D.C. United will open the MLS playoffs at home this weekend instead of on the road, an urgent switch precipitated by Hurricane Sandy’s devastating impact in the New York area.
United was scheduled to play the New York Red Bulls in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal series Saturday night in Harrison, N.J., then host the second and final game Wednesday in Washington.
With the change, United will welcome New York to RFK Stadium on Saturday night at 8 p.m. and visit Red Bull Arena four days later.
“This was a tough decision, but one that we think is much bigger than the sport of soccer,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said.
Red Bull Arena, across the Passaic River from Newark, lost electricity during the storm and, according to New York General Manager Jerome de Bontin, probably won’t regain full power until Monday.
Transportation and safety also presented “serious challenges,” he said. PATH commuter trains in New York and New Jersey were disrupted by the storm. The Harrison station is within walking distance of the stadium and is typically utilized by thousands of fans.
MLS considered moving New York’s home game to PPL Park in Chester, Pa., the Philadelphia Union’s home stadium, but the logistical time frame was too narrow, Garber said. Because of a tight playoff window, there was little flexibility for the date of the first game, he added.
The new schedule puts United at a slight competitive disadvantage in the total-goals format. If the aggregate score is tied after the two games, the teams would play 30 minutes of overtime immediately following the second match.
If the score remains even, penalty kicks would follow.
As the No. 2 seed, United would have been at home for the final game. Instead, the third-seeded Red Bulls would have home-field advantage for the tiebreaking process.
On Tuesday, United President Kevin Payne bristled at the idea of relinquishing the second game at home. But after discussing the issue with de Bontin and Garber on Wednesday, he agreed to the move.
“Our club worked very hard to earn home-field advantage in the playoffs and we are very proud we achieved that, but there are times in which circumstances override competitive concerns,” Payne said. “This is clearly one of those times.”
United Coach Ben Olsen concurred with the decision.
“I am okay with it,” he said. “There are real issues in New York and New Jersey. People are suffering. This seemed to be the simplest solution.”
Addressing strategic changes, Olsen added: “We’ve just got to be good at home and then grind out a result on the road.”
De Bontin, who has known Payne for many years, said, “We are grateful to D.C. United for their support and understanding.”
Red Bull Arena lost power around 7:30 p.m. Monday, de Bontin said, but the stadium did not suffer any structural damage and the field did not flood. Emergency generators supplied small streams of power but the team was told by utility officials that full restoration could take five to seven days. The time frame was later moved up to next Monday, De Bontin added.
In case the stadium is not ready, Garber said, the Red Bulls will seek an alternate venue in the New York area. “But our intention is to play at Red Bull Arena,” he said.
The change was a mixed blessing for United’s ticket office. On the plus side, the team will play at home on a weekend, when attendance is historically larger. The challenge, however, is selling tickets on short notice.
The club had sold about 10,000 tickets for the Wednesday home match, Payne said. Fans who aren’t able to attend Saturday may request a refund from the place of purchase.
MLS will help pay for United’s marketing and public relations efforts in the coming days, multiple sources said.
“Our fans in the past have responded very quickly when we have had playoff games with quick turnarounds,” Payne said. “We are entirely confident the fans will come out and give us the home-field advantage we were confident we would’ve enjoyed on Wednesday.”
MLS has also agreed to lift the limit of 500 visiting fans for the return leg in New Jersey.
“This will have a competitive impact on D.C.,” Garber said. “We understand that and deeply appreciate their support and understand it will impact their fans.”