HARRISON, N.J. - Shortly after it was announced that the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal series between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls was postponed, United players made their way out of the locker room.
In full uniform, they marched out into the blizzard conditions that had forced Major League Soccer to pull the plug on the match and jogged across the field to pay tribute to the nearly 700 fans who had traveled by bus from Washington to Red Bull Arena, just outside New York City.
Some players clapped as the fans sang. Others, from owner Will Chang and team president Kevin Payne to midfielder Chris Pontius, climbed their way into the upper deck stands to join in and commiserate with those who had braved the nor'easter to see a match that was originally supposed to take place at RFK Stadium.
Many won't make it back for the rescheduled game on Thursday (NBC Sports Network, 7:30 p.m.). All were disappointed with the league's decision that the grass field at Red Bull Arena couldn't bear a game with the volume of snow still falling.
"In the end, we did not feel we could get the field into safe or playable enough condition," said Nelson Rodriguez, the league's executive vice president of competition, who made the final call to move the contest.
The only explanation United coach Ben Olsen heard was that game wouldn't be played.
"I'm baffled," Olsen said. "Have you seen the field? It looks fine to me."
A forecast of heavy gusts and a wintry mix that wouldn't have adversely affected the field in the first place also was what had been expected. Wind was hardly an issue inside the enclosed arena, but the weight of accumulating snow forced the removal of a tarp over the field three hours prior to kickoff. The only problem was that what ensued was a frantic, all-hands-on-deck attempt to clear the rapidly whitening field.
"We felt that the forecast was one that gave us a window and an opportunity to play the game, and to play it safely and to cause the least disruption to the overall playoff schedule," Rodriguez said. "Unfortunately, nature has a funny way of playing tricks on people, and we just couldn't keep up with it."
Even MLS commissioner Don Garber and league president Mark Abbott took turns pushing piles of snow to the sidelines as part of a battalion of shovel-wielding employees in all manners of dress.
The success of the effort depended on the point of view. Red Bulls coach Hans Backe had suggested the day before that the game be played earlier in the afternoon.
"In a way it's just a joke," Backe said when asked about playing in the snowy conditions. "Then it's all about luck. It's all about luck, some individual mistakes or anything that will decide. Still, it's a semifinal, the conference semifinal. It has to be more serious."
Orange balls emerged for the players as they warmed up, and the shoveling continued until the game was called just after 9 p.m., around 40 minutes after it had been scheduled to kick off.
"I'm baffled that we can't play this game," Olsen said. "It wouldn't have been a pretty game, that's for sure. It would've made the game sloppy. There would've been a lot of 50-50 balls, but this is what it is. The game has got to go on at some point."
Olsen wasn't aware that New York didn't prefer to go ahead with the match.
"My concern is that my boys wanted to play, I wanted to play, and I thought it was a playable field," Olsen said. "But it isn't, so we've got to regroup and come back tomorrow and do it again."
MLS and the Red Bulls said they would again provide buses for D.C. United fans on Thursday, just as they'd done on Wednesday as compensation for agreeing to host the first leg of the semifinals series. That match, which ended in a 1-1 draw, was moved to Washington after Red Bull Arena lost power as the New Jersey and New York region was devastated by superstorm Sandy.
The first game of the Eastern Conference final, originally scheduled for Saturday, also was moved to Sunday (NBC Sports Network, 4 p.m.). The winner between New York and D.C. United will travel to Houston to face the Dynamo, which outlasted Sporting Kansas City over two games, 2-1.
"It's pretty crazy, isn't it," Payne said. "I guess it's just New York and D.C. We always seem to have wild stuff happen. This is just another chapter."