placed on the quality of the practice fields. You need a good surface for dribbling, but passes are going to be off the ground except when you use the ground to slow the ball down. Bad surfaces are just another training challenge. The increased hazard I see with turf is that shoes will stick to the rubber surface more so than grass. That is just my speculation, but until I see some research to the contrary I will continue to believe there is an increased risk of knee and ankle injury over grass.

  2. Bob Ashpole replied, September 23, 2016 at 3:27 a.m.

    Before someone brings it up, I want to point out that the short fast flat passes typically used in possession style play are not on the ground. They are just above the ground. If you pass the ball on the ground it is slower and it rolls (friction tends to give top spin).

  3. Kent James replied, September 25, 2016 at 2:03 a.m.

    Bob, I think you mentioned this before, and I have to disagree. Longer passes do need to be elevated a bit (for the reasons you mention), but most short passes are on the ground. While they may be in the air, there is no need (unless the surface is bad), and that creates a third dimension to the pass (height) that makes it harder to receive. A firmly hit short pass will not noticeably slow (and properly weighted through passes will use the surface to get the right speed), and most teams that play tika-taka hit the ball firmly.

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, September 25, 2016 at 5:51 a.m.

    Kent, you cannot hit a flat pass on the ground. The ball rolls due to friction, adding top spin, and makes it very difficult for the receiver to one-touch pass. It takes a great deal of skill to make tiki-taka look easy. Not to mention passes on the ground are much slower. I expect average adult recreational players to be able to control short passes with the ball traveling on top of the grass, not in it. It is not more difficult to control a ball 3-6 inches off the ground, than on the ground--except for the difference in speed. Nobody makes short 1-touch passes when there is no pressure. The ball has to keep ahead of the defense.

  5. Kent James replied, September 25, 2016 at 9:55 a.m.

    Again, respectfully, I disagree. If the ball is not spinning at all, then you would undoubtedly be right. Very rarely does the ball have no spin (hard shots being the only common example). While one-touch is often used under pressure, teams that play tiki-taka use it almost all the time, regardless of pressure. Heck, I've seen Barcelona players play one touch back and forth from 5' away without anyone nearby ('you take, the ball..', 'no, you take the ball, I insist..'). A ball rolling on the ground is significantly easier to control than a ball in the air, because the player receiving the ball only needs to control the ball in 2 dimensions, not 3. Yes, it is slower (also making it easier) but for short passes that doesn't matter, since the person making the pass just hits it a tad harder to overcome the forces of friction. If you are right, then the quality of the field would not matter to a team that plays tiki-taka, because the ball would never touch the ground. In my experience, lousy fields take away (or at least reduces) the advantage that greater skilled teams have, because it is hard to play a short-passing game on a poor surface.

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, September 26, 2016 at 6:45 a.m.

    Kent bad surfaces (rough ground, puddles or snow) interfere with dribbling and force teams to use passing to move the ball even short distances--by passing above the ground. Skilled teams should not be prevented from passing by bad surfaces. In fact the bad surface gives an advantage to the attack because it slows down defensive reaction to movement of the ball.

  7. don Lamb replied, September 26, 2016 at 1:23 p.m.

    Sorry, Bob. I have seen you write this under another article also, and it's just not true. Passes (even some long passes) should be played on the ground. It's not hard for the players to account for the affect of the friction caused by the grass and to thus hit the ball with the correct speed. Passing the ball on the ground is much more efficient than playing the ball in the air as receiving a ball played on the ground is simpler and allows for faster speed of play (in most situations).

  8. Paul Cox, September 23, 2016 at 4:03 p.m.

    "According to FIFA, there are only 32 FIFA approved artificial turfs in the USA. Naturally, the numbers are far more than that, but only 32 of them have artificial turf surface that conform to FIFA standards."

    "“FIFA approved” part is a bit intriguing since only two fields out of five have FIFA approved artificial surfaces."

    These statements are not entirely correct. For a field to be listed with FIFA, the surface must be *certified* as being either a one-star or two-star surface.

    The requirements for fields to meet those standards are laid out in a FIFA manual(http://quality.fifa.com/en/Football-Turf/Install-Football-Turf/Certification/)... but the point is that not only do you have to have an approved supplier/manufacturer, but you have to have the field actually tested and certified as meeting the standard.

    So there are hundreds of fields around the USA that are "FIFA-approved", that use surfaces manufactured and installed by FIFA-approved suppliers, but that nobody bothered to spend any money and pay for the testing/certification.

    Some fields gain two-star certification one year, and then after a year of use, they are tested again and then only meet the one-start standard.

    This is the situation in which we have found ourselves in Seattle. After a year of use by the gridiron football team the Sounders share the stadium with, not to mention monster truck rallies and concerts, the pitch typically cannot maintain a two-star rating and drops to one-star.

    But when an artificial turf field is brand new and only used for professional games and occasional training, it stays in tip-top shape and I believe the prejudice against it is very unfair.

  9. Wooden Ships, September 23, 2016 at 5:40 p.m.

    No turf period. All the supporting arguments are not and will not be sufficient for me. I can't even watch a game on it.

  10. Kent James replied, September 25, 2016 at 1:58 a.m.

    At the professional level, I agree. But they are practical at the youth level, where extensive use would make a good grass field an impossibility.

  11. Bob Ashpole replied, September 25, 2016 at 5:39 a.m.

    The problem is that synthetic fields are extremely expensive to install and need to be periodically resurfaced, which negates the cost savings in not having to mow and seed grass. Because of the expense and high demand for the fields, local governments can demand high user fees, e.g., $100-200 an hour which is not optimal for youth soccer programs.

  12. R2 Dad, September 24, 2016 at 12:18 p.m.

    The field issue is related to the MLS season used. When you have half the teams in MLS in the snow zone, and you're playing through the mid-summer heat, it's very difficult to keep grass going year round at these locations. I like that stadium model where an enormous tray of grass is grown outside the stadium then slid in to play matches (see University of Phoenix/Cardinals Stadium). As far as artificial turf goes, it's great for young kids to learn to play on because of the durability, lack of maintenance, and predictable surface--what the vast majority of kids playing the game (below U12) need. As far as goalposts go, any country trying to play soccer on a rugby pitch will run into the same issues we see here with american football and soccer sharing the same fields.

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