The Sounders will try to rebound from an opening loss when they visit the Montreal Impact at Olympic Stadium for a game on one of the hardest, bounciest artificial turf surfaces in Major League Soccer.
MONTREAL — Sounders midfielder Harry Shipp wasn’t much of a fit last year during his lone season with this city’s Montreal Impact.
But Shipp on Friday likely felt more at home during a workout on the bouncy, uneven Olympic Stadium turf than any of his Sounders teammates. The artificial surface is over a concrete floor that makes it one of the hardest in Major League Soccer and could pose interesting challenges Saturday when the Sounders play their second regular season game.
“It’s different when you’re (playing) here, I think you think of it as kind of an advantage,” Shipp said. “Teams aren’t used to it coming in. You get to train on it for a couple of weeks before the game. But coming in today, it’s totally different from the other side. I think you’re more likely to complain about it because it is pretty bad.”
The Impact play most games outdoors at Stade Saputo. But they’ve played playoff games and early season contests at the so-called “Big O” — namely because of temperatures like Saturday’s anticipaed high of 7-degrees and low of minus-1.
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They’ve upset some top teams in CONCACAF Champions League play on the stadium’s synthetic surface and last year beat Toronto FC on it in the first leg of the Eastern Conference final. The Sounders beat the Impact at Olympic Stadium three years ago, but the team has largely turned over since.
The history of turf in Montreal’s cavernous stadium, built for the 1976 Olympic Games, has been a sordid one.
The original AstroTurf surface used to have giant patches and zipper seams that ran across the middle of it, causing players to stumble and sometimes injure themselves. Former Montreal Expos outfielder Warren Cromartie referred to one of the seams as “Death Valley” while Hall of Fame teammate Andre Dawson endured 12 knee operations after playing several seasons on it.
Visiting players refused to train on the surface and did their running elsewhere at nearby venues. Home players begged the provincial government authority that runs the stadium to do something about the turf for years.
The stadium authority was embarassed into replacing the original surface when the Expos in 1981 made the National League Championship Series for the first time and endured continent-wide jokes when the patches and seams were broadcast to millions of TV viewers. A new AstroTurf surface replaced the old one in time for the 1982 MLB all-star game, but wasn’t any more forgiving.
The Expos switched to a softer FieldTurf version their final season in 2004 before relocating to Washington, D.C. Olympic Stadium hasn’t had a main sports tenant since, but the Impact began using the venue upon joining MLS in 2012 and installed their own synthetic surface in 2013.
In an interview with The Gazette in Montreal last year, Impact keeper Evan Bush described the turf’s inconsistency. “It’s not only certain areas where it’s hard and there’s concrete under it, there’s certain areas that are hollow,” he said. “I’m not sure if there’s like trap doors under there or what happened. But maybe (former Montreal Expo) Moises Alou is hiding under there somewhere under a trap door. I don’t know?”
“I just try to tell guys ‘Get your first touch down and focus on the little things because some of the things you’re used to doing simply become harder on that surface’,” Shipp said Friday. “It’s just the ball’s bouncing non-stop. I think, a lot of times for me, when you’re taking your first touch you’re trying to put it somewhere because the ground is smooth. But here, because the ball is so bouncy, the first step is just get the ball on the ground and then worry about where you’re taking it after.”
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said he isn’t overly concered about his players adapting to the surface.
“The sequence of training today was just getting them used to the surface,” he said. “Short passes, longer passes, medium passes. Just letting them play. I mean, they’re pretty adaptive. I mean, turf is turf. We play on turf, we play on grass. They have to adapt. It’s the same for both teams.”
Schmetzer is more concerned about slowing down Montreal’s vaunted attacking trio of Ignacio Piatti, Matteo Mancosu and Dominic Oduro. The Sounders were nearly run off the field by Houston in the opening half last Saturday and will try to maintain better ball control — bouncy surface or not — this time around.
“I think we’ve learned our lesson,” Schmetzer said. “We’ll find out how much of a lesson they’ve learned (Saturday) at kickoff. We’ve done the messaging. We’re trying to make adjustments and trying to make sure they stay sharp as soon as the referre blows his whistle.”
Sounders forward Jordan Morris agrees his team needs to come out more ready than it looked last weekend against the Dynamo. A crowd of close to 40,000 is expected for the game.
“I think coming here, playing on this surface, it’s a little different,” he said. “The fan support’s obviously great so it’s going to be…a tough game to play on the road.”