Benefield: Soccer turf dilemma

Jose Lopez, bottom, stretches with the Elsie Allen boys soccer team during practice, Monday, Oct. 27, 2014. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

Jose Lopez, bottom, stretches with the Elsie Allen boys soccer team during practice, Monday, Oct. 27, 2014. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

By KERRY BENEFIELD

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Is synthetic turf the scourge of soccer, or the savior of the game in an area where water supplies are limited and field space is minimal?

Those bright green, plastic blades of fake grass buoyed by endless bits of crumbled rubber are getting a second look from some and a resounding dismissal by others. But still others say turf is the best, most realistic way to keep area kids playing the beautiful game.

The conversation over turf reignited when some of the best soccer players in the world sued FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association over plans to stage the women’s World Cup matches on turf next summer, contending it is a second-class surface for a first-class level of play.

Then a college soccer coach in Washington worried aloud that it causes cancer, especially among goalkeepers who spend more time on the ground.

But here in Sonoma County, where the plastic and rubber pitches have come into increasing favor for a variety of reasons, turf is the best of a pretty limited list of options for folks who love their recreational sports and especially their soccer.

“A nice grass field? I would rather play on that,” said Casa Grande girls coach Vinnie Cortezzo. “But point me to the nice grass field in Sonoma County. They just really don’t exist. So turf winds up being better just because it’s consistent. It’s flat, it’s fast, so it winds up being better than most of the grass surfaces we are able to play on.”

The schools that do maintain grass fields have their hands full. School campuses are open season for casual use — and misuse. Games are played in the rain, it’s difficult to keep people off beaten-up surfaces, they are expensive to water, expensive to re-seed and time-consuming to groom.

We are not the 49ers, where wrinkles in the grass set off a full-scale panic at the beginning of the NFL season. In August, divots appeared in the grass at Levi’s Stadium and then players actually slipped at practice. Slipped. Mon dieu, we’ll have none of that. Tear up the field and begin again, men.

We can’t be so cavalier with our resources here in prep sports.

So schools and districts have increasingly turned to artificial grass on playing fields where boys and girls soccer squads share space with football teams throughout the fall.

Soccer coaches and players say artificial turf promotes a fast, possession-focused game where teams can string together passes instead of battling over 50-50 balls on every touch. And knees and ankles fare better when there aren’t sinkholes and divots to contend with.

“It’s smooth, it’s fast, even. Obviously it’s more conducive to an attractive style of soccer, in my opinion,” Montgomery boys coach Jon Schwan said.

Schwan, who spends 200 days a year standing, running and coaching on turf surfaces, said he’s mindful of health concerns.

“I have a 9-year-old daughter who plays. She’s been running around on turf fields since she was 3 years old. It’s kind of scary,” he said. “When you hear about this stuff, you can’t help but worry and wonder where we will be 20 years down the road.”

At the national and international level, there are resources to groom fields, keep damage to a minimum and maintain a close-to-pristine, natural surface. On a community pitch like Montgomery High School or any other area campus, teams and kids and families are descending on the field all day long, all year long. It’s a tough assignment trying to keep a field in playable shape.

Increasingly, maintenance crews are either contending with drought conditions or dealing with soggy overuse.

So given that choice, area coaches say artificial turf is the best, most reasonable solution to a pretty good problem — we love to play and watch quality soccer around here and our fields get tons of use.

Yvette Perez, a senior on the Maria Carrillo girls team, said her squad plays all week long on grass but looks forward to matches on turf because it highlights a better brand of soccer.

“I think when we play on turf fields, we have a better ability to possess the ball more and really string together passes,” she said.

But there is a downside. Turf burns.

You know when coaches tell players to “leave it all on the field”? Turf burns take care of that.

“As you slide on turf, you leave some skin behind,” Cortezzo said.

And speaking of burns, artificial turf is known to heat up well beyond the level of a natural surface.

Yet for goalkeepers — the focus of the University of Washington coach’s concern with cancer — turf can actually be easier on the body in many cases.

“I’m certainly no expert on what is best for a goalie who is diving all of the time, but go look around at grass fields we play on. The goal areas are the worst,” Cortezzo said.

“Most of the time, they are just diving on a patch of dirt,” Cortezzo added.

So the march toward installing more artificial surfaces continues.

Work at Casa Grande is slated to start the day after graduation this spring. The field should be ready for both soccer and football use by midseason 2015, according to Petaluma City Schools Superintendent Steve Bolman. Petaluma High’s new surface work will begin the day after graduation in 2016.

In the West Sonoma County High School District, school board members are expected in December to re-examine the choice to install artificial turf surfaces at both El Molino and Analy high schools in the coming years.

“We will err on the side of caution,” said Superintendent Keller McDonald. “We will ask the question and examine the data one more time.”

For many coaches, many of whom coach club soccer teams as well as high school squads, turf presents a realistic option for a community mindful of both its water use and its financial resources.

Still, if all things were equal, enthusiasts would rather have the real deal.

“There is a little bit of a purist standpoint to it,” Cortezzo said. “The game is supposed to be played on grass.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com and on Twitter @benefield