After the fallout from Aaron Rogers tearing his Achilles in Monday night’s New York Jets season opener, some American football fans are just now waking up to the reality players generally dislike and don’t trust playing on synthetic turf.
To which fans of the world’s version of football would say: Yeah. Duh.
Everything football players don’t like about artificial playing surfaces — the increased impact on joints while playing, the perceived (though somewhat unproven) added injury risk, the concerns about chemicals used to make the stuff — soccer players really don’t like about it.
And there’s an added element in soccer: The surface actually impacts the way the game is played and what it looks like. The ball spends most of the time on the ground, and reacts differently to impact on even the most grass-like artificial surfaces. In American football, the sport mostly looks the mostly same on either kind of surface unless there is inclement weather that compromises a grass field.
Yet just maybe the the influence of NFL players and their union — the NFLPA — that finally brings natural surfaces to all 29 MLS venues, when the MLSPA hasn’t had the leverage to do so.
In case you missed it, NLFPA executive director Lloyd Howell issued in a statement in the wake of Rodgers’ season-ending injury in support of all NFL venues switching over to natural surfaces.
Ironically for MLS fans — who follow a league where 6 of 29 teams play on artificial surfaces, including four that share NFL venues — Howell pointed to examples in the United States where grass fields were installed to host soccer events.
Of course, he wasn’t talking about MLS contests, but rather recent exhibitions involving European clubs, as well as upcoming matches in the 2026 FIFA World Cup where a natural playing surface will be installed at several facilities that use synthetic turf for their NFL teams.
While it’s also an issue MLS players and their union would love to address, they’ve had bigger priorities in recent collective bargaining negotiations, like attaining more charter flight travel to matches and better wages. (The average MLS salary in 2023 was about $530,000, according to data provided by the MLSPA this April. That represents continued substantial growth for the league, and at the same time a gap of about $200,000 beneath the mandated minimum salaries in MLB, the NBA, NFL and NHL.)
The strangest thing about all of this is the relative transparency that it’s a decision mostly based on cost, that can be altered if the occasion is important or lucrative enough.
Shortly after Lionel Messi signed for Inter Miami — marking the single most important transaction in league history — commissioner Don Garber indicated it would be reasonable to expect teams that play on synthetic surfaces to find a way to play on natural grass during Messi’s visits, games that are generating exponentially more ticket revenue than the average MLS circle. (Incidentally, Messi is currently questionable to play on Atlanta’s synthetic surface this weekend after picking up a knock while on international duty.)
In addition to major European sides who schedule exhibition games for big NFL stadiums in the states, the Concacaf Gold Cup also requires host venues to install natural grass over a synthetic surface. The U.S. national team avoids scheduling its home games at venues with synthetic turf, though they did play an away qualifier at Canada on a FIFA-approved synthetic surface during the last World Cup cycle..
It’s far too early to know how much weight is behind Howell’s statement and where the issue really ranks on the NFLPA’s priority list. The current NFL CBA also runs through 2030, which could blunt any potential immediate action on the issue.
But if Rodgers’ injury really does turn the tide and convince NFL owners it’s worth it to install natural grass to protect their investments in the form of highly paid players, it in the process would bring the number of MLS venues with synthetic surfaces down to only two: Vancouver and Portland. The latter has been rumored to already be considering a switch to natural grass. And if feels unlikely Vancouver would have the leverage to remain as the league’s only synthetic surface if it came to that.