Think all artificial turf is the same? Think again! Just look around MLS

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Seemingly small differences have major impacts on how the fake stuff plays. There's a reason Portland is No. 1...

Monofilament polyethylene blend, silica sand and cryogenic rubber, aka artificial turf. You see it in MLS, whether in Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, New England or even Atlanta’s soon-to-be home (Minnesota will transition to natural grass when it moves into its new home).

But what is different about each turf, and how do the surfaces compare? That question gets defined not by the product installed in each stadium but by the uses of each venue, and how those uses dictate maintenance. Portland, Seattle and New England all feature Georgia-based FieldTurf’s most premium product, the Revolution 360 infill system, as will Atlanta. Vancouver bucks the FieldTurf trend and opts for Germany-based PolyTan’s LigaTurf RS+ CoolPlus system.

Artificial turf is so stigmatized that everyone puts it in the same bucket.

- Merritt Paulson

But don’t think all five turfs will play the same. And don’t get Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson worked up on the subject.

The turf basics

With polyethylene fibers stretching mimic blades of grass in both systems, the FieldTurf Revolution 360 offers a different infill system than the rest of the industry, FieldTurf vice president Darren Gill tells FourFourTwo.

“The elastic layer underneath is for more shock absorption, especially over time,” he says. “It helps the surface maintain its elastic properties and with long-term playability and comfort.”

FieldTurf’s blades space wider than other brands to allow a cleat the ability to dig into the synthetic infill without too much grab. The idea has athletes playing in synthetic dirt and not on top of fibers. Gill says it also helps to keep playing characteristics consistent over time.

The latest FieldTurf fiber comes as the most resilient the company has, which keeps its grass-like fibers working longer. “You want those fibers to stay up as long as possible for the most realistic roll,” Gill says. “As the surface gets harder, you want to keep it as soft as possible to address ball roll.”

Portland’s Providence Park and Seattle’s CenturyLink Field both have Revolution 360 turf and infill systems laid in 2016. Each sits on top of a permanent elastic layer that serves as a shock pad for added comfort. New England’s Gillette Stadium, which has had FieldTurf since 2006, added a new Revolution 360 turf in May 2017, but it did so over a slightly different pad system. Atlanta will install the Revolution 360 surface with the same pad as New England, while Vancouver’s pad mimics the one found in Portland and Seattle.

In Vancouver, PolyTan uses an irregularly shaped infill product to better mimic naturally-grown materials while allowing water to adhere to the granules and fiber. BC Place installed the latest version of the product in 2015 in time for the Women’s World Cup. “We did a lot of research and traveled to venues in Europe and our research determined it was the best option for the most soccer-like qualities,” Greg Anderson, Whitecaps’ vice president of soccer operations, tells FourFourTwo.

The turf differences

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

But just because New England or Seattle installed Revolution 360 doesn’t mean it will play the same as the product you’ll find in Portland. “If teams want to have the surface play a little firmer, they can do so,” Gill says. “Softer or slower, they can do that. They have some degree of manipulation of the infill system within a range and it can be manipulated to play harder.”

And here’s where the NFL enters the mix. And monster trucks. Or concerts. It comes as no secret that NFL teams prefer a harder artificial surface. Add in NFL team desires with stadiums that welcome a variety of events, each event packing down the infill every time a truck or stage rolls over the field, and it will quickly start playing firmer.

Portland, though, doesn’t have the push and pull of NFL teams and welcomes far fewer non-soccer events than the larger major stadiums.

“Artificial turf is so stigmatized that everyone puts it in the same bucket,” Paulson tells FourFourTwo. “There is a massive difference between the quality of turf fields that you can host a soccer game on, just like there is a very big difference on the quality of a grass pitch for a game. There is no question that we have the best artificial turf surface in the country right now that is being used for soccer.”

Whether from Thierry Henry, Bruce Arena or David Beckham, all noted “turf haters,” Portland gets the best ratings. There’s a reason why.

It starts with Portland’s commitment to completely re-turf every two years and limiting the use of its turf, akin to a natural grass stadium. “The events that take their toll and hurt turf are less games versus having monster truck shows and concerts hosted on the field,” Paulson says. “It really impacts its performance and its play.”

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Then comes the actual mix in Portland. Stadiums hosting NFL rely on a heavy sand mix with less rubber. Portland has a softer fill with more forgiveness. “Don’t get confused with what we are using with what gets used on youth fields,” Paulson says. The field at Providence Park has a FIFA 2-star rating, the highest possible rating from FIFA and the required rating for any artificial turf used in final-round competitions (such as the 2015 Women’s World Cup).

While Portland does welcome football in the form of Portland State University — the main reason, Paulson says, the Timbers haven’t installed natural grass — the team limits football’s impact. Portland only does three-inch painted lines with no colored end zones, wide sidelines or coach’s boxes. “If an artificial turf gets repainted, the paint gets into that turf and creates a performance issue,” Paulson says.

The Timbers — and the NWSL’s Portland Thorns, which practices and plays at Providence Park — also have the luxury of defining the weekly and long-term maintenance of Providence Park. That may not always prove the case in NFL-specific venues.

“The fields are designed to maintain the FIFA quality pro performance,” Gill says, “but in the end, it is maintenance. The key is the recommended brushings, sweeping or raking over time to keep the infill as fresh as possible. There are ways to maintain it to keep it at optimal playing levels, but our clients are the ones who decide how they want fields to play.”

The Whitecaps may not share BC Place with a NFL team, but the Canadian Football League’s BC Lions call the venue home, along with a variety of non-sporting events.

Anderson says he doesn’t field any complaints from players and says that every stadium has differing aspects that change the atmosphere, from the crowds to the humidity. Turf falls into that category. Paulson says never have the Timbers tried to sign a player and had turf come up as an issue.

Even with arguably the best turf in the land, the Timbers still train almost exclusively on natural grass and Paulson says they never rule out the eventuality of switching to natural grass in Providence Park. “There may be a time we are a natural-grass stadium,” he says, “but in the meantime, we will have the best turf field of any MLS stadium.”

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