Friday, July 23, 2010

The Fenway Experiment

Wednesday night Celtic host Sporting Lisbon in a much anticipated return to soccer at Fenway Park in Boston. The original playbill for this match was suppose to be an “old derby” match-up between Glasgow rivals Celtic and the Rangers, but a scathing editorial in the Boston Globe about hooligans destroying Boston led to the Rangers pulling out of the deal. In any event, Sporting Lisbon was a reasonable replacement, and the game was embraced by the city. Being originally from New England, I was excited at the prospect of soccer at Fenway, I even considered flying up for the match, but after seeing the game on television I’m glad I stayed home. Here are some of the reasons why we think Fenway should forego future soccer matches.

1. Field Dimensions – The pitch was laid out from the third base line running out across center field and ending at the right field bullpens leading to dimensions of 98 yards long by 75 yard wide (FIFA standards are 110 yards x 75 yards). To assemble the pitch, the grounds crew removed the pitcher’s mound and placed sod over parts of the infield and warning track dirt. Kudos to David Mellor, head groundskeeper for the Red Sox, for finding a way to secure the temporary grass down so it did not tear apart during the match, major accomplishment for only 4 days of being in place. Even with a reasonable playing surface the dimensions of the field led to a much slower pace of play for both teams. The shorter pitch meant strikers had less space to build up speed leading into “the scoring third” of the field and being met by defenders. The issue we have with playing on sub-standard fields is that it makes the match into more of a sideshow because the players cannot perform in their normal environment. Imagine going to watch an NBA game on an 83 foot court instead of 94 feet or an NFL game on a 90 yard field instead of 100 yards, you might get the same impression.

2. Television – NESN, who provided the feed for Fox Soccer Channel, did a reasonable job for a regional sports network in broadcasting the match. Although I don’t like Jack Edwards, with only a few soccer commentators available during summer vacation from the World Cup, he was probably a reasonable choice. Paul Caligiuri was pretty bad, but he gets a free pass for whatever he wants to do because of his goal against Trinidad and Tobago in 1989 sending us back to the World Cup after a 40 year drought. The real issue was that the game was shot from what appeared to be eye-level but we know was more like 15 to 20 feet above the pitch. Instead of sticking a camera in the roof top seats along the 1st base line to get more height, NESN put a camera on a man-lift just below the top of the Green Monster. The game was shot at such a low angle it was impossible to judge depth across the pitch, even losing the ball partially due to the slope of the field in the far ends. I know NESN had good intentions, shooting from this angle provided a nice backdrop of all the fans in the stands, but it didn’t help the home audience enjoy the match.

3. Field Slope – If you watch any EPL you will know that almost all of the modern stadiums have the pitch sloping from mid-field to the sidelines to allow for rain to drain. Fenway’s entire field was replaced about 3 years ago to provide better slope and drainage, which helped the field dry out Wednesday night after picking up 1 inch of rain 2 hours before kick-off. The problem is that the slope of the field varied, mostly sloping from home plate downward towards the outfield. This led to an interesting scenario for the goal on the third base line which actually had the corner closest to home plate being 6 inches high than the opposite corner of the net. Jack Edwards kept referring to hit as a trapezoid, semantics really, it was actually a rectangle on a slope and almost a parallelogram, but who’s keeping score? It would have been nice for the goals to have been level for the match.

We fully support brining international matches to urban areas to help spread the game to the masses, but please play it on a field built to support soccer. I agree that this match would have been poorly attended at Foxboro considering the local Scottish/Irish and Portuguese communities in Boston, but why not play at Harvard Stadium where the WPS and college teams play? Yes that pitch would have been narrow, roughly 70 yards, but the length would have been regulation and the field has successfully hosted soccer for over two decades and can hold about 30,000 fans. Good experiment Fenway Park, but let’s hope it’s another 40 years before soccer is attempted at “America’s Oldest Ballpark” again.


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