HARRISON, N.J. — As the snow continued to fall — a white speckled sheet dancing across a black sky, only visible after the flecks drifted into Red Bull Arena’s lights — D.C. United’s players walked out of the locker room and across the green-and-white field at Red Bull Arena.
Every section in the stadium was empty, save one with roughly 700 tightly-packed black-clad United supporters. The players walked with purpose toward their cacophonous fans, who serenaded their heroes: “We’re not leaving!” they chanted.
Brimming with the still-raw emotion of having a match they were anxious to play called off by the MLS officials concerned with “jeopardizing the safety of the athletes,” the United players reached the end-line retaining wall, climbed the barrier and walked up into the stands to thank their fans for making the trip.
Club executive chairman Will Chang led the charge, followed by captain Chris Pontius. Head coach Ben Olsen and general manager Dave Kasper stood on the visiting sideline watching the scene, wondering why the decision was made to postpone the second leg of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series against New York. The match is rescheduled for Thursday at 7:30 pm ET.
“Have you seen the field? It looks fine to me,” Olsen said. “I’m baffled that we can’t play this game.”
The match was called roughly 45 minutes after its scheduled start time after shoveling crews worked tirelessly to clear the field. The league consulted with both clubs and meteorologists, but ultimately, however, MLS executive vice president of competition, technical and game operations Nelson Rodriguez made the decision to reschedule the match.
The D.C. supporters were given free bus fare and tickets to the match because of the switch of home venues that occurred last week in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The league said it will once again pay for buses for fans who wish to attend Thursday’s match.
“It’s not like anybody was throwing things around the room, but we were pretty emphatic that we wanted to play tonight,” United president and CEO Kevin Payne said. “A lot of the reason we wanted to play tonight was because of our fans.”
Both teams warmed up as if the match was going to kickoff at its originally scheduled 8:21 pm start time, but the snow fell at a quicker rate than league officials anticipated. Still, United’s players appeared energetic and vibrant in preparation for the must-win match.
After the news came that the match was postponed, their mood was very different.
“I think for us as a team, a lot of the guys in the locker room are angry,” Pontius said. “We’ve just got to bottle up that energy and that anger, and use it on them tomorrow.”
Olsen, who mentioned that he played in the snow plenty of times while growing up in Pennsylvania, conceded that the game would have been sloppy had the teams played, an idea Red Bulls coach Hans Backe didn't want to entertain.
“I think we’ve done our part and changed games,” Olsen said. “It’s a playable field from my end. Maybe I’m wrong. I’m upset. I’m upset because I’ve got some guys that, by the look in their eyes, they were ready to go today.”
As United have seemed to do with regularity throughout the season’s final two months, they must once again adjust to adverse conditions if they hope to keep their season alive.
“It’s pretty crazy, isn’t it?” Payne said of the series as a whole. “I guess it’s just New York and D.C. We always seem to have wild stuff happen.”