We all have our visions of the big game. We stay after practice and do extra sprints, envisioning the moment we walk out of the tunnel to the full stadium, past the trophy teasingly on display, cheers erupting from every corner. The bright lights shine down on the field, a clear sky allows the glow to resonate into the black off in the distance. It’s a picturesque scene for the ultimate moment. It’s a scene in our minds that rarely, if ever, includes snow and winter jackets.
Forecast for MLS Cup 2016 in Toronto on December 10: cloudy, chance of snow, 25 degrees Fahrenheit (-4 Celsius).
Life, man. It rarely turns out perfectly for you, does it? You deal with what you’re given. I’ve always gotten a little annoyed when the biggest games are played in weird conditions – this is my dream, don’t you know that, world? – but ultimately you can’t spend too much time stressing over it.
It sounds obvious, but most players on Saturday night at BMO Field will warm up in as many layers as possible. They will have long pants and possibly tights, a baselayer long-sleeve shirt, a training jacket and then a heavy jacket. As they start to get warm and their body heats up, they will shed the layers. As you’d expect, when it’s cold it can be tougher to get your muscles ready, so you need to add the extra warmth.
“You really need to warm up,” said Sounders forward Herculez Gomez, when asked about the No. 1 priority when playing in cold weather. “People tend to pull things or injure themselves more in cold weather.”
Ideally you want to get your body warm enough so that at the end of warmups you are in shorts and the long-sleeve shirt that you'll be wearing during the game. If a player has a muscle issue, he might wear an extra sleeve on the muscle to insulate the area throughout the game to make sure the muscle doesn’t get cold.
During the game, it’s different strokes for different folks. Some players will go for long sleeves and some players will opt for short sleeves. You’d think everyone would want the extra warmth – and MLS teams offer players either a single long-sleeve jersey option, or the baselayer beneath the short-sleeve jersey, depending on the player’s preference – but some players opt for their regular short sleeves.
Matt Besler, for example, played the first half of Sporting Kansas City’s 2013 MLS Cup in 20 degrees Fahrenheit in short sleeves. “I don’t like wearing long sleeves, it makes me feel restricted,” he said. Restricted is better than dying, Matthew.
I personally like the cold air on my skin (within reason). It makes me feel alert. I wore long sleeves for most games – including the 100-degree games in Dallas – but sometimes on cold nights in Sweden I really liked the feel of the cold chill on my body. It felt like a constant shock of energy throughout the game.
The person that’s really up a creek is the goalkeeper.
“I plan on having leggings on. I plan on having a lot of layers on underneath my jersey,” Toronto FC goalkeeper Clint Irwin said. “[Tuesday] I experimented with surgical gloves under my gloves, but I don’t think I’m going to go with that. I might wear double socks, though.”
Generally the most tricky decision in cold weather is the boot selection. Cold weather, particularly when it snows (obviously), usually also means wet and slick, so a player would want metal studs. But when it gets too cold the ground hardens, so it can act a little like ice, in which case metals are the wrong choice. Fortunately for the players on Saturday, Toronto has a heated surface, so expect to see the players opt for "sixes" studs or a stud hybrid (four metal studs built into a traditional firm ground boot).
The combination of the heated surface and the cold air should make for soggy, loose grass. While Gomez noted that Seattle isn’t taking much notice of the impending cold conditions, he will definitely make note of the wet surface: “With the cold comes slicker conditions on the field. The ball travels further or it can skip on you. So you almost have to prepare yourselves for a mistake.”
The Run of Play
Sometimes the cold can distract a player. If you notice that it’s cold, that’s a split second that your brain is thinking about the cold and not the game. I’ve always considered poor conditions to be to my advantage. It’s an extra element that separates players and gives some players a chance to thrive.
Defensive players will usually find it easier to stay focused amidst potential distractions. Defensive players have a more straightforward job. They need to fight and communicate and chase (although when it comes to communicating, Besler says his lips were frozen halfway through the 2013 Cup, which made speaking difficult). When you’re constantly in battle mode, it’s easier to keep your mind on the task.
Attackers, though, have a more complicated job. Attackers need to create art; they need to think and improvise. It’s more difficult to find the spark to make music than it is to build a wall. Attackers often have trouble being sharp and incisive, creating a game of more graft than guile.
From a technical standpoint, not a lot will change. The main factor will be the ball. The cold causes the leather on the ball to tighten and makes the ball heavy and hard, more like kicking a big ice cube than a soccer ball. Some lucky guy on the field will block a shot and be left with a perfect ball imprint on his skin. The harder ball can also make clipping a long ball or driving a shot feel a little unnatural.
“In our game the ball was frozen, so it was extremely hard to play the ball farther than 30 yards. It was hard to get the ball in the air,” Besler said. Again, though, with the split-second decisions made during a game, don’t expect the players to change their decisions based on the feel of the ball on the day.
Irwin, who says he once hit the hot tub at halftime during a match in Colorado, noted that TFC, like Seattle, haven’t discussed the weather, trying to keep everything as normal as possible. “We’ve played in all kinds of conditions this year and throughout our careers,” Irwin pointed out. “The weather is something you can’t control, and if you’re going to let that affect your play, you’re probably not suited for professional sports.”
I’ll never forget my first preseason in Norway. I’ll tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve experienced Norway in January. We’d show up to the facility, walking through two feet of fresh powder, and watch through the windows as the plow cleared the snow off the field. I sipped my coffee and prayed to God the coach decided we deserved an off day. I told myself he might even bring in pizza for us.
But we never got an off day. We put on our pants and hats and gloves and headed out to training. And while I cursed my luck as I laced my boots, the second I got moving – OK, maybe not the second, it might have taken a few minutes – I forgot about the cold. I was just playing soccer. I was just in the moment, with the ball, doing what I’d done so many times in so many ways.
And I imagine that’s what TFC and the Sounders will do on Saturday (8 pm ET on FOX and UniMás in USA; TSN and RDS in Canada). They will drive to the stadium, looking out the window wondering how their special occasion has arrived on such an unpleasant day. They will lace up their boots and wish it was a little nicer out, and then they will take the field. Soon after, they will forget it’s cold or snowy or any different at all. And then, well, they will just play.
And if they win...
“As soon as we got into the locker room after the trophy presentation,” Besler said of their 2013 victory, “everyone sprinted toward the jacuzzi room and everyone jumped into the hot tub. So there was about 25 guys in the hot tub at once and it usually fits about eight.”
Nothing like some champagne in the jacuzzi to warm yourself up.