This is a companion piece to feature writer Charlie Boehm’s long-form piece story "How artificial turf could change the future of soccer in North America."
The US national team's avoidance of artificial turf under his leadership has given Jurgen Klinsmann the reputation of a turf-hater. But when MLSsoccer.com asked him about the topic on his visit to Washington late last month he praised the surface's potential for growing the game in the US.
With one notable exception.
“I think the more fields we can have, and also turf fields, I see it as a total positive,” said the German-American coach, referring to the explosive growth of turf at the game's grassroots level. “Playing the game on turf or even on other surfaces is no problem at all, it’s encouraging. They are good quality, there’s no negative to it. ... Get as many fields as possible – wherever – and get the kids and play on them, it’s totally cool.
“Just on the top, top level, when you talk about qualifying for the World Cup, when you talk about players coming in from Europe trying to adjust to different fields, then you want to make sure that you make that transition is not too difficult.”
The second half of Klinsmann's response illustrates the concerns that have led the U.S. Soccer Federation to carefully avoid hosting World Cup qualifiers at turf venues in recent years.
Technically, that streak will end in Seattle on June 11, when CenturyLink Field will welcome the USMNT and Panama for a crucial CONCACAF Hexagonal match – though the Sounders' home stadium will sport a temporary grass surface for the occasion, with the Emerald City's well-documented passion for the game having prompted the federation to put aside its past frustrations with such installations.
Slightly less than a month later, Klinsman's squad will return to the Pacific Northwest for their Gold Cup curtain-raiser against Belize at Portland's JELD-WEN Field, their first game on a synthetic field since his tenure began in July 2011.
“We want to keep on playing World Cup qualifiers on grass fields,” said Klinsmann. “But when there’s a moment like in the Gold Cup now, which is a huge competition too, and we have to move on to a turf field, no problem at all.”
If the US hold serve and win Group C as expected, they will play their quarterfinal match at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium, an NFL venue sporting artificial turf. Though many Gold Cup matches have taken place on turf, M&T Bank Stadium has installed temporary grass when hosting international friendlies in the past and is expected to do so again for this summer's Gold Cup doubleheader on July 21.
The USMNT may tangle with at least one more plastic pitch this year. Costa Rica have announced plans to hold their Sept. 6 qualifier on the synthetic turf at Saprissa Stadium, the aging, daunting San Jose venue where the Yanks have never won, instead of their brand-new National Stadium (which boasts a lush natural surface, but little of the intimidation factor Saprissa offers in spades).
“You have to adjust to it,” Klinsmann said when asked about the “Monster's Cave” and its artificial grass, which must still be approved for September's match by FIFA. “You’ve got to train on it a couple of times and you’ve got to take it just the way it is. They’ve got to play on it as well.
“It’s no problem,” he added with a grin, before cracking a joke that might reflect his real feelings about artificial turf. “I don’t have to play!”