Gillette Stadium, turf the elephants in the room for MLS' lofty ambitions

MLS once had bigger problems, but to be a top league in the world by 2022 - as Don Garber has stated as a goal - playing surfaces must be addressed, Steve Davis writes.

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On his way out of greater Boston, U.S. international Jermaine Jones upset a few New Englanders. Maybe you heard.

The combative midfielder recently moved from the New England Revolution to Colorado Rapids. During introductory remarks in Colorado, Jones happily pointed that he was trading up, so to speak, into “a real soccer stadium” and into a better organizational situation in which he was “respected.”

“In Boston, it was completely different,” he said. “You have the turf field that is tough on to play. But then, you have to share the whole stadium with the Patriots, so you not feel really home.”

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Who can blame Revolution supporters for being put out? Look, they know clunky old Gillette Stadium has never been ideal, and they recognize that ownership should pay more attention to the club. (And write bigger checks!) Generally, they recognize that the club’s longtime home in suburban Foxborough, Mass., is easily MLS' worst, most ill-fitting venue. Still, it’s what they have. It’s their crappy situation.

But Jones is 100 percent right. The man is just telling it like it is; nothing he said can be argued with a straight face. He’s pointing out the obvious, except that pointing out the obvious is a bit impolitic in some MLS circles.

Increasingly, the situation in New England is a bigger and bigger pimple on MLS’ rear – not just the playing surface, but the fact that Gillette Stadium is completely, 100 percent unsuitable for MLS soccer. And with every new stadium built for MLS – say, how are those swell new digs down in Orlando coming along? – Gillette Stadium and the Kraft’s ownership becomes a fatter, slower moving target.

Why is this stuff sometimes such an elephant in the room? Because the Kraft family, like the Hunt family and Phil Anschutz, carried Major League Soccer in the early years. The league wouldn’t be here but for the unwavering commitment of those three groups. So the default position for lots of MLS insiders has always been to give the Krafts something of a pass. Not a total pass, mind you, but not to pick too much or too often at this scab that just won’t heal.

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Well, about the same time as Jones’ comments muddied the nice dress shirt of New England’s front office, Didier Drogba’s understandable reluctance to perform on artificial turf began acting as accelerant in this ongoing discussion of playing surfaces. So it all adds up to a couple of things:

There was a time when MLS had bigger fish to fry, problem-wise. Increasingly, the bane of artificial turf in general and of Gillette Stadium in particular will become THE problems to fix in MLS. Major League Soccer has grown tremendously in 20-plus years, with commendable uprisings of new stadiums, gradually fortified rosters and better TV deals. But this drag of Gillette and artificial turf is a limiting factor. And it’s a largely solvable one.

If the league really wants to be a top global operation by 2022, then MLS needs to get it right on the venues."

- Steve Davis

If the league really wants to be a top global operation by 2022 (as commissioner Don Garber has said), then MLS needs to get it right on the venues. Because they may spin the PR wheel in a few years to call it a top league, but you are not a top league if you are still playing inside Gillette Stadium and on artificial turf in five or so venues. Period.

Seen in a historical context, it makes perfect sense that New England is still anchored cynically to Gillette Stadium. The Krafts poured stacks of cash into the league back in the day and now, it’s simply more economically convenient for them to stay in place. Building stadiums is expensive.

Here’s the problem: every single day there are chances across the land to create new MLS fans, and most of the targets don’t give two hoots about “historical context.” Gillette Stadium as a venue makes zero sense to them.  Start trying to rationalize “historical context” and see how quickly they check out, most likely glancing down at their phones to check fantasy leagues or see how many goals Lionel Messi scored in Barca’s latest La Liga romp-and-stomp.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Will MLS stand up to one of its longtime backers? (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

As for the rest of the discussion, the artificial turf fields around MLS: The problem here is that it’s not really getting any better. Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and New England all play on the fake stuff, left to argue over whose version of crappy surface is less crappy. (Seriously, stop telling me about better versions of “bad” and just look for solutions.)

Atlanta United will join MLS in 2017, and the plan is to play on artificial turf indefinitely. Which is an absolutely rotten plan. Yes, the building looks beautiful. But the soccer will not be, with odd bouncing, skipping and skimming and with balls getting caught up under players’ feet. It damages the sports’ aesthetics.

Back to the Revs’ situation: The Krafts will make noise about building a stadium. They and the league have before on several occasions, the latest round of which coming just last year. But I’ll bet my personally autographed Sepp Blatter soccer ball (Yes, I have one; it’s gotta be worth something, right?) that the Revs will be playing in Gillette in 2022, by which point Garber wants to have a top league.

It is not good for the league. It is not good for the players. It certainly is not good for the fans, who not only suffer from watching soccer in a bad MLS setting, but most of them drive way out of the city to do so. Foxborough sits halfway between Boston and Providence. So, who benefits from the current situation? The Krafts. They save money this way.

Again, in a 20-year context, you kind of get it.

But again, after 20 years, it’s time to fix this.

MLS This and That

After careful inspection of MLS Round 2, I’d love to see …

A little more of this: Some really gutsy stuff from Toronto FC in Week 2. Because as good as the Week 1 result was (a 2-0 win at Red Bull Arena, a place where Jesse Marsch’s team went 12-3-2 last year), Sunday’s result was even more impressive in some ways. Sebastian Giovinco led the way as TFC rallied from a two-goal road deficit. Those critical mid-level roster pieces acquired in the off-season – Will Johnson, Drew Moor, Clint Irwin and Steven Beitashour – were brought in specifically to give TFC that kind of will and pluck.

… and a little less of that: Bad defending from L.A.’s Robbie Rogers. Generally, Rogers isn’t a poor defender. But he has this tendency to lose focus in critical moments, and it hurts the Galaxy. He’s an attacker at heart, with an attacker’s instincts.

A little more of this: The stand-up reaction from Seattle backup goalkeeper Tyler Miller, who was on the wrong end of a controversial referee’s decision at the end of Seattle’s loss at Real Salt Lake: “The referee didn't call it a foul so it's not a foul.” A lot of (more experienced) players and coaches around the league should take note of that young man’s approach.

… and a little less of that: Complaining about Caleb Porter’s complaining. Because the guy was innocent this time! It’s true that Porter hasn’t always been the most gracious manager in defeat. But Porter made no excuses in his comments after losing at San Jose, crediting the home team and a stunningly good goal by Quincy Amarikwa, and refusing to lean on the soggy field conditions. (His Timbers really did play well, creating more chances, etc.) And yet, a few fans chose the more convenient narrative, that Porter was shopping at the excuse store again.

A little more of this: Referee Alan Kelly, who continues to be the league’s top referee, week in and week out, after winning top honors last season. It’s not just the decisions he makes; it’s his communication with, and management of the players.

… and a little less of that: Referee Silviu Petrescu, who continues to prefer his games be a mix of soccer and MMA. And he continues to butcher calls at bad times. Good example:  Late in New England’s scoreless draw with D.C. United, D.C. defender Sean Franklin (carrying a yellow card), grabbed and held Revs forward Juan Agudelo, who was about to run free into the penalty area. It should have been an easy decision, clear as day. Instead, it was the worst refereeing moment of the weekend.

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