The U.S. men’s national soccer team (USMNT) has played on perennial ryegrass and Kentucky bluegrass and Latitude 36 Bermuda grass, but it hasn’t played a game on artificial turf in the U.S. in the past two years.1 Compare that with the U.S. women’s national team (USWNT), which was forced this weekend to either refuse to play in a friendly match against Trinidad and Tobago because of unsuitable field conditions at Aloha Stadium in Hawaii, or to play in front of Hawaiian fans for the first time but risk injury.
The argument surrounding turf versus natural playing surfaces is ongoing, but there wasn’t much nuance to the situation at Aloha Stadium: “The artificial turf was actually pulling up out of the ground,” the team wrote in a collective post on The Players’ Tribune. “There were sharp rocks ingrained all over the field.” The women chose not to play.
The playing conditions for the USWNT are baffling when compared with those for the men’s team — both are overseen by governing body U.S. Soccer (USSF), and yet the men’s team has played 100 percent of its U.S. games on grass (or turf overlaid with grass) since 2014. During the same time period, the women have played less than 70 percent of their U.S. games on grass.
Both teams have played fewer than 30 games in the U.S. in the past two years, so a difference in surface for a few games can dramatically change these percentages. And that’s what happened with the USWNT: In the run-up to the Women’s World Cup this summer, the USWNT had played only two games on turf since 2014, the last of which was in September 2014 at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, New York. But after losing its legal battle against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association over artificial turf fields at the Women’s World Cup, the women returned home world champions and were awarded a 10-game victory tour — with eight matches scheduled to be played on artificial turf.
Claims of sexism and discrimination have dogged the federation as the issue of playing surfaces has gained attention, and it’s not hard to see why. For instance, the USSF does not vet venues before matches for the USWNT, as it does for the USMNT. But whatever is motivating the decisions, they send a message: indifference to the preference of USWNT players, in particular when compared with the men.
That preference is at root here. FIFA and other governing bodies say there is no greater risk of injury playing soccer on artificial turf than on natural grass (a recent ESPN report suggests that there might be other risks, though). The study FIFA cites is lacking, as it’s based on a small sample of mostly male teams playing on FIFA-certified turf, but it’s also irrelevant to the broader concern. Players vigorously prefer natural grass to artificial (if you’ve ever tried a slide-tackle on turf, you know the feeling), but only one set of preferences has been taken to heart. If USSF has deemed turf unsuitable for the men’s team, the women shouldn’t be playing on it either.
The next game on the USWNT victory tour is a friendly Thursday at the Alamodome in San Antonio. When the USWNT last played there against Australia in 2013, Australian forward Kyah Simon tore her ACL in a noncontact play within 30 seconds of entering the match. It’s the same field that was overlaid with grass for a USMNT friendly against Mexico in April (which has its own shortcomings), but as of Monday, the USSF had no plans to remedy the Alamodome turf for the women.