Thursday, June 13, 2024
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Playing in MLS during a blizzard: ‘It’s like trying to run on an ice rink’

“My toes go first.”

It usually happens that way when playing soccer in blizzard conditions according to Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Zac MacMath, who has played in snow games throughout his professional career.

On Saturday in Utah, sideways-blowing snow whipped throughout America First Field in the city of Sandy, just outside Salt Lake City, during RSL’s 3-0 win over LAFC.

When players planted their feet in an attempt to sprint or pass, a burst of the snow that engulfed the greater Salt Lake City area exploded from below. Players endured the squall conditions for more than 90 minutes on Saturday afternoon after two delays lasting more than two and a half hours.

“There was not a time my cleat hit the grass,” said LAFC defender Ryan Hollingshead. “It was on top of snow the entire time.”

Many players wore neck or face coverings (Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

When referee Aleksandar Zhelyazkov called full time in the 98th minute of RSL’s win, it capped off one of the wildest weather match days in MLS history and provoked questions regarding whether it should have been played at all.

“My lower back is killing me,” Hollingshead said postgame when asked if he would bring up the playing conditions with the MLS Players Association. “It’s just like trying to run on an ice rink. You’re sliding and slipping the whole time. The whole goal is just to not fall over and hurt yourself. It will absolutely be taken to the players association. I know our rep will be having that conversation immediately.”

An MLSPA spokesperson told The Athletic the organization needed to have more conversations internally before commenting.

“It is laughable,” said LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo, who sat in his snow-covered coach’s seat with a wet blanket across his lap. “It just baffles me that we would put players through this. I didn’t even watch the game for the last 20 minutes. You couldn’t see anything.”

RSL’s home opener was originally slated to begin at noon local time on Saturday, but a massive storm system was preceded by high winds that were deemed to be a “major weather risk” by the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City. Gusts ahead of the storm front arrived, with winds howling as much as 60 miles per hour.

The match was originally delayed because wind ripped off signage and support structures in and around the stadium, which caused RSL to do a venue-wide inspection to make sure nothing else was potentially dangerous for fans and players.

RSL midfielder Diego Luna chases the ball at a snowy America First Field (Kelvin Kuo, USA TODAY Sports)

According to a source briefed on the situation, LAFC remained at its hotel in downtown Salt Lake City while the damage was assessed and a new start time was being formulated with cooperation from the league. RSL players arrived at America First Field at 10:20 a.m., but LAFC remained at the hotel until the new start time of 2:10 p.m. was announced. LAFC was notified of the new start time at 11:45 a.m., the source said.

Both home and visiting teams typically arrive at stadiums 90 minutes before kickoff. LAFC had hopes of being able to make its scheduled 5:15 p.m. charter flight back to Southern California to avoid being stuck in Utah due to the storm. That potential exit plan was thwarted, and then some.

The first attempt to play lasted only three minutes and 30 seconds. It was then that Zhelyazkov pointed skyward and signaled lightning flashes to players. Both sides pleaded to keep playing, but league rules state that any flash of lightning in the area necessitates a minimum 30-minute delay. Five minutes after the players filed into the dressing rooms, another cluster of strikes hit around the stadium.

At that time, a wintry mix fell from the sky, but it wasn’t sticking to the grass yet.

When the teams returned to warm up after the 30-minute lightning delay, the snowstorm was in its early stages. The match officially resumed at 3:05 p.m. and for the next two hours, it was a wintry showcase of a sport that sometimes only barely resembled soccer.

The conditions didn’t seem to dampen the form of Colombian winger Andres Gomez, who scored two goals with two nice finishes. RSL playmaker Diego Luna needed to lift the ball off the snow to get enough velocity for the pass that became Gomez’s second goal. Striker Chicho Arango scored the third just before halftime and celebrated by making a snow angel.

RSL took a 3-0 lead into halftime but the snow continued to fall in the second half and began to pile up in some spots as visibility was steadily reduced. At one point, Zhelyazkov marked the appropriate distance for defending a direct free kick by drawing a line in the snow with his toe.

Dan Farnes, director of fields and grounds for RSL and Utah Royals FC, said he measured the deepest part of the snow that was left untouched at the end of the match. It was as deep as four inches.

“This was the worst I’ve seen for sure,” Farnes said of the on-field conditions. “It would sting your eyeballs. It was kind of a nightmare.”

Farnes’ typical matchday grounds crew is made up of five people. On Saturday, he asked four other RSL staffers for help and pulled an additional four friends from the crowd to help shovel and maintain the lines as best as they possibly could. When the teams and the orange ball, used in reduced visibility games, were on one side of the field for an elongated period, the grounds crew on the other side would sprint out, shovels in hand, to do their best to clear their priorities: the goal line, six-yard box and the 18-yard box.

Members of the grounds crew shovel snow off the field (Christopher Creveling, USA TODAY Sports)

“We don’t make those decisions about playing the game,” Farnes said. “I just told everybody to keep going as long as possible and I doubt they’ll cancel the game because of it. All we can do is shovel the lines and that’s it.”

America First Field has a forced air heating system from when the stadium was built in 2008, but it is designed to help heat the soil under the grass, not to melt snow. To maintain the integrity of the playing surface, manually shoveling snow is the only safe way of managing the sight lines. A snow plow would inflict potentially permanent damage.

Farnes estimates this was RSL’s seventh official snow game since he’s been part of the organization. Most recently, they played in snowy conditions in March 2022 at New England. In April 2017, RSL hosted the Vancouver Whitecaps in similar whiteout conditions.

“Trying to maintain a playable, safe surface for the guys is what we want the most,” Farnes said.

In his postgame press conference, LAFC midfielder Timothy Tillman was still picking flakes of snow out of his hair as he did his best to describe what it was like playing in such hostile elements.

LAFC midfielder Timothy Tillman was still pulling ice from his hair during the postgame press conference (Rob Gray, USA TODAY Sports)

“What are we supposed to do? We are a team that wants to play on the ground,” he said. “Of course, when we can’t do that, it all comes down to effort and mentality, but it’s just impossible to play in these conditions.”

World Cup-winning goalkeeper Hugo Lloris certainly had a memorable first away outing since his arrival in MLS. Last weekend he made a game-high seven saves in LAFC’s season-opening home win over Seattle in sun-soaked Southern California. A week later, he was diving headfirst into mounds of snow.

Once both teams were inside and thawing out, MacMath asked Lloris if they could swap jerseys. Lloris obliged, MacMath thanked him and said, “Welcome to MLS, this is what it’s like every weekend.”

(Top photo: Christopher Creveling/USA TODAY Sports)

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