Smurf on turf
Ten Years Ago: Ping-pong soccer
March 26, 2006

On August 14th, 1996, the MetroStars played one of their best games of the inaugural year -- and is it turns out, in their history, trashing New England 4:0. The match marked the debut of two important parts of Metro history: the 5'3" Antony De Avila, and AstroTurf. Together, the two combined for something that became known as "ping-pong soccer".

The problems with Giants Stadium surface throughout Metro history are widely known; but even today's bad FieldTurf is no match for the despicable AstroTurf of the early years. The grass field installed for the inaugural season had to be removed by the time NFL preseason started; so on that evening of August 14th, over 20,000 fans were treated to the site of a puke-green carpet with white American football lines outlining and crossing it.

The fans were also treated to the debut of "El Pitufo" De Avila. After Ruben Dario Hernandez was released earlier in the year, the search for his replacement went far and wide, before settling on another Colombian. Pitufo entered the match in the 62nd minute, with Metro already up 2:0 on goals by A.J. Wood and Rob Johnson. And De Avila made his presence known right away, assisting on Johnson's second in the 73rd, and then scoring one on his own in the 81st to seal the rout.

From that point on, Pitufo and AstroTurf were a match made in heaven. De Avila's small stature and low center of gravity was perfect for controlling the ball on its bounce off the hard carpet. Of the matches played on the rug that year, Pitufo scored in all but one; a total of six goals in six games gave us hope.

Even as Metro won some games on the carpet, in large part thanks to Pitufo's prowess, the purists gawked at ping-pong soccer. And perhaps the purists were right; as much as we turn our back on aesthetics when results go our way, there was nothing pretty about those large bounces which made the game look more suited for an indoor field. And those white football lines, the sight of which we dread to this day, did not help. Perhaps more importantly, many players complained of the hardness of the pitch and the stress it placed on the legs. It was like running on asphalt... But at least Metro avoided the catastrophic injuries that the Turf Monster is deemed responsible for in the NFL.

Of course, it was not to be, as the 1996 home schedule ended with the remarkable playoff victory over DC, in which De Avila connected for the Metros' first. He scored one in RFK in Game 3, one of his two carpet-free goals that year, but as well all know, that was it for Metro. Next year, Pitufo again started strong on turf, with three goals in his first two matches, but waned down the stretch. He was gone after the season, but the turf was here to stay. A three-year flirtation with grass trays was deemed a failure, and its reincarnation as FieldTurf (said to be better than AstroTurf, and it is, for its hard to be worse) followed.

And this year, Red Bull is said to be talking about playing the entire year on grass... We'll see, but that's probably an easier task than finding a second Pitufo.

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