Charles Boehm's longform piece in MLS Soccer.com's The Word series focuses on the rise in use of artificial turf in North American youth soccer and poses the question of whether we might be seeing the future of North American soccer.
In MLS, only four of the stadia (BC Place-Vancouver Whitecaps, CenturyLink Field-Seattle Sounders, Gillette Stadium-New England Revolution, JELD-WEN Field- Portland Timbers) use artificial turf. However, in youth soccer, artificial surfaces are being turned to as a cost effective, durable and year-round opportunity to satiate the demand for playing time. There is no doubt that artificial surfaces have improved from the days of the green carpet AstroTurf of the Astrodome. But, are those surfaces now good enough? Do we know enough about how the body reacts to playing on them?
Claudio Reyna, the current youth technical director for U.S. Soccer and former New York Red Bulls and U.S. International midfielder, had a mixed reaction. Reyna grew up playing on natural surfaces, along with the unevenness and rocks that sometimes come with them. He preferred those fields to artificial turf like the one he played on for the Red Bulls, but realized that youth are used to non-grass playing surfaces.
"It's normal for kids now. ... They don't think twice, they just play on it. I still have a tough time feeling comfortable with it, to play on it. And it's going to be interesting to see what it does down the road with injuries - are there more joint injuries? It's not natural. But again, it's being used."
There are examples in Boehm's article praising artificial turf for aiding youth skill development. The most prominent is the referencing of artificial turf being used at Barcelona's famed La Masia. While it is true that there are four artificial fields in Barcelona's academy, five of the nine pitches are natural grass and an additional goalkeeper area is also a grass surface. Another thing to consider skill wise is that Barcelona or any other elite European outfit attracts top youth players from around the world to their academies. Are we not expecting greatness from the players produced there no matter the playing surface?
Barça is a team that thrives on possession and is instilling that into youth players at an early age in part with the use of artificial surfaces. U.S. Men's National Team coach Jürgen Klinsmann favors more possession than U.S. fans had been used to under previous regimes and said he doesn't see any issues playing the game on artificial surfaces and wants the U.S. to have more pitches no matter what they are made out of. Those of us who prefer to see the game played only on natural grass don't have to like this promotional push, but the sets of circumstances mentioned in the Boehm article mean we aren't going to see the trend abate any time soon either.
Follow Patrick Johnston on Twitter at TheRealPSJ.