END OF AN ERA…FOR CRUMB RUBBER
We have a new USSF President. A renewed lease on the future of American soccer, where should we start? With the fields.
In 2012 before I left coaching full-time to become the soccer expert in a synthetic field company, I asked my father what he thought of the move. Clear as if it were yesterday, I hear him say, “If you can help soccer to bring about a new generation of fields, it will be one of the biggest impacts you can make on our sport.” He added, “FieldTurf was a game-changer 20 years but we need the next thing to make fields better.”
Having never worked a day in fields in his life, he understood better than 90% of the billion dollar field industry what needed to happen. I would spend the next 5 years talking about, learning about, presenting on and selling — the idea that we can build better fields…and we can do it NOW.
To start I had to understand fields — all kind of fields and surfaces. And as I talked to more people and saw more projects a few things became clear to me:
- There are no indications of a causal relationship between crumb-rubber and cancer. [Washington State DOH Report and others.]
- EVERY synthetic field should be built over a shock-pad. I have not been involved in a project without a pad since 2014 and knowing what we now know, this should be the number one priority of every new construction and replacement field.
- When you have a shock-pad, you DO NOT NEED CRUMB RUBBER. Organic and water-retaining infills, like GreenPlay, in testing and practice perform and have characteristics more like natural grass and are cooler. For places without any water or with severe restrictions, other non-crumb rubber options exist.
- Cancer isn’t what we should be concerned about. Concussions and lower extremity injuries are.
What follows is a story and proposal to explain the disconnect and the challenges which face the discussion around fields in the United States and are mirrored by conversations in many other parts of the world. Europe is far ahead of the United States in pitch management — both synthetic and natural grass.
In the Spring of 2013, I met with some prominent members of the US Women’s National Team. As an avid supporter of theirs and lover of the World Cup, I was eager to offer my still-developing expertise to assist in the efforts to have the World Cup venues replace synthetic turf with grass. Fields systems resemble the USSF Presidential election in that they aren’t impossible to understand but they are significantly more complicated than meets the eye. I knew that the players couldn’t focus their efforts on the nuances of the fields but they could create the conditions to force FIFA and the LOC to say “no” as opposed to trying to convince or sue them to do the right thing.
That November, I was running through an airport trying to catch an earlier flight to Orlando. I was on a mission and I was nervous. I was always nervous when I knew that high-profile games were being played on our fields. I was more nervous when it was my friends. The idea of one of them tearing an ACL or getting a concussion petrified me. Making the earlier flight meant that I would have time to get to the stadium well before the events of the day began and I could do what I had done on numerous occasions during that first year, inspect the field, check infill depths, have a conversation with the groundskeeper to top off or even out certain areas where crumb rubber tends to pool, if necessary. The staff in Orlando were top class and I wasn’t expecting any issues, but I’d be more comfortable once I saw for myself.
I made the flight, I rented a car, drove straight to the stadium and arrived around 10am. Kickoff was at for 3pm. I was escorted to the Stadium Managers office. I had met him before and greeted him while we waited. I was told that per the contract with US Soccer, that anyone on the field had to be approved. I knew the operations staff at US Soccer knew me. I had explained why I was there. I was there to help. I was there to prevent what would unfortunately come to pass in the high-profile cancellation of a match at Aloha Stadium [that turf was not manufactured by the company I worked for] in December of 2015.
The USSF operations staff member, called me “unprofessional” and I was sent away without inspecting the field. This type of behavior doesn’t surprise me in soccer any more. Is it illogical? Absolutely. But many in soccer view protecting their fiefdoms as more important than their common sense. I could have called Sunil or Dan and made it an issue but my aim was not to stir the pot, it was to do everything in my power to ensure that the players were playing on the surface in the best possible condition it could be in. I let it go. Fortunately, there were no issues with the field that day or any other time I would visit that stadium.
