by Ryan Bailey

In a league where many teams use artificial turf, Charlotte’s Major League soccer team will have the distinct advantage of playing on soccer’s preferred surface

CHARLOTTE—One of soccer’s greatest strengths is that it can be played anywhere: asphalt, dirt, the gym, your mom’s driveway. The simplicity of the beautiful game makes it suitable for just about any flat surface.

For professional players, however, there is only one place where soccer should be played: grass.

“It’s the surface the game was meant to be played on and anything else is inferior,” former United States Men’s National Team star Jimmy Conrad tells Charlotte MLS. “Grass heightens the experience, and makes it feel special. It gives you a purpose for lacing up the boots. On other surfaces you can wear regular shoes—on grass, you can’t.”

It appears the majority of professionals agree with the sentiments of the 2005 MLS Defender of the Year. In an anonymous survey conducted by ESPN, 63 percent of MLS players said they would base a transfer decision on whether the team played on grass, while three percent of respondents wanted to abolish artificial turf altogether.

“I don’t like turf, plain and simple,” said one anonymous player. “The times I played on it, it takes a day or two extra to recover.”

Six MLS teams use artificial turf at their home stadiums, and the last two MLS Cup finals have been played on synthetic surfaces at CenturyLink Field and Mercedez-Benz Stadium.

When Major League Soccer comes to Charlotte in 2021, however, there will be no qualms about the pitch. The field in Uptown Charlotte is all-natural Bermuda grass, overseeded with perennial ryegrass in the spring and fall, and maintained to the highest standard.

The stadium’s playing surface will be a boon for the team in attracting players to the roster, given that many MLS stars have been reticent to play on turf in the past. Both Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic generally avoided turf during their MLS careers, citing a greater potential for injury.

Furthermore, games on grass tend to be played at a faster pace—due to the slick nature of the surface. The ball doesn’t tend to bounce as high on the natural surface, which favors technical teams that keep the ball on the floor.

So, for fans who like to see fast-paced soccer with an aesthetically pleasing style, the grass is always greener.

Charlotte MLS’ home has plenty of experience in hosting soccer matches—notably the annual International Champions Cup series—and the staff who maintain the field are well prepared for the requirements of hosting MLS contests.

“The MLS season occurs at a time of year when the weather is pretty good,” says Tom Vaughan, Head Groundskeeper at the stadium. “The grass will still be growing well, even towards the end of the season, so we can manage it well.”

Soccer represents some slightly different challenges to football in terms of field preparation. In the NFL, for example, the field is watered the night before kickoff. But for MLS, the sprinklers will be on close to game time, and often during the interval.

The field tends to get heavier foot traffic in different areas to the gridiron, too.

“On a soccer pitch, you get wear areas in front of the goalmouths,” Vaughan said. “The layout is quite different in soccer too, as the field is wider and a bit longer than a football field. But we keep it at a good footing and a good height, so the management of the grass is about the same for the two sports.”

The art of tending to a professional sports field has made leaps and bounds in recent years, particularly for soccer. The muddy winter Premier League fields of the 1990s stand in stark comparison to the resplendent year-round greens of the English top flight today. Accordingly, Charlotte MLS’ home is well placed to deliver a world-class surface for the beautiful game.

“We’ve never had a sport that goes through the spring,” Vaughan said. “It will be a new challenge for us and I’m looking forward to it.”