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Debate continues over whether artificial turf is good for soccer

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Tonight, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill hosts an international soccer match between Chelsea and Wrexham FC. But to do so, it had to truck in a hundred thousand square feet of grass to cover the artificial turf on its football field. You see, these European clubs don't like to play on turf. Jason deBruyn with member station WUNC reports there's an ongoing turf war over the best playing surface.

JASON DEBRUYN, BYLINE: Grounds crews worked in more than 90-degree heat last week to unroll and sync together patches of grass sod that each weighed more than one ton. UNC director of Athletic Grounds Casey Carrick says this Bermuda is perfect for high-level soccer.

CASEY CARRICK: It's a thick-cut sod that is made for instant play. So we can lay the sod and play right away.

(SOUNDBITE OF FORKLIFT WHIRRING)

DEBRUYN: A forklift carries the rolls, two at a time, into the stadium. A tractor then scoops them up, one by one, and unrolls them like a big roll of paper towels onto the field. Workers square each rectangle up...

(SOUNDBITE OF CRUNCHING)

DEBRUYN: ...And another tractor with a special attachment tightens each sod roll together.

CARRICK: Once we finish up the process, we'll get a couple mows on it, get a foliar fertilizer application on it and start to dial it in.

DEBRUYN: All this effort for just one game. Premier League megaclub Chelsea will play Wrexham FC, the small Welsh club that gained an American audience due to the hit television series "Welcome To Wrexham." Nearly all soccer players prefer a high-quality natural grass surface to an artificial one. The ball can bounce and roll differently depending on the playing surface. There's also a safety factor, says Dr. Evan James, an orthopedic surgeon with Raleigh Orthopedic.

EVAN JAMES: There's some data suggest that artificial fields can increase risk of injury. And so in sports medicine, one of our primary focuses is on decreasing risk of injuries before they even happen. And so one of the things that we think about is the playing surface.

DEBRUYN: Athletes in many sports plant their feet in the ground to make sharp cuts and turns. But these motions are especially common in soccer. The movements can stress tendons and ligaments in knees and ankles, putting them at risk for injury, says James.

JAMES: There is a little bit of give that a grass turf field would have that an artificial field does not have. And so there's some data suggest that it can increase risk of injury.

DEBRUYN: Turf fields became a sticking point in 2015 for the Women's World Cup. That was the first time a World Cup was played on artificial turf. The U.S. women's team sued, and going forward, FIFA has banned artificial services in all World Cups. Still, artificial turf has evolved dramatically since the days of the old Astrodome in Houston, which was little more than carpet rolled over concrete, says James.

JAMES: And the playing surfaces over time have evolved to become more natural and more grass like. And so the turf fields that you'd encounter on a collegiate or professional athletic field today are very different than they were 20 or 30 years ago.

DEBRUYN: At least six Major League soccer teams play their matches on artificial turf. And indeed, some newer research suggests high quality and well-maintained artificial surfaces can actually resemble a grass field. Michael Myers is a professor of sports studies at Idaho State University. To him, it all comes down to the kind of playing field.

MICHAEL MEYERS: You know, there are over 30 different turf companies, and the quality ranges from a Yugo to a Mercedes.

DEBRUYN: For now, grass has won the turf war. And when the World Cup comes to North America in 2026, all stadiums will have to have natural grass playing fields.

For NPR News, I'm Jason deBruyn in Chapel Hill, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIRAFFES? GIRAFFES! SONG, "AT THE TURF FIELD BEHIND MY PARENTS' HOUSE" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jason deBruyn
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