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San Jose Earthquakes find artificial turf even better than the real thing

Chris Wondolowski and Simon Dawkins enjoy a dance on the smooth synthetic surface of Gillette Stadium.
Chris Wondolowski and Simon Dawkins enjoy a dance on the smooth synthetic surface of Gillette Stadium.

Given the results of their 2011 season, and the peculiarity that they have not lost a game played on artificial turf, an interesting thought comes to mind. Should the San Jose Earthquakes consider installing an artificial surface pitch at their new stadium when they get around to construction next year? Now that’s a really turf question.

Of the 18 clubs in Major League Soccer, all but four feature natural surfaces in their home stadiums. The outliers include the three teams located in the Pacific Northwest, where a rainy climate makes it difficult to maintain grass fields that play host to numerous teams in multiple sports, and the New England Revolution, whose shares a home field at Gillette Stadium with the more revered Patriots of the NFL. While Toronto FC once belonged to this group, they converted their home pitch at BMO Field to grass prior to the 2010 season, and have managed to keep it intact and playable despite being subjected to some similar field sharing arrangements as they four holdouts.

To imagine the pitch at the new proposed stadium for the San Jose Earthquakes featuring a turf field is ludicrous to most sun-loving Californians. However, the powers that be might want to consider that feature given the team’s recent success on the too often vilified green plastic. So far this season in four matches played on artificial turf, the Earthquakes feature an unbeaten record of 2-0-2, a mark that includes a 1-0 victory in added extra time victory over the Portland Timbers in an MLS qualifier for the U.S. Open Cup. A win at New England last week and two draws away to Portland and Vancouver earlier in the MLS season put San Jose one positive result at Seattle from achieving a perfect record on the imperfection free surface of artificial turf in 2011.

Given that every soccer player on the planet publically ridicules plastic pitches, why have the Earthquakes found so much success on the surface? One possible explanation might come from looking at how the Quakes have faired in possession on the smooth expanses provided by the fake stuff. In those four matches on turf, the Earthquakes have shared the ball fairly equally with their opposition, holding a slight 50.5% edge in possession. For the remainder of the season, the Earthquakes hold the short stick in this category, being out possessed by an average of 45.9% to 54.1%. That slight difference in the two averages suggests an advantage for San Jose to playing on turf.

Looking at the passes attempted and passes completed percentages, the Earthquakes amassed a completion average of 75% on turf versus 71% on grass. Again, the numbers show a slight advantage for the Quakes to playing on plastic. The sampling size of four matches is small, especially compared to the 29 matches playing on natural surfaces, but the numbers are instructive: playing on turf suits the Earthquakes in successfully completing passes and subsequently leads to an increase in possession of the ball.

What does this bode for the weekend, when the Earthquakes make the trip to Century Link Field to face the Seattle Sounders? If the numbers trend continues, San Jose has a great chance to make it through 2011 unbeaten on artificial turf. At least that is something on which to hang their hats in an otherwise forgettable season. As to whether the Quakes make the plastic pitch a feature of their new stadium? Regardless of the positive effect that surface has had on their results, in beautiful and sunny San Jose, that is not going to happen.