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Edmonton Goes as Plastic as the Red Patch Boys

(arbitrary shot at the Red Patch Boys chosen strictly for tradition's sake and to get eyeballs. I'll get the Nordecke next time.) If you have your ear close to the Edmonton soccer scene, or the Canadian Football League scene, or you read the 24th Minute, or the Voyageurs board, or... well, the point is, you've heard the news by now. Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium, the last natural grass venue in the CFL and the largest stadium in the country, is almost certain to convert to FieldTurf at a cost of $2.6 million.

The reaction from the soccer community has been almost uniformly negative. At the aforementioned 24th Minute, Duane Rollins wrote:

With grass pitches in Toronto and Montreal now and plastic in Edmonton and Vancouver, things have shifted 180 degrees in terms of facilities in Canada. It used to be that most of the games went west because the east didn't have a proper stadium. Now, it's likely going to be the opposite.

Also, his post was titled "Plastic crap to Edmonton?" Just in case you thought he didn't have an opinion.

First, let's be clear about one thing. This is a move exclusively to the benefit of the Edmonton Eskimos, the CFL club which is Commonwealth Stadium's primary tenant. And it probably should be. The Eskimos play the home half of a CFL schedule, usually plus a playoff date, and in the near future a Grey Cup game. The Canadian national teams is the only soccer tenant Commonwealth has had since the demise of the Aviators and they average about one game every three years; the men's team has played at Commonwealth most recently in 2007, 2004, and 2000, all World Cup qualifying matches. The women's national team has only played at Commonwealth once, a lopsided 8-0 friendly victory over Mexico in 2003. Commonwealth was the primary venue of the U-19 womens' championship and played second fiddle to BMO Field when we hosted the U-20 World Cup, but that's the sum total of its major international soccer career. So let's not pretend that the Canadian Soccer Association has lost a major host site. If the Eskimos prefer FieldTurf, ultimately they're what matters, not four senior international games in ten years. The City of Edmonton owns Commonwealth Stadium and by all means, they should care about its major tenants.

First-class soccer players don't like FieldTurf. They don't like good FieldTurf, like BMO Field was in its early days. They don't like bad FieldTurf, like BMO Field was last season. This is mostly based off of comfort and anecdotal reports of an increase in lower-body injuries that science doesn't support. Obviously, if the CSA schedules games for Edmonton and our best players refuse to report or play their best because they're afraid of injury, that would be a disaster. But that's not going to happen.

The worst turf surface I've ever seen professional soccer played on, I actually saw last year: Florida International University Stadium in Miami, where the turf was so bad that the laws of physics no longer appeared to apply. I attended a Whitecaps - Miami FC USL-1 match where the ball did things I'd never seen before. Ripples and divots in the carpet were visible from the first-row seats where I stood. It was horrendous. Yet not three days prior, the men's national team had played their blood out on that very rug to a 2-2 draw with Costa Rica in the Gold Cup, one of the best-played and hardest-fought matches of the tournament. These guys are professionals. A few Tomasz Radzinskis aside, they may grumble but they'd still give their best on FieldTurf.

Even more important is one of the reasons the Eskimos want the grass torn out of Commonwealth Stadium. Yes, it was a natural surface. But it was a terrible grass surface. It spent a sub-arctic winter exposed to harsh Edmonton cold and snow, lacking world-class drainage or under-soil heating, and an overburdened grounds crew spent a spring trying to get it into playable shape almost from scratch, and then a bunch of three-hundred pound gridiron players would use it as their primary home during the thirty-degree summers Edmontonians know and love, and then the Canadian national team would get out there and try to kick the ball around.

This is the point, more than any other, I want to make to the eastern Canadians who are lamenting the death of a grass pitch. Commonwealth Stadium had the worst playing surface in the country for international soccer regardless of material. The national teams already hated coming out there. We were two time zones further from Europe and the grass was murderous and even if you managed to get through the entire game without leaving your leg sticking out of the ground like a Roman spear you were still stuck in the middle of goddamned Edmonton.

I honestly believe FieldTurf will be an improvement, so long as it's properly installed and maintained. The men's national team will wish they were in Toronto or Montreal instead. But, guys, that's not new.