USWNT stars not backing down on artificial playing surface stance

USA's Abby Wambach is one of 50 stars that has retained legal counsel and threatened action on the grounds of gender discrimination over the use of artificial turf during next summer's World Cup.

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SALT LAKE CITY —

The cuts and bruises and scrapes on Sydney Leroux’s legs were telling — and a little gnarly. Basketball star Kobe Bryant had tweeted out an old picture of them, to illustrate the toll exacted on the players when soccer is played on artificial turf. He did it in support of a worldwide campaign to have the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada played on grass.

As things stand, all six venues will have artificial turf. A coalition of some 50 leading women’s soccer players from around the world — including USA stars Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan — has retained legal counsel and threatened action on the grounds of gender discrimination. They argue that a men’s World Cup would never be played on anything but grass, and that it’s unfair for them to have to do so. They demand that temporary grass be laid over the plastic. But so far, they have gotten little response from FIFA or the Canadian Soccer Association.

CSA president Victor Montagliani did call the charge of discrimination "nothing but misinformation and typical hyperbole." He claimed that the CSA’s $4 million annual budget for the women’s programs is about double that of the men’s teams — the Canadian women’s team, however, nearly went on strike before the 2011 World Cup over "ad-hoc compensation." Another CSA official is on record as saying that the Canadian men’s team would never play a World Cup qualifier on artificial turf because "our coaching staff and players prefer grass."

The law firms of Boies, Schiller & Flexner and Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt, who represent the players, have produced a FIFA report in which it surveyed 190 female players at the 2013 Algarve Cup. It found that 77 percent of players agreed or strongly agreed that "all matches at a major tournament should be played on natural turf." The female players, in other words, also prefer grass. Yet their voice doesn’t seem to carry the weight of the men.

"I think that’s direct evidence of gender discrimination," Hampton Dellinger, the lead attorney on the case, tells FOXSoccer.com "It’s not right."

FIFA argues that its survey was merely meant to "gather information." The results are being used to guide future research and development regarding football surfaces," a spokesperson told FOXSoccer.com via email. "The results of the survey were released in November 2013. FIFA approved the National Organising Committee’s proposal to use football turf for the tournament prior to this."

Neither governing body has budged. "It’s disappointing that Canada Soccer and FIFA have really focused on putting responsibility on each other rather than working with us and fixing their mistake," says Dellinger.

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If this is a strategy, it won’t work, according to Wambach. "They’re hoping that we’re bluffing," she says. "And at the end of the day, we’re not. We’re going to go ahead and go through with this. We had hoped not to get to this point; we had hoped not to take legal action."

In an informal survey by FOXSoccer.com, there was unanimity among the United States women’s national team in its opposition and revulsion to a World Cup on turf. "It’s not the same game," says midfielder Shannon Boxx.

"It plays totally different," explains playmaker Megan Rapinoe, who relies heavily on her touch. "You have to scoop [the ball] instead of chip. Your touch is different; the way you dribble is different."

In the back, goalkeeper Hope Solo would have to contend with altered ball speeds and bounces. "The ball might come at a different pace; it’s never consistent," she says. "The bounce is never consistent, how it’s going to skip. It takes away my ability to read the ball. I’m not as confident playing on turf."

Artificial grass also prevents them from playing with their usual abandon. "I like to defend and tackle and slide-tackle," says midfielder Carli Lloyd. "You’re hesitant on turf. I play a bit different. You walk away with scrapes and burns. It’s just not fun."

"You have to reconsider doing something for fear of injuring yourself," says Wambach.

Since the USA will most likely practice on turf fields as well — during the tournament and probably in much of its preparations, in order to replicate game conditions — the wear and tear will be worse than usual on a surface that studies have shown to cause more injuries. "You’re going to be more sore; you’re going to be scraped up; you could take on a massive injury and be out for the rest of the tournament," says Wambach. "You want to play on a surface that’s as forgiving as possible. Injuries happen on grass too, but they’re just much less frequent. Grass gives."

This isn’t a precedent we want to get set that this is something we’re okay with. Because then we’re just going to be playing on field turf forever. It’s pertinent for the future of the sport.

Abby Wambach on FIFA's decision to use artificial turf during next summer's Women's World Cup in Canada.

Players with major injuries in their past are daunted. "Having had the injuries I’ve had in the past with an ACL a few years ago, a big ankle injury [this year] and little tweaks here and there, it doesn’t make me feel comfortable playing up to seven games on turf," says Morgan.

Solo has had her shoulder rebuilt in the past and it still causes discomfort. "It hurts the most when I dive," she says, adding that a natural surface softens the impact. "It doesn’t hurt as much when I dive on grass."

Aside from being discriminatory, artificial surfaces represent a step back for the booming women’s game, they argue. No Women’s World Cup game has been played on artificial turf before. When stadiums with artificial surfaces were used during the 1999 and 2003 World Cups in the USA, temporary grass sod was laid. "This isn’t a precedent we want to get set that this is something we’re okay with," says Wambach. "Because then we’re just going to be playing on field turf forever. It’s pertinent for the future of the sport."

So now they are engaging in something of a public relations war. In addition to Bryant, the women have received public support from basketball player Kevin Durant, actor Tom Hanks, football player Colin Kaepernick and USA men’s goalkeeper Tim Howard. They also have the backing of their coach, Jill Ellis.

"Ultimately, it’s their bodies out there," she said. "They’re trying to get some attention to it, and I think rightly so.

"It’s a World freaking Cup, right? It should be top quality for these women."