Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Do field conditions matter when developing soccer players? Artificial turf, the necessary evil.

Before I get started, don't start talking about kids on the streets of Africa and South America.  Our kids not playing street soccer is another issue.  

Once our players get to the point where it's time to move them forward, how important is a surface where the ball rolls true?

We take our kids to Streetsville Memorial Park in Mississauga, Central Park in Burlington or Mohawk Park in Hamilton, and we expect a quality game?  Never mind the game, what about training there? Ontario's bad field list is VERY long but it's also a victim of the significant growth in soccer.

(We were at Mohawk park last night, that's what drove me to write this.  It is my least favourite place to take my team.  The grass fields are poor and they have the same white lines for football on them making them very confusing)

Poor fields and limited climate narrow the scope of our collective programs because of limitations on when you can train and where.

I know soccer people prefer grass over artificial turf, I know I do, that's for sure.  But in a place like
Ontario, can we move our players forward, as a whole, without the presence of suitable surfaces?  Flat, top level, suitable and properly graded  grass fields are not always practical.  Winter does so much damage, our "growing season" is not long enough, our weather patters are flood or drought and maintenance costs money that many cities claim they don't have.  We haven't even mentioned the cost of proper watering systems and schedules.  Every spring and fall, depending on the weather, our fields are a collective train-wreck because of the rain.

"For other cultures, the entire country is the environment in which they develop.  For us, it's contained within the formal soccer pitch and club organization."

Kids need to play on the street to develop their touch and creativity, but at some point they need to learn how to play as a team and keep possession.

During the spring, I enjoy training on playgrounds and gym floors when turf is not available.  It's flat and
Crushed-stone pitch in Italy
the ball rolls true.  I see coaches in school yards getting upset because the passing is terrible.  How can it not be?  It's like playing marbles on a cobblestone sidewalk.

People will argue that less than perfect fields develop better touch, athleticism, quicker reaction to bad bounces and all kinds of things along those lines.  To some extent they might be right.  But when it gets to the point where a player's abilities have to be moved to a higher level, the proper surface is required.  I won't back down on that.

My mother's town in Italy (Fossa, AQ) had a field of crushed stone and sand.  It wasn't pretty, but it was flat and the ball rolled true.  When I took my 1994 Boys team to Holland in 2009 they were playing the ball on the ground like champs because they were on flat, awesome grass for 12 days.  When we got home they tried to continue but that was flushed down the toilet by half-time of our first game back.

To develop a pitch in Ontario with Dutch Barenburg grass would be impractical.  We would need to develop an environment that controls temperature, lighting and precipitation.  Control precipitation/temperature = field cover and underground systems.  Control lighting = electricity and hardware.  $$$$$ .  Not to mention the impracticality of leaving the field vacant for recovery time after a match.

The expense that BMO Field has incurred to install grass for Toronto FC is prohibitive to most cities and clubs.

We spoke with one grounds keeper in Holland and what he said was also impractical here.  They had 4 grass pitches and one artificial.  Every 4 days a grass pitch is assigned 4 days off for recovery and repair.  And during games, volunteers go on the field at half time to repair damaged spots (similar to fixing your divots in golf).

Here, our grass pitches are stressed and overused.  The very nature of grass requires time between matches.  Recovery and repair time is not always possible because of the number of players playing and the cost involved.

We are improving.  The last few years I would venture to say we are improving at a dramatic rate.  There is more indoor turf every winter for kids to play on.  There is more outdoor turf to provide better conditions for March/April/May/Sept/Oct/Nov.  Some clubs are attempting to have a quality grass pitch but it's difficult to spend that kind of money in our climate and restrict its use to a few teams and allow it time to recover.

Unfortunately, turf is the unavoidable choice to serve the mainstream demand for soccer in cold climates or multi-use situations.  It's not a bad option and it's much better than the mud pits most kids find every week .  Just not the most desirable.  For professional levels, grass is the only option.  Small school and municipal stadiums who need multi-use surfaces to generate revenue can't use grass.  A soccer team that shares a pitch with a football team can't choose grass.  A high school that has 3 soccer teams, 2 football teams and 2 field lacrosse teams can't choose grass.

Do other countries get away with less than perfect conditions?  Certainly.  But many of those countries have the benefit of their kids playing all day, every day and developing the type of skills our players don't have.  Some places have a whole different environment of poverty and no-tech that we can't replicate.  Others have such a deep soccer culture and international success, that every child's dream of playing professionally drives the desire to play anywhere, anytime. 

For countries with professional leagues, they are often MUCH smaller than Canada with 20, 40, 60 or even 80 professional programs within their borders.  So identified players are always close to top level facilities. 

Hopefully a developing attitude towards grassroots soccer and spreading the game outside of the club will give the kids more time on the ball to mitigate the effect the bad pitches have on their limited exposure to soccer.  But until that happens, we are their soccer.

For other cultures, the entire country is the environment in which they develop.  For us, it's contained within the formal soccer pitch and club organization.  So the pitch better be good.