CINCINNATI — U.S. men’s national soccer team head coach Gregg Berhalter is confident in the quality of playing surface that is being provided his squad this week for a friendly in Cincinnati -- even if players initially had concerns.
The USMNT will host Venezuela in a Gold Cup tune-up Sunday at Nippert Stadium, and a temporary grass surface has been installed over-top the artificial turf to provide a pitch more similar to what players prefer.
The decision to hold the game in Cincinnati, where there currently is no facility with natural grass, drew fire from the U.S. National Soccer Team Players Association back in April because of worries over the safety of a temporary grass pitch.
Berhalter said he understood the reasons for the complaints but didn’t necessarily share those concerns.
“U.S. Soccer’s done installations before, including some very successful ones in 2016 Copa America,” Berhalter said in a recent conference call with Cincinnati-area media members. “I think the opportunity to bring the national team to a great soccer market like Cincinnati is important. We’re excited that there’s already (more than) 19,000 tickets sold, and we’re looking forward to a great atmosphere."
U.S. Soccer hired contractors to install the temporary grass; the process began Sunday and was completed Tuesday. The team was scheduled to arrive in Cincinnati on Thursday, following a game against Jamaica on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., and the Americans will train on the new surface Friday and Saturday.
According to a U.S. Soccer representative, the grass came from a turf farm called Carolina Green, located southeast of Charlotte, North Carolina. The sod is specially grown for immediate athletic use and is considered thicker and sturdier than most others.
U.S. Soccer also arranged for a local landscaping company to tend to the field daily, mowing and watering as necessary, while it is in place, just like any other grass playing surface.
Berhalter said he had not heard any complaints from players directly, but he wasn’t surprised the players association brought up concerns.
"One of the concerns of players, and when I was a player, it was the same thing -- you want to play on good surfaces,” Berhalter said. “I think that’s clear. The better the surface is, the faster the ball rolls. I think, the more predictability you have with the roll of the ball. So, that will always be an issue, and I think that, again, it’s looking at can we get this field up to a standard that is acceptable, and we believe we can. I haven't spoken to players specifically about it, but I think they have every right to be concerned about a good playing surface. I think that's normal."
FC Cincinnati midfielder Victor Ulloa has never played on a temporary pitch like the one installed this week at Nippert, but he also understood why players might be concerned.
“Any time you put something temporary, there's also a worry of concern for the stability -- is it getting with the ground?” Ulloa said. “It has nothing to root against, so it might be soft and easy to lift off the ground, so I think those are some of the concerns.”
Despite any safety concerns, Ulloa believes it’s a better option for the national team than the turf. In fact, he was hoping FCC would get a chance to utilize the surface as well, but the temporary grass will be removed before the Orange and Blue play Louisville City SC in the U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday.
According to U.S. Soccer, the removal process will begin as soon as the game ends Sunday and should be complete by late afternoon or early evening Monday.
“I've never gotten to play on a temporary pitch like that, but I know a lot of guys prefer to play on natural grass than turf,” Ulloa said. “It's a little bit different. The ball bounces different, and especially with the heat of Cincinnati and how hot it might be, I think the national team is going to enjoy playing on natural grass.”
The final 23-man roster for the CONCACAF Gold Cup will be announced Thursday, so Sunday’s game is the last look at what the Americans will have to offer during the tournament.
FC Cincinnati defender Greg Garza originally made the 40-man provisional roster, but could not participate in training camp, which began May 27, because of a calf injury and was removed.
This will be the second time Berhalter has managed a game at Nippert Stadium, and although his first experience didn’t end well, he looks forward to a return. He was the head coach of the Columbus Crew in 2017 when FC Cincinnati beat the Crew in the U.S. Open Cup en route to its magical run to the semifinals.
“Well, I’m still angry we lost,” Berhalter said with a laugh. “… But it was one of the better atmospheres I experienced while working in Major League Soccer. I’ve been watching other games as well, and there just is an amazing atmosphere.”
And a temporary grass surface won’t change that.