We found out today that Arsenal will be traveling to Sutton United for the 5th round of the FA Cup. Sutton United are located, funnily enough, in the borough of Sutton, which is in the southwest of London. They currently play in the National League, which among other things means that when Arsenal go there, they will be unable to use the DH, which instantly puts them at a disadvantage. But articles about strategy and tactics are for another day.
Sutton United play at Gander Green, which looks like pretty much exactly what you think of when you think of a non-league stadium; it has a capacity of just over 5,000, but only 763 seats. The other thing that it has, though, is what you’ve no doubt already heard about - it has an artificial surface.
Longtime followers of the English game will no doubt remember that, back in the 1980’s, QPR, Luton Town, and a few other clubs experimented with what came to be called “plastic pitches”, and the results were...not great. The reason for that is the same reason that artificial turf in the US got such a bad reputation in the 1980’s. The brand QPR and many other teams deployed was called Omniturf, but whatever brand a team used, artificial turf at that time was, essentially, a flat green sheet of rubberized material laid over either packed dirt or concrete.
What that meant for soccer was a few things: first, the ball bounced like crazy, which made passing more...complex. It was hard to know how to weight a pass, because once it took off on that stuff, it was off - and if a keeper booted a long clearance, it would often hop once, about 12 feet in the air, and end up completely at the other end of the pitch. It was like watching a pinball game from the perspective of a bumper.
That era of artificial turf also developed quite the reputation as a major cause of injury. Because it had no “give”, 1980’s era artificial turf would pretty much grab a studded shoe and never let go. Which is fine if you’re running in a straight line, but if you are jumping, twisting, or otherwise pivoting, old artificial turf was horrifying. Injuries ranged from “turf toe”, which is basically a hyperextended toe, to all sorts of torn ACL’s and other ligaments, thanks to the lack of give of the surface.
These surfaces also disincentivized sliding, which meant the game was less physical and contact-oriented - I don’t know if you’ve ever played on one of those old surfaces, but I did as a kid because our local park had it. Rug burn was a thing, and it sucked.
Artificial turf also presented the home team a pretty big advantage. Not only could the home team better figure out how to play the bounces and how to weight their passes, but often times, manager Terry Venables would allow opposing teams to practice on their turf and then, prior to the game, would order the turf to be soaked. This impeded the movement of the ball in a way that a team who only played there once a year would have no way to prepare for.
QPR had that artificial surface from 1981 until 1988, and it was widely panned and nobody missed it when it was gone. It also, understandably, stigmatized artificial surfaces for decades in soccer; the experience wasn’t good on any level, so of course, grass was the only alternative.
Well, fast forward to 2017, and guess what? It’s a whole new world. As with many things, time and advancing technology has seen great strides being made in the world of artificial surfaces. The current gold standard is FieldTurf Revolution, which is in use in many US stadiums in both soccer and football, including Providence Park in Portland and CenturyLink Field in Seattle on the soccer side, and Gillette Stadium in the NFL (and MLS). Three other NFL teams also use FieldTurf products, although not Revolution.
Artificial turf technology has advanced to the point where FIFA now has standards and ratings for turf fields, and if a field - like Prov Park or Clink - meets FIFA’s “two star” rating, they are eligible to host World Cup qualifiers and other high level tournaments - CenturyLink hosted Gold Cup games in 2015. In theory, there’s nothing stopping any Top Club Club team - Arsenal, Manchester United, etc - from installing it right now.
The main difference between turf now and turf in the 1980’s is that today’s turf is actually blades of plastic, that are manufactured and installed to look, feel, and function like blades of grass. They maintain their shape by having little plastic pellets as a base layer, which is what you see when something impacts the turf. This is all installed over the same type of base - layers of compacted dirt alternating with compacted gravel - that natural grass fields are laid down on. The advantage here, of course, is playability - the surface plays much more like grass than does a sheet of plastic, and does so in both wet and dry conditions. It also arguably drains better, or at least more predictably.
WARNING: THIS IS WHERE THINGS GET ANECDOTAL
Both Thierry Henry and David Beckham were famously anti-turf in their MLS careers, and refused to play on most turf fields out of fear of injury. However, they both willingly played at Providence Park, because the surface was so good. Seattle’s, until recently, was the same Revolution turf but installed differently and less frequently because the Seahawks preferred a harder, faster surface and they own the building, but as mentioned, they hosted competitive Gold Cup matches on it, and it was fine.
Now to the injury thing. Debating injury rates on turf v. those on natural grass is not going to go anywhere constructive, because there’s no reliable way to quantify why an injury happens. There are just as many studies that say artificial turf has no added effect as there are those that do. It’s essentially the “how do you pronounce GIF” discussion writ large, in that there are many opinions and much data, but there’s no clear, 100% correct, settled answer.
Anecdotally, I’ve seen injuries on FieldTurf, and I’ve seen injuries on natural grass, and I can’t really tell you if the turf injuries would not have happened on grass or vice versa, because the playing surface is only one factor in injury causes. What I have not seen is exponentially more injuries on FieldTurf; I haven’t kept stats, but injuries seem no more common on FT than on grass, and of the two career ending injuries I’ve seen at Prov Park - Mikael Silvestre and Nat Borchers - neither one seemed to be blamed on the turf (indeed, Silvestre’s injury was to a leg that was in the air at the time).
I will say, though, having seen a ton of games on both natural grass and on Providence Park’s artificial turf, that there is no appreciable playing difference between the two, from a spectator perspective anyway. The ball bounces more accurately, and the game requires no major tactical adjustment because of the playing surface.
So, when you think of Arsenal v. Sutton United, think of how awesome it will be for the Sutton fans to experience a Premier League team playing a competitive match at their stadium, and how much fun games like these are. Don’t think about the playing surface, because it won’t be an issue.