FOXBORO, MA - AUGUST 29: Saer Sene #39 of the New England Revolution lays injured on the pitch against Chivas USA during the game on August 29, 2012 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Sene would leave the game following this injury. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
As I sit here typing, my left knee elevated, blanketed in ice while I rehab another torn ACL by way of playing soccer on turf, I wonder what it will take before MLS HQ realizes this game needs to be played on grass. I've played soccer for years on grass with no injury. I played one season on indoor turf which was abruptly cut short by a torn ACL. After two surgeries over two years I stepped into the mouth of the "Gillette Turf Monster" to play soccer upon turf once again. This endeavor was also futile; thirty seconds into my playing shift and upon my first touch, I tore my other ACL, famously photographed by Mr. Evan Whitney here.
People tear knee ligaments. An awkward turn, rough contact can force the knee to rotate in ways it was not designed, straining ligaments to the point of tear. Football-related knee injuries are due mostly to contact. Most soccer ACL injuries, however, occur with none.
On turf there is more of a risk of tear as the natural give of grass and soft dirt doesn't exist. A cleat can catch the turf and stick, redirecting opposing force to the knee rather than letting the ground absorb it. Some people are genetically inclined towards tears due to lax ligaments or too much flexibility. In my situation, I was told that I'm high-risk due to a natural hypertension of my knees past 0 degrees. My first tear I was wearing turf cleats. My second tear I was wearing studs. The only remedy for an active person with a torn ACL is reconstructive surgery supplemented with months of physical therapy. Recovery can take anywhere from 6 to 14 months and I doubt most ever get back to 100% form.
List of Recent Gillette Turf Monster Casualties:
1. Steve Ralston: 2009, torn ACL
2. Marko Perovic: 2011, torn ACL
3. Danny Koevermans: 2012, torn ACL
4. Brendan Schimmel: 2012, torn ACL
5. Saer Sene: 2012, torn ACL
It's not just the risk of ligament tears that should force a decree to make MLS a grass-only league. A removal of turf would lessen the abuse on players joints, yes, but it would also make the game more beautiful to watch. Watching a game of kick, bounce, and head on the Gillette turf can be mind-numbing at times (exhibit A, last night's tie against Philadelphia). First touches are awful, through balls rarely connect, and much of the possession belongs to no one as players awkwardly lean back to raise their legs shoulder-height and corral the forever-bouncing ball. In my experience, when I ask friends who follow European soccer why they aren't interested in watching MLS, they often cite the ugly style that playing upon turf promotes. When watching an English Premier League game the most notable difference is the movement of the ball around the field. It stays closer to players feet, it stays on the ground, it's less active and easier to settle. Some of this can be correlated to better quality among the players but a huge chunk can be attributed to them playing on a natural surface.
There's no secret out there. No ones likes playing on it.
New York Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry famously avoids turf. Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder David Beckham mired himself in controversy in 2007 for speaking out against turf, saying it was one of the things "not right" about the American game. Players hate playing on turf. Rumors often swirl regarding transfer targets who shun offers from clubs whose home surface is artificial. It seemed odd to me that New England Revolution coach Jay Heaps proudly announced his Revs would play the ball on the ground this year. Your home field is turf, sir, and you practice on grass. Easier said than done.
Revs fans, though, have seen a natural surface at Gillette a few times recently.
You see, Mr. Kraft will make exceptions to his turf when big money is in play. Like, for instance, when English superclub Manchester United comes over to play a friendly. Or if he wants to play host to an international friendly like Spain vs. the USMNT. Mr. Kraft will throw down that natural surface, bring out the shielded player dugouts and make it feel like a real soccer game for them. Frankly I think this sends the worst message in the world to your club's players and employees: that you are wiling to bend over backwards to accommodate the Spains and Manchester Uniteds of the world, but not do anything of the sort for your club, the one that you own. Shameful. If a soccer specific stadium ever comes to fruition in New England and the surface is artificial I would expect fans to riot, and rightly so.
Four of the nineteen clubs in Major League Soccer currently play on an artificial surface. They are the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps and the New England Revolution. Two of these teams share their facility with an NFL team which would complicate any move from turf. Perhaps from May-August a grass solution could be implemented before the NFL season starts? Green painted asphalt would be better than turf. For this league compete and flourish grass should become the adopted standard in Major League Soccer, not just for the well-being of its players, but to ensure a quality product for its fans as well. There is a reason leagues in Spain, Italy, France, and England play on grass.
What do you think of watching soccer on turf? Are you going to be the Gillette Turf Monster for Halloween this year?