Following a recent scoreless draw at Gillette Stadium in which visitors Nashville SC — a 2020 MLS expansion team — managed just one shot on target, Revolution head coach Bruce Arena offered a candid assessment of his team’s struggles to get points at home.
“I think it’s a common denominator how teams play us in Gillette,” Arena explained. “They drop off. They play in a low block and they make it difficult.”
Arena, one of the most experienced coaches in MLS history, is an astute judge. Days later, his point was again proven against Toronto FC. Though Toronto currently leads the Eastern Conference, they were content to cede possession to New England and play on the counter. The strategy proved effective, as Ayo Akinola’s 29th-minute goal proved the difference in a 1-0 win for the visitors.
The loss sunk New England’s 2020 record at Gillette Stadium to 1-2-6, a shockingly poor run for a team sixth in the Eastern Conference and well within striking distance of a playoff spot (thanks almost entirely to a strong 4-2-2 mark on the road).
Any attempt to explain visiting teams’ defensive approach leads back to one of the defining features of soccer at Gillette Stadium: Synthetic turf. Asked if the turf plays a role, Arena didn’t shy away.
“Yeah, I think more or less the surface, because teams know it’s difficult to play on and they get into a defensive mode,” Arena said.
Soccer players have long held the belief that natural grass fields are far superior for the sport, both from a quality and safety standpoint. The NFL Players Association agrees. Cleveland Browns center J.C. Tretter, the NFLPA president, recently wrote a report citing a 28-percent higher rate of non-contact lower extremity injuries on turf.
For soccer players, the fight against turf has been going on for years. Whether it was the US women’s national team threatening FIFA with a lawsuit over turf fields being selected for the 2015 World Cup, or Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic declaring in 2018 that he would only play on turf if it was a matter of “life or death,” the soccer world is no fan of the playing surface used at Gillette Stadium.
And while other MLS stadiums use turf, New England’s has been the subject of particular criticism. In multiple player polls conducted by both Sports Illustrated (in 2013) and ESPN (in 2019), New England was voted where players dread playing the most, and that its field was specifically the worst in MLS.
It wasn’t always like this. When Gillette Stadium first opened in 2002, it was fully equipped with expensive investments to help maintain natural grass. Yet after years of trying to keep the grass field intact amid football season, the Kraft family gave up in 2006. The pivotal moment arrived after a November loss to the Jets in which the field — soaked to the point of mud following steady rain — was in noticeably bad shape.
“Unfortunately, the amount of sunlight the field gets after August isn’t enough, because the stadium is tall,” Jonathan Kraft reasoned in a Globe interview that year. “The grass doesn’t have a chance to recover after being used aggressively in April straight through January. No matter how good the system is underneath it, no one perfected a way to replace Mother Nature unless you go to an artificial surface.”
Not everyone agrees with that assessment. ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman, the Revolution’s all-time leading goalscorer, had a simple rebuttal.
“I’m not sure it’s sunny more than eight days a year in England,” Twellman said, “and yet they’ve got some of the most immaculate fields in the world.”
As Twellman pointed out, Patriots coach Bill Belichick often cultivated the grass field’s poor quality as a means of slowing down high-powered opponents.
“My job is not to pull weeds, or rake the field,” Belichick famously told reporters prior to the Patriots’ 20-3 playoff win over the Colts in 2005. New England had chosen not to cover the field with a tarp amid rain, causing accusations he was manipulating field conditions to his advantage.
“Belichick does what he needs to do to try and get an edge in a game, and sometimes that means crappy field conditions for me,” former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri once told NFL Films.
Yet in 2006, the Patriots — having suffered back-to-back losses at home — decided it was no longer in their best interest to play on a muddy field. Instead, the turf was installed, and has remained since.
Twellman, recalling his own experience, sees hope for the current era of Revolution players. In 2007, New England’s first playing on turf, his Revolution made it all the way to MLS Cup.
“We embraced it,” Twellman said. “We came together. So the turf didn’t affect us.
“But did we like playing on it? I don’t know,” he added, jokingly. “That’s debatable.”
Get Boston.com's browser alerts:
Enable breaking news notifications straight to your internet browser.