Four days after earning home-field advantage in the MLS playoffs, D.C. United saw it taken away by forces well beyond the club’s control.
With the New York metropolitan area still recovering from the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, MLS on Wednesday announced United and the New York Red Bulls will swap home playoff dates in the two-game, total-goals Eastern Conference semifinal.
Now, Game 1 will be at RFK Stadium on Saturday, and Game 2 — the match reserved for the higher seed — will be at Red Bull Arena on Wednesday. Both matches will be televised at 8 p.m. on the NBC Sports Network.
Thursday’s paper features a pair of United stories: My match preview diving into the history of the Atlantic Cup rivalry, as well as my sidebar looking at the league’s decision to alter the playoff schedule.
For additional comment, here is a transcript of Wednesday afternoon’s conference call explaining that schedule switch:
MLS commissioner Don Garber
On how MLS came to the decision:
“This is a decision that was made within the last hour and a half or so as we’ve worked with both clubs and MLS operations groups and the club operations groups to try to find a solution that we think is in the best interest of our clubs and our players and our administrators and our staffs and also all of our fans.
“Hurricane Sandy, as all of you know, is an epic and unprecedented natural disaster, one that continues to affect all of us who live in the New York, New Jersey and Tri-State area. Most of us are still without power, with limited communications. The league office on Fifth Avenue has been without power and is closed and will be so for the next number of days, at least. Transportation is very, very limited in the New York area and throughout the Tri-State region.
“We really very much appreciate the support of Kevin Payne and Jerome de Bontin, the new general manager of the New York Red Bulls, and their entire organization because this is a decision that will affect everyone, particularly their technical staffs. This will have a competitive impact on D.C., we understand that, and we deeply appreciate their support and also understand that it’ll impact their fans. Kevin’s going to talk a bit about some of the things that we’re going to do to try to minimize that impact.
“We’re going to try to utilize the mass media as much as we can and we’re going to do everything possible with local media as well as other communication vehicles in order to get the word out as quickly as we can to all those fans who have purchased tickets for the game in D.C.
“This was a tough decision, but one that we think is much bigger than the sport of soccer. I’d like to impress upon everybody that when we made this decision, we took into consideration all of the issues that will impact everyone involved and made the decision that we believe is in the best interest of all parties.”
On whether alternative venues were considered:
“We looked at all alternatives including moving the game to PPL Park, and we determined that the best solution was the one that we have come up with.”
On what the decision came down to:
“Clearly, it was not a revenue decision at all. It was a decision that we believed, at this time, in order to make a decision in a timely fashion, where we can get TV broadcasters in line and assure that all fans and others could make their travel plans, we believe that making the decision on the switch was the right thing to do. We just were not able to make a decision which would have finalized PPL Park in time, and as such felt that this was the best choice.”
On whether there was any flexibility to change the playoff dates:
“That would have been an easy solution, but unfortunately the tight schedule that we have, combined with the FIFA date that’s in mid-November, the fact that we’re going to be playing in a competitively earned MLS Cup site for the first time, and therefore we want as much time between the conference final and that MLS Cup final forced us, really, not to change the schedule.”
On the clubs’ collaboration:
“I want to make a point and reiterate that. I think there are very few teams in Major League Soccer, and very few management teams in Major League Soccer, that could pull something like this off. So part of our willingness to go down this path was the confidence that we have in Kevin and D.C. United and, frankly, the passion that their fans have for the club. We’ve very hopeful and really believe that this will have a minimal impact and hopefully work out well for everybody.”
On whether New York’s home leg could be played at an alternate venue:
Our goal and intention is to play the game in Red Bull Arena on Wednesday, but obviously that is a decision that needs to be made once we’ve gotten more information from Jerome and the city of Harrison and Hudson County. So we’re going to be monitoring that very closely. In the meantime, we’ll be looking throughout the New York-New Jersey area to see if there are alternative sites, should Red Bull Arena not be available. But our intention is to play it at Red Bull Arena and we hope to be able to do so.
D.C. United president Kevin Payne
On United surrendering home-field advantage:
“As the commissioner said, these are extraordinary circumstances that we all face. Our club worked very hard to try to earn home-field advantage in the playoffs and we’re very proud that we achieved that, but there are times in which circumstances override competitive concerns, and this is clearly one of those times.
