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Kenan gets grass makeover ahead of Chelsea vs Wrexham FC match

Grounds crews install the natural grass playing surface at Kenan Stadium on July 12, 2023.
Jason deBruyn
Grounds crews install the natural grass playing surface at Kenan Stadium on July 12, 2023.

Fans who attend Wednesday's highly anticipated exhibition soccer match between England megaclub Chelsea and Wrexham FC, the Welsh media darling owned by Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, might notice something different about the field. Teams will play on a natural grass surface, not the synthetic surface that the UNC football team has played on since 2019.

Grounds crews worked in more than 90 degree heat last week to unroll and sync together patches of grass sod that each weigh some 2,500 pounds. The sod began growing this spring in Indian Trail, N.C., before crews cut strips 3.5 feet wide and 45 feet long into stabilized sod rolls and loaded them on trucks headed for Chapel Hill. Once outside the stadium, a forklift carried rolls two at a time into the bowl and specialized tractors unfurled the rolls while crews with rakes tightened everything together.

"After they get it down, we'll roll it with a roller," explained Casey Carrick, UNC director of Athletic Grounds and Turf Management, on Wednesday. "We'll start hand-watering it to get some moisture in it. Once we finish up the process tomorrow afternoon, we'll get a couple mows on it, get a foliar fertilizer application on it and start to dial it in for next week."

The grass is a 419 Bermuda, which Carrick called a "tried and true" grass with a "great root structure" that will serve the event well.

"It's a thick cut sod that is made for instant play. So we can lay the sod and play right away," he said. "But fortunately for us, we've got six days to kind of get it ready and dial it in for this soccer match."

After the game, the grass will be removed and largely thrown away. Carrick said some will be used to patch grass around campus, though the majority of the sod will likely not find a second use. By publication of this article, UNC had not released financial specifics for how much it cost to install the natural grass, nor did it release contract specifics between the university and the two soccer clubs.

Turf has improved greatly, but soccer players still prefer natural grass

Nearly all soccer players prefer a high quality natural grass surface to an artificial one. The ball can bounce and roll differently depending on the playing surface, and especially at a high level, can impact play. There's also a safety factor, says Dr. Evan James, an orthopedic surgeon with Raleigh Orthopaedic who has worked as assistant team physician for various sports teams, including the New York Red Bulls.

"There's some data to suggest that artificial fields can increase risks of injury," he said. "In sports medicine, one of our primary focuses is on decreasing risk of injuries before they even happen. And so one of the things we think about is the playing surface."

Athletes in many sports plant their feet in the ground to make sharp cuts and turns, but these motions are especially common in soccer. The movements can stress tendons and ligaments in knees and ankles, putting them at risk for injury. A natural grass field allows for slightly more give, meaning that a cleat stuck in the ground has a bit more forgiveness on a natural grass field than artificial turf.

"There is a little bit of give that a grass turf field would have that an artificial field does not have," he said. "And so there's some data to suggest that it can increase risk of injury."

While athletes tend to prefer natural grass surfaces, they come with drawbacks. Generally, they are more expensive to maintain, and are not nearly as durable. Artificial surfaces can withstand more games trampling on them and therefore have become a preferred surface for large complexes in order to accommodate large groups of teams across different sports.

High-profile soccer teams have at times required a natural grass playing surface in order to participate in exhibition games. In 2014, the U.S. women's national team sued over artificial fields proposed for the 2015 Women's World Cup. The upcoming tournament, set to begin July 20 in Australia and New Zealand, will feature all grass pitches.

Still, while natural grass is preferred, artificial surfaces have evolved dramatically since the days of the Astrodome in Houston, which was little more than carpet rolled over concrete.

"They've become more natural and more grass-like," said James. "The turf fields that you'd encounter on a collegiate or professional athletic field today are very different from what they were 20 or 30 years ago."

Grounds crews install the natural grass playing surface at Kenan Stadium on July 12, 2023.
Jason deBruyn
Grounds crews install the natural grass playing surface at Kenan Stadium on July 12, 2023.

Indeed, some newer research suggests high-quality and well-maintained artificial surfaces can actually result in fewer injuries, according to Michael Meyers, a professor in the Department of Human Performance and Sport Studies at Idaho State University, who has published studies examining injury incidence on artificial versus natural surfaces in collegiate or high school football and soccer. To him, it all comes down to the quality of the surface.

"There are over 30 different turf companies, and the quality ranges from a Yugo to a Mercedes," he said.

And, of course, while major universities and professional teams can afford high-quality natural grass or artificial turf, budgetary concerns weigh heavy in the minds of high school athletic directors.

"In several [high] schools they don't have a dedicated soccer field. So if you want to play artificial, they go play on the football field," he said. "It's a different turf system, it's a different tuft height, it's a different composition."

Meyers doesn't see a slowdown in the move toward turf.

"What we're saying is, we're slowly seeing new generations [of athletes] come through," he said. "One of these days, we're going to see a generation that's never played on natural grass and won't know the difference, and will think artificial turf is fantastic." On Wednesday, more than 50,000 visitors are expected to descend on Chapel Hill to watch the match.

Jason deBruyn is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Digital News, a position he took in 2024. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016 as a reporter.