On soccer surfaces in the USA.
My most gymnastic feat of cognitive dissonance involves soccer fields. I manage to feel that our young players are both rottenly spoiled and rottenly neglected when it comes to the surfaces they play on. They are to my mind both too good and not good enough. I swing back and forth on the issue, and have yet to land cleanly on either side.
On the one hand, the mistreatment of soccer fields, when it does occur, is a pet peeve of mine. I remember going to a tournament in Evansville, Indiana, where teams from South Bend to St. Louis and Columbus to Chicago were playing in a complex attached to a local high school. The fields were nice for Indiana in November, the grass on its last autumn legs, but perfectly playable. In the center of the pitch rectangles was a single measly softball field, not full-sized but apparently meant for 12- or 13-year-olds. It was the offseason, granted, but it was in pitiful shape — the grass overgrown, the clay more winter wasteland than soft summer playing surface. It was also the only field in the complex to have any lights around it.
This annoyed me in all the predictable, woe-is-soccer ways: Why build these nice new fields and leave just the one old set of lights up? What are the kids practicing after school supposed to do, practice shooting against the outfield fence? Why is this one diamond more valuable than all these other fields?
In high school, we almost always played other teams in their high school stadium, but the groundskeepers often seemed to take the spring season off, since there wasn’t any football being played there. I’ve seen and gotten angry at divots and sand patches, overgrown grass, lines than seem slapped in chalk onto a cow pasture. But was I right for doing so?
The angel (or devil. I can’t tell which) on my other shoulder thinks that this isn’t a big deal. That there’s nothing wrong with a few bald patches in the grass, indeed, that it’s even good for the kids, that it builds character and all that old man stuff. This isn’t some “We played in the outfield grass of the high school baseball field and we were grateful for it” screed — though we did, and we were —but a serious question. What’s better for a young player, playing on pristine fields or crummy ones?
My problem it seems has more to do with when soccer fields suffer in comparison to those of other sports nearby; when it becomes clear that whoever’s supposed to be taking care of them treats it as a second priority.
There’s a series of soccer fields across the highway from my apartment complex where I’ll go once or twice a week to dribble, juggle, shoot and just run laps with the ball. The fields have suffered through the Texas summer — they’re baked hard as asphalt, full of lumps and potholes, with grass as threadbare as Wayne Rooney’s hair
And I am better for it. In the two months or so that I’ve been making use of that field for supplemental exercise, my touch has improved. The annoyances have become obstacles, something to be overcome and improved by rather than frustrated with. The topography has taught a lesson I’m not sure I ever learned before on how best to keep the ball close while running at speed.
I can’t be the only one this is true for. We live in a world where these things to the left are sold (granted, they’re from Germany) for $130 to simulate a ball bouncing unpredictably. The idea is to improve touch and reactions, to train players for those awkward moments when a wicked bounce or a glancing blow. But there’s an easier way to do that.
My issue is not so much the fact that there are good fields as it is the assumption that soccer is meant to be played — or can only be played — on those good fields. That there is a space for soccer and that is where you have to go to play your soccer. That we get too comfortable in these spaces, these perfect rectangles, when sometimes a removal from that zone is ideal.
In a way, this is the same argument I made in favor of pickup soccer back when our site had just launched: that like a change in dramatis personae, a change in scenery, be it playing in a hurricane or in the street or in a box or with a fox, can expand our understanding and teach us new things about the sport, the same way playing in the streets, alleys, or fields benefitted young players in other countries.