‘A disaster’: Copa América’s makeshift fields spark ire of Argentina players, questions about 2026 World Cup

The 2024 Copa América opener between Argentina and Canada was played on a pitch that felt “like a trampoline,” or “like walking on a stage” that was “hollow,” players said.

“The field conditions were very ugly,” Argentina defender Cristian Romero said after his team’s 2-0 victory Thursday.

The temporary grass surface at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta “was a disaster,” Argentine goalkeeper Emi Martinez repeated multiple times.

These were not excuses, players and Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni clarified. “Thank goodness we won,” Scaloni said. But “this isn't a good field,” he added. “Sincerely, the field is not apt for these players.”

It was the first of several makeshift surfaces that have been or will be laid down for the Copa América, whose 32 games are being hosted by 14 different venues across the United States.

Eleven of the 14 are NFL stadiums. Six of the 11 typically host American football games on artificial turf. But international soccer has long been averse to synthetic turf, which can negatively impact both player health and the flow of a game.

So, for most high-profile stateside soccer games — including the Copa América and 2026 World Cup — grass fields are brought in and installed, either on top of the turf or instead of it on a stadium’s cement floor.

Replacing turf with grass, though, does not automatically bring a surface up to international standard. Countless foreign players and coaches have complained about them over the years. The fields can be dangerous if panels of grass aren’t properly fused together. They can be too firm, or too squishy, or too choppy. Without proper irrigation systems, they can be dry and hold up the ball.

“Truthfully,” Martinez said Thursday night, “the field made it a little complicated for us.”

And the latest round of complaints naturally sparked concerns about how this longstanding issue might impact the grandest sporting event on Earth, the World Cup.

The entire U.S. portion of the 2026 World Cup will be played at NFL venues; Mercedes-Benz Stadium, one of the 11, will host eight games, including a semifinal.

The fields installed for the World Cup, though, will be different from the ones installed for this Copa América. And the entire process will be much more intensive.

In Atlanta, for example, the Copa América surface was laid a few days ago, whereas the World Cup surface is already being prepared years in advance.

Pitches have been one of FIFA’s top priorities ever since the U.S. was selected to co-host the 2026 World Cup back in June of 2018, people familiar with the organization of the tournament have told Yahoo Sports. At some stadiums, including Atlanta’s, irrigation and ventilation systems have already been installed in preparation for the tournament. And in some cases, the highly specific, carefully designed grass that will underpin the World Cup’s “hybrid” playing fields is already being cultivated.

FIFA has even hired experts from U.S. universities to study best practices in grass-growing.

And it has worked with officials at all 11 U.S. stadiums to devise plans for implementation and maintenance, so that they all meet very detailed (and costly) demands.

“We are looking at the pitch conversion, and how that conversion is going to be done to make it a natural grass surface that will actually survive the duration of the tournament," 2026 World Cup chief Heimo Schirgi said on a visit to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, last year.

That, Schirgi admitted, "is a huge challenge."

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - JUNE 20: Lionel Messi of Argentina lies at the pitch during the CONMEBOL Copa America group A match between Argentina and Canada at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on June 20, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)
Lionel Messi lies on the pitch during Thursday's Copa América match between Argentina and Canada at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)

At Mercedes-Benz Stadium this winter, after the Atlanta Falcons’ season concluded, turf was removed so that work on the underground irrigation system could begin. The World Cup grass will then be installed in early 2026, and maintained for months through the end of the tournament.

So, why couldn’t the grass be installed for the 2024 Copa América, or even permanently?

In most cases, the answer is that artificial turf can better accommodate and withstand non-sporting events like concerts — which pad each stadium owner’s wallet with additional revenue. It's also cheaper to maintain.

In Atlanta, after the 2026 World Cup concludes — even though a Major League Soccer team, Atlanta United, plays its home games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium — the grass will be removed and turf reinstalled.

The turf remained in place last weekend for Atlanta United’s MLS game against the Houston Dynamo. Argentine media followed that game and noted that the surface hadn’t yet been changed; some were perplexed.

“We’ve known we were going to play here for seven months,” Scaloni said postgame. “And they changed the grass two days ago. It’s not good for the spectacle. I’m sorry.”

Nor was it good for the players. The ball, Martinez said, was “jumping.”

“Having to play this competition on such an ugly field like this is unfortunate,” Romero told Argentine network TyC Sports.

Next, they will travel to MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, another NFL stadium that is rolling in temporary grass to replace its artificial turf. Similar processes will play out at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California; Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte; AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas; and NRG Stadium in Houston.

Three of the other Copa América venues are soccer-specific MLS stadiums, where the surface shouldn’t be a problem. The rest — Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California; State Farm Stadium in Arizona; Allegiant Stadium in greater Las Vegas; Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City; and Hard Rock Stadium in greater Miami — typically stage games on Bermuda grass.