“Jerome called me yesterday — Jerome is a very good friend of mine in addition to being a competitor — and explained to me the situation at Red Bull Arena. We’ve obviously in D.C., where we also got hit with the storm, but not as bad, we’ve been watching the news and we understand the extent of the catastrophe, really, that has affected the New York/New Jersey area.
“This is not something that any of us would have liked to have foreseen, but it’s something that we have to be able to accommodate. I’m absolutely certain that our fans will respond, as they always do, and we will see a great crowd at RFK Stadium on short notice Saturday.
“This happens to be one of those very unusual circumstances that you will probably never forget, and it calls for extraordinary actions. This is an extraordinary action, but it’s one that we all agree was appropriate.
On plans to get word of the schedule change to fans:
“We’ve already begun a lot of that, we’ve begun through a variety of different digital mechanisms, whether that’s social media or direct emails to ticket-buyers. We’ve begun alerting them to the change in game date. We had about 10,000 tickets sold for the match. We really hadn’t sold very many Sunday, Monday or Tuesday of this week because of the storm, so that had really kind of begun to surge today. Obviously we have to turn that around.
“Our hope is that because it’s switching from a weeknight to a Saturday night it won’t be too inconvenient for people. Those people who’ve bought tickets and want refunds will have the opportunity to get those refunds from wherever they bought the ticket, if they bought it from us or if they bought it from Ticketmaster.
“We are launching a major advertising and public relations campaign. The league is being very supportive of us in that. That will launch kind of overnight tonight but particularly tomorrow, Friday and throughout the day Saturday. Our fans in the past have responded very quickly when we’ve had playoff games with quick turnarounds. We think that we still have among the best fan bases in the league and we are entirely confident that our fans will come out and give us the home-field advantage we were confident we would have enjoyed on Wednesday night.”
On United fans traveling for the second leg:
“As many of you are aware, ordinarily there are traveling fan policies that the league has in place which limit the number of fans for the visiting team and tend to put them in certain very proscribed sections on the stadium. In consideration of these extraordinary circumstances, the league and Red Bull have agreed to make those policies much more flexible for the game on Wednesday night, so D.C. United fans will have an opportunity for more than the normal allocation, which normally would be 500 fans.
“There will be an opportunity for more than that to travel for the game, and their seating will be in a different location in the stadium from where it would ordinarily be. We’re communicating with our supporters groups right now and we expect to see a very large contingent of D.C. fans make the trip to Harrison to Red Bull Arena on Wednesday.”
New York Red Bulls general manager Jerome de Bontin
On the decision to reschedule:
“Considering the vast number of serious challenges that have arisen in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we totally agree with the league’s decision to switch the venue for the first leg of our playoff against D.C. United. Clearly, the safety of our fans and visitors coming to Red Bull Arena takes ultimate precedence, and we our confident in this case that all our fans understand. In conversations with Major League Soccer and local authorities, we felt at the end of the day it really was in all parties’ best interests to find a suitable alternative.
“I am very grateful to Kevin Payne and the D.C. United organization for their support and understanding in view of the challenging time that we are today still all facing in New Jersey and New York. The league has shown real leadership in the way they have managed the situation, and I also want to thank commissioner Garber for their efforts and support. We obviously look forward to facing D.C. United and I hope our fans will enjoy both games.”
On the current situation at Red Bull Arena:
“The water never made it to the field. We covered the field on time. We uncovered the field yesterday and the field’s in perfect shape. We had water come all the way to the building but in essence aside from the parking lot, we never had water inside the building. We lost power like most people in the region around 7:30 p.m. on Monday. We had generators and they kicked in. Obviously, the generators don’t cover every aspect of the building, but they allow us to assure security and have lights around the building.
“As we monitored the situation, we were first told it could take five to seven days for us to get power in Harrison and at the stadium. I’ve been in touch with the mayor’s office and other authorities, and yesterday we were told with some assurances that it could be by Monday or earlier in sporadic fashion, and in fact we did get some power back for a few hours today and we’re hopeful to get more tomorrow, so we’re quite confident that by Monday everything will be in order in the arena.
“The stadium is in perfect shape; the roof was not affected. The only damage I can report is two lights that fell off the building.”
On contingency plans if the PATH train isn’t up and running:
“We’re working on those. We’ve been in contact with the town of Harrison, the police department and other authorities to come up with some alternatives that we can offer to those who initially would use the PATH and we’ll be releasing those as we get closer to game time.”