HARRISON, N.J. — A playoff series that began with storm-related changes took another weather-influenced turn Wednesday night when D.C. United’s match against the New York Red Bulls was postponed because of snow produced by a nor’easter.
The teams will try again Thursday night to finish an MLS Eastern Conference semifinal that had already experienced a location switch last week and a bizarre 1-1 draw in the opener.
Commissioner Don Garber and league President Mark Abbott grabbed shovels and joined the Red Bull Arena grounds crew in attempting to clear the field. But after delaying the start by about 45 minutes, MLS called it off.
“Looking at the forecast over time, at no point was it clear there would be so much snow and have it come so quickly,” said Nelson Rodriguez, the league’s executive vice president. “We decided to make the effort to play. We felt we owed it to everybody to see that effort through. In the end, we did not feel we could get the field into playable enough condition.”
United was upset about the decision.
“I’m baffled,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “It wouldn’t have been a pretty game, that’s for sure. It would’ve made the game sloppy, but this is what it is. The game has got to go on at some point.”
His counterpart, Hans Backe, disagreed, citing risk to the players and the quality of play.
“It’s a different sport” playing in the snow, he said. By playing, “then it’s, in a way, a joke and all about luck. It’s a conference semifinal; it has to be more serious.
“With these conditions, you can’t play football. It kept snowing more and more. Perhaps we could’ve done 15 minutes and stopped the game, tried to clear the pitch – you can’t do it like that.”
Early forecasts had called for high winds, rain and about an inch of snow. But the steady snow began to accumulate in the hours before kickoff and continued into the night. Although the field is not equipped with an underground heating element, it did not freeze — a fact that United used in its argument to try to play.
The grounds crew, though, struggled to keep up with the snowfall.
The arena does not have equipment to clear the field without damaging the natural grass.
Two corners of the field were spared by prevailing winds but the rest of the surface needed constant work.
Asked about the teams disagreeing about whether to play, Rodriguez said: “We respect both sides. In the end, we have to do what we think is best for the competition, best for the safety and mindful of our great fans.”
Although the local turnout was small, an estimated 700 United supporters made the trip, arriving on 11 buses paid by MLS and the Red Bulls. The gesture came in the aftermath of Game 1 being moved to Washington on three days’ notice, a move necessitated by Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the New York area.
The league has also offered to cover expenses Thursday as well.
Moments after the postponement was announced, United’s players and team investors marched onto the field and saluted the fans. “We’re not leaving!” the supporters chanted. Several players, as well as investor Will Chang, wound their way through the stands and ramps to join their backers in the upper deck and thank them in person.
Describing the discussions between the teams and league officials, United President Kevin Payne said: “It’s not like anyone was throwing things around the room, but we were pretty emphatic we wanted to play. A lot of the reason was our fans. We probably had more people in the building than they did.”
With the series pushed back, the Eastern Conference finals won’t begin until Sunday, a one-day delay. The New York-D.C. winner will visit Houston to play Game 1 against the fifth-seeded Dynamo, which on Wednesday completed a 2-1 aggregate victory over top-seeded Sporting Kansas City. Game 2 will be the following weekend at New York or Washington.
“I don’t understand it,” United’s Chris Pontius said of the postponement. “We are all ready to play the game. . . . A lot of the guys are angry. You’ve just got to bottle up that energy, that anger, and use it out on them tomorrow.”
●DYNAMO ADVANCES: Visiting Houston held off Sporting Kansas City after Seth Sinovic scored his first career goal in the second half, falling 1-0 but advancing to the Eastern Conference finals with a 2-1 aggregate-goal result.
The Dynamo won the opening leg Sunday behind goals from Adam Moffat and Will Bruin, and then did enough on defense — just barely — to advance to its second straight conference title game. Houston defeated Sporting KC last year to reach the MLS Cup finals.