Each season in USL, there are always changes for everyone to adjust to. Each team will have new players. The league almost always seems to add new teams. Change is constant.
For the Riverhounds this season, one big new change is the debut of a brand new astroturf field, which will see its first minutes of official game action at the Riverhounds season opener on Saturday night. It is a change that players are greatly excited for, and one that was more than a little overdue.
Veteran midfielder and longest-serving Riverhound Kevin Kerr told me “This is my second turf I’ve seen laid. I was here for the last one.”
That would be the original turf that was laid at the opening of Highmark Stadium back in 2013. At the time, it was state of the art; the press release materials of the time boasted that ‘The field surface is FIFA 2-star certified artificial turf, the highest rating that an artificial surface can achieve.’
But after five years of wear and tear, the old green turf just weren’t what she used to be.
The blades had been worn down, and over time the synthetic base layer under the astroturf had grown harder. Players described that the old field produced high, bouncing balls that made controlling passes and possession much harder. Kerr explained “The last turf, it was an older, quicker turf; the ball bounced. You had to concentrate so much on your first touch just to get the ball down.”
Kerr and coach Bob Lilley noted that the wear on the surface meant that the field could be unpredictable – with a ball spinning oddly in some spots or skittering out too far because a certain section ‘played fast’ compared with another spot on the pitch.
To some degree, though, a crafty veteran like Kerr could use those oddities to potentially gain an edge on the competition. “We actually managed to use it to our advantage. It was a bobbly surface, it was fast.”
But because the Hounds knew what to expect, while the opponents did not, it gave the old-timers a bit of a leg up. Kerr said, “We were fortunate enough to train on it every day. It was actually an advantage.”
Lilley thought so, too. “Teams used to hate coming in here. It was a difficult surface to play on if you weren’t used to it.”
The Hounds manager saw additional challenges that came from the aging turf: injuries.
Lilley explained, “For our guys to train here on a daily basis, on that old surface, it was really tough on their bodies. Thomas Vancaeyezeele, this year we had to shut him down a few days because of tendonitis in the knee. (Joseph) Greenspan, to be banging on this with his Achilles last year, he missed a lot of time. (Mohamed) Dabo has groin issues.”
A new field, Lilley said, should help players avoid those nagging injuries to some extent. “This should calm some of that stuff down.”
Tommy Vancaeyezeele on the all-new Highmark Stadium turf
Monday of this week was the first time that Riverhounds players got a chance to step out on their new field, and all the players noticed a difference in the new turf right away. Striker Steevan Dos Santos grinned broadly about it. “It’s much better than the one before for sure. I think it’s a nice turf. They say it’s high quality. After two days of training, I think the bounce was good. I noticed a difference.”
Kerr thought that the surface would lead to a higher quality of football, a sentiment with which Bob Lilley agreed. Kerr said, “We’re obviously delighted, we feel we can play much better football. The ball stays flat, and the first touch is much easier. I think everyone is going to see a higher quality of soccer because it’s got a good turf. The improved turf affects passing and confidence, you know. You’re not worried about the bobble coming in. It plays as close to grass as you’re going to get from turf. You can worry about where you’re taking your first touch rather than just getting it down, getting it under control.”
Lilley echoed that sentiment, saying “This is more uniform with other turf surfaces, and it’ll help us play better, no doubt. A better surface helps the better team. I happen to think we’re one of the better teams.”
The overall sense was that the surprises and the inconsistencies that used to occur on the old turf were gone, leaving a field that played almost exactly as a grass one would. Lilley said, “I would have thought it would run slow until it wore in a little bit, but yesterday from the passing drills, the ball was rolling nicely. It was rolling true. It’s not bouncing high like a super ball. It’s checking up pretty well.”
Striker Neco Brett paid the field possibly the highest compliment a player could give when he told me, “It kinda feels like grass. I like it.”
That said, as an attacker, Brett would still prefer grass to turf because he felt it gave him some specific advantages. “I can accelerate better on grass. On grass, you get that first step, you can push, but on turf you slip a little bit, so it affects your acceleration.”
“A better surface helps the better team. I happen to think we’re one of the better teams.” – Bob Lilley
The technical specifications on the turf were on the club’s mind as they were picking out exactly what they wanted. Many turf fields have a fiber count of 42 to 45 ounces of fiber per square foot. The new turf at Highmark Stadium has a fiber count of 60 ounces per square foot. That should help the field stay in good health even under the heavy wear and tear that comes from the Riverhounds training on the field each day, the rentals to youth teams, a slate of NPSL and collegiate matches that take place, and the summer concert and festival season. The team also elected to go with a slightly bent blade position, which differs from some turf soccer fields. That should hold up better for wear and tear, and also will better retain rubber pellets or sand if the team wants to add either of those to help adjust the playability of the surface over time or based on rainy conditions.
The new field was exciting for the players, but away from home, each of the Hounds I spoke with had favorite pitches to run around on, as well as field surfaces that they really did not like. Steevan Dos Santos picked an MLS stadium with grass as his favorite place to play: Red Bull Arena. Kerr and Brett both loved their recent match at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, where the club earned a 2-2 draw against Swope Park Rangers on March 23rd. Kerr was especially effusive about that verdant patch of green; “You’re not going to get a better grass pitch than that.”
Amongst USL football grounds, Brett, Dos Santos, and Kerr had very positive things to say about Nashville, Tampa Bay, and Charleston. Kerr put the grass at the Battery’s home field, MUSC Health Stadium, as the very best in USL. “Charleston Battery always have a fantastic grass pitch. Of true USL grounds, that’s the number one.”
Of the worst stadium to play on in USL, the three players came to a complete consensus.
“Every year. Louisville.”
“I say Louisville for sure.”
They all complained about the difficulty of transitioning from the loose grass surface of Slugger Field’s ‘outfield’ to the carpet-covered dirt ‘infield’ at the end of the pitch. Kerr truly dislikes the so-called ‘turf’ that gets rolled out in that end. “It’s like from a beer garden. You know? They just roll it out on the day and it’s so extreme, the difference when going from the grass to the turf.”
All three players explained that they had to play differently, and rather than playing the ball or worrying about position and tactics, as they should, they primarily have to contend with not falling down when playing on Louisville’s thin carpet. Although many teams around the league play at baseball stadiums and cover over the base paths, most use real rolls of sod as covering. Kerr was incredulous that the field in Kentucky refused to conform to that convention. “Harrisburg, they laid grass (over the infield) so it was better. There’s four or five of them in the league and they all roll out grass. How Louisville don’t have to do that, I’ll never know.”
While the players prefer a natural grass surface, there’s no doubt that they relish the chance to play on a new surface where the game will be much more dependant on their own abilities, and less dependant on the randomness of an odd bounce or the slight advantages of a wily veteran that can anticipate a strange bounce. Players just want their soccer to be pure and untampered by playing conditions, so that no matter where they play, it’s the players that determine the outcome of the match, and not the field. Or as Nico Brett eloquently put it, “You have to go out there and work. Sometime you can’t be looking at the field because at the end of the day, you’ve got a job to do. You’ve got to go out there and do your job.”
Featured Picture taken by Mark Goodman. All other pictures for this article taken by Ed Thompson.