12:50 pm Nov. 8, 2012
In a fan-relations debacle, Major League Soccer didn't call off a scheduled Eastern Conference semifinal playoff match between the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United on Wednesday night until about an hour after it was supposed to start.
Few spectators made it to snowy Red Bull Arena, and the ones who did were punished pretty cruelly for their efforts.
It seemed to be the result of an almost comical inability to reconcile the needs of players, teams and the playoff schedule. No one can claim that the northeaster that dumped around five inches of snow, and produced high winds, came as a surprise. The forecast was grim from Monday on, and the worst of the storm was scheduled for the exact time the game would be played. Red Bulls coach Hans Backe had already publicly called for the game to be postponed or played earlier in the day on Wednesday, to get ahead of the poor weather.
The problem with doing either had to do with television. Play earlier on Wednesday, and M.L.S. wasn't providing television partner N.B.C. with a primetime game for the network's sports channel. Play on Thursday, and whichever of the two teams advanced would have trouble turning around and playing Saturday, when the Eastern Conference final against Houston was scheduled to begin, also on N.B.C. Sports Network.
So M.L.S. soldiered on. D.C. United trucked 700 supporters up to Red Bull Arena, where they competed with Red Bulls' supporters groups and ... essentially no one else, with Red Bull Arena utterly vacant beyond those sections.
Meanwhile, the grounds crew, lent a hand by league commissioner Don Garber and other M.L.S. officials, attempted to clean the field with snow shovels as more and more fell from the sky. The teams alternated between warming up on the just-cleared areas and hustling back to the tunnel to keep warm.
The television was entertaining, at least: The brilliant Arlo White riffed effortlessly for an hour, while Kyle Martino interviewed both head coaches, M.L.S. executive vice president Nelson Rodriguez and several players.
D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen actually indicated that he wanted to play. Whether this was simply posturing for his fans who had made the trip (and almost certainly couldn't do so two nights in a row), or simply a competitiveness that has endeared him to the D.C. United fan base going back to his time playing there, he was unequivocal.
“My concern is that my boys wanted to play, and I thought it was a playable field at this point," Olsen said after the decision was made to reschedule. "But it isn’t, so we gotta regroup and come back tomorrow and do it again.”
The field was covered in snow. Red Bull Arena has no heated pitch, like many European venues used to the cold conditions. The temperature at scheduled game time was 32 degrees in Harrison, and dropping. Things were only going to get worse.
Tonight, the teams, who have a long history of absurd moments in a rivalry that dates back to the start of the league, will give it another shot. The winner will have home field, not only in the Eastern Conference finals' second leg, but in the M.L.S. Cup, should they reach it.
Elsewhere in New York sports:
Jason Bay is no longer a Met.
The team is still discussing whether R.A. Dickey or David Wright will be Mets.
The Knicks, off from Monday to Friday, get some relaxation time they'd probably prefer to do without.