The field in Orlando is a crumb rubber field built over an aggregate stone base. This is the most common construction of fields across the United States in the past 20 years. What makes the field in Orlando different is that it has a texturized layer of fiber designed to help lock the crumb rubber in place. This reduces the splashing of the infill which leads to inconsistency in the surface. This is a similar construction to what both the men’s and women’s national team played on in Chattanooga in recent years without incident.
It’s not hard to understand why more players don’t like synthetic turf. What has been incredibly hard is to get stakeholders, players, coaches, parents and fans to understand that armed with the right information, they can ask for better, that better options exist.
So what do we do? How do we handle fields going forward.
Start by not thinking about fields in two pots, natural or synthetic but rather think about fields on a spectrum. For example, a highly-engineered, soccer-specific, synthetic field would be better than say, any of these:
But even the best natural grass fields don’t stand up to pristine, professional pitches like say:
That is a thing of beauty to any and every soccer player in the world. It’s a pristine canvas for the artists to emerge.
But remember, demanding to play on grass doesn’t guarantee the outcome we want. RFK historically has been known to have an excellent pitch, but last year when the women took the field for the She Believes Cup, the surface wasn’t to the standard.
So we have our spectrum:
bad synthetic — bad grass — good synthetic — good grass — hybrid systems
I’m not going to talk about hybrid systems today but their prevalence around the world and their absence from the US market is something that I expect to dramatically shift in the coming decade.
The way you unify all of these fields on one plane is through data — testing. This is an area that has grown exponentially since I first started working on fields led by the University of Tennessee Center for Athletic Field Safety, the Natural Grass Advisory Group and other members of the Sports Turf Managers’ Association.
Having data on pristine natural grass fields allows you to benchmark all fields and create acceptable ranges. FIFA’s efforts to categorize fields in their FIFA Quality Program has fallen victim to financial and relational pressures that FIFA is known for. It omits testing useful to understanding risks related to head injuries (HIC) and playability (energy restitution).
The players have been told that FIFA approved fields are good. Their experiences tell them different. Once you’re programmed to think a certain way, it is incredibly difficult to change your beliefs. This is a case where we need to change people’s understanding and belief about synthetic fields by showing them what synthetic fields CAN BE.
US Soccer should lead all American sports by establishing its own guidelines, endorsed by the USMNTPA, USWNTPA and encouraged (although not mandated) to be adopted by its member associations.
Why? Because I want our national teams to play in Hawaii. I want them to play in Portland. Atlanta. Detroit. Las Vegas. I want them to be able to showcase their pride of playing for the National Team in front of crowds across the country. And I want the players to have confidence that they are playing on safe fields every time.
Every field (grass and synthetic) that the National Teams play on should be tested 48–72 ahead of the match. For transparency and educational purposes for other stadium managers, those test results should be published as part of the pre-game notes to supporters and journalists.
Creating better playing environments starts with understanding the issues, asking the right questions and rewarding facilities and stadiums that are investing in the best and safest possible surfaces rather than defaulting to what the NFL has done where field have become commodities used in marketing and promotional arrangements (this obviously is true in stadiums where NFL and MLS teams co-exist).
During my entire tenure in turf, no one at USSF ever called to pick my brain, get feedback, understand fields better (although I should say Senior NWSL staff have at times). As Carlos Cordeiro seeks to “Aim Higher” in order to elevate the standards for US Soccer one of the first places we should start is the fields.
Unless you want more of this:
In November, 2017, I spoke with Skye Eddy Bruce for the Soccer Parenting Summit on the topic of crumb rubber, synthetic fields and how parents and stakeholders can make a difference— get involved, ask questions, get professional help if you’re not sure what those are.
Note: I’m not advocating the immediate removal of crumb rubber fields, simply replacing them with better fields when they reach end of life. The sooner we stop replacing old fields with more of the same, the sooner we will achieve a crumb-rubber free generation of fields. Anyone working on synthetic field projects (new construction or replacement fields) are invited to contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) for a free project consultation. Or anyone else who may have questions.