Snow Clash: Watching Soccer Get Weird At 5,000 Feet

DENVER— By almost every measure, Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo., is a thoroughly modern stadium. Built for $147 million in 2007 and home to Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids since then, it seats 18,000 soccer fans just north of Denver. The entire complex contains 24 soccer fields. It's as close as America gets to a monument to the sport, and it all sits at an elevation of more than 5,000 feet.

Add all that up and you get something that makes for something like a home-field advantage, and a very pretty (if surreal) spectacle: snow. As we took off from the Albuquerque Sunport Airport last Friday, the pilot told us that Denver was expecting around eight inches through the night and into the next day. The U.S.–Costa Rica game was to kick off at 8 p.m. local time, meaning it’d be taking place in the thick of the storm. DSGP does not have the smog of Mexico’s 100,000-seat Estadio Azteca. And at first glance, it is certainly more hospitable than Honduras’s thick-grass, 16-year-old relic that burns under a 90-degree midday sun, and somewhat safer than Jamaica’s “The Office"—which is called “The Office,” and that should be frightening enough. When you're this high up in the atmosphere—even in late March—there’s snow. Whether or not that’s what the U.S. Men’s National Team hoped for heading into last Friday’s World Cup qualifying match against Costa Rica, that’s what they got.

The weather would seem to be a clear advantage for the Americans, most of whom play in Europe, where there’s often something wet falling from the sky. Nearly half of the Costa Rican squad plays year-round in Costa Rica, where an inch of snow would collapse the nation’s economy, dissolve the government, and automatically install whoever owned a winter coat and a wool hat as the new head of state.

A loss would’ve put the Americans in a tough spot (two losses in the first two of 10 games) heading into an away game against Mexico. Along with the snow, a leveling of the playing field in itself, the U.S. had some setbacks to contend with: Long-time captain Carlos Bocanegra was left off the roster due to a lack of playing time with his club team, and starting goalie and new-captain Tim Howard is injured, along with seven defenders who could have started on an already-leaky backline. And then there was last week’s Sporting News story, which quoted a bunch of anonymous American players saying that German-born head coach Jurgen Klinsmann doesn’t really know what he’s doing and that the German-American players on the team tend to keep to themselves.

So, in the American sports-narrative sense—Capacity crowd! Adversity! Controversy! A possibly clueless foreign infiltrator! Other maybe-devious double agents! Something to tide us over until the NFL comes back!—this game was as close as a World Cup qualifier between the United States and Costa Rica would come to being what Charlie Pierce called a Big Game. Tickets had sold out within an hour of general release. There was even a pep rally for U.S. fans (baby steps, people) at Denver's Paramount Theater the day before the game. And there were a ton of fan-focused events (a “chalk talk” with former U.S. players and ESPN commentators, a pre-game tailgate, and a coaches’ symposium) leading up to kickoff. ESPN broadcasted the game, and advertised it heavily. The American players were already feeling the pressure to look good for the cameras.

Then, it started snowing.

Snow Clash: Watching Soccer Get Weird At 5,000 Feet

DSGP has a press room and a press box on site, but the box is open-air and the wind and snow was blowing and falling sideways, so the roof didn’t serve much of a purpose. By kickoff, temperatures were near freezing. The field was coated in white and, gradually, cleated footsteps. John Deere mowers plowed the sidelines pre-game and then gave way to men with shovels who worked diligently to keep the sidelines and the 18-yard-box visible. The refs supplied a yellow ball, too, but that’s about all that could be done to improve the conditions. For the fans, a flask—actually, many flasks—was the only thing that could be done to improve the conditions. The snow only got harder and heavier as the game went on, and it only got colder, too, because even during a sold-out soccer game, the world continues to spin. There was no staying warm. There was only staying slightly less cold.

For 87 minutes, I stayed out in the open-air press box in water-absorbing desert boots and a jacket that I should be able to wear in late March. I wiped my chair and the table in front of me with a towel, but it was snowed over within a minute. The fallout: I might have gotten frostbite on one of my toes, and my nose didn’t stop running for a few hours—but I got to wear a scarf and also didn’t have to wear shorts and cleats and go run around for an hour and a half.

That’s how this one will be remembered: for the weather. It was a soccer game, in that 22 guys were trying to kick a ball into a goal, but outside of that, passing, dribbling, and everything else that makes up the game was merely hopeful. Around the 56th minute, the ref stopped the game, and it looked like he was going to call it, but the crowd—which stayed loud and at capacity from start to finish—started to boo, chanting, “LET THEM PLAY.” The ref continued the game (it’d be nice to imagine was giving in to the fans), and that’s what the post-game talk was about and what most of the questions in president of U.S. Soccer Sunil Gulati’s press conference centered on. The U.S. wanted the game to finish because they were winning. And Costa Rica wanted to stop because there was ankle-high snow on the field.

“As the snow accumulated,” said Michael Bradley, a midfielder for the U.S., “it’s almost impossible to play.” “It’s no advantage to anyone,” Jozy Altidore added.

He was right: The snow would, effectively, be a mitigating factor for the visitors. It made it more difficult for everyone to pass and dribble and do all the things that make up the sport’s basic movements. All of the players had to adjust their style just to navigate the field. It wasn’t a total white out; you could see across the stadium. A photographer even complained to me during the pre-game that he couldn’t get a shot of the snow falling. (ESPN’s high-def technology apparently hasn’t mastered through-the-snow viewing, though.) The snow never looked like it was dumping, maybe because of all the wind swirling it around—wind that hurts, like some jerk pricking your face with a porcupine quill—but the sideline would get shoveled, and then disappear as soon as you looked back down. For the first half hour or so, the teams were more or less able to complete passes, but the snow continued to build up and before too long play had totally deteriorated.

During the second-half stoppage, Klinsmann (who called the game “a nice snow battle”) looked like he was arguing with a Costa Rican player, who then started kicking snow, presumably trying to show how terrible the conditions were. A group of Costa Ricans dug out a patch of grass with their feet in order to take a second-half free kick. And Eddie Johnson fell butt-first onto the ground when trying to cut back for a ball played too far behind him. He did not make a snow angel.

But he probably should have, because for all of the dread and controversy hanging around the U.S. coming into this game, which was really important, the result wasn't really the story. Brad Guzan had a shut out in his first competitive start for the U.S. since before the last World Cup, and Clint Dempsey scored a record-tying and game-winning goal, but that wasn't really the story, either. The story was the snofro, Geoff Cameron pushing the stadium worker with the shovel, and the weather that caused it all.

The snow turned a U.S. soccer game—usually an exercise in self-torture, a 90-minute group-masochism session for fans—into a giant spectacle that was more absurd than instructive. It was, in part, a welcome break from the sometimes-depressing zero-sum neurotic nature of professional sports. The early goal for the U.S. helped, sure, but this game was basically what you’d do on a snow day—only if your tackle football game in the neighborhood park also happened to help decide who got to play in the Super Bowl. Guys whose greatest skill in life is moving a ball with their feet were reduced to overgrown, bearded toddlers who’d just recently walked from the living room to the kitchen for the first time. And it was great.

In a perfect world, no, this game probably wouldn’t have been played. (Costa Rica manager Jorge Luis Pinto called the game and the decision to keep playing it a disgrace to the sport. Foreign journalists appeared outraged, and the Costa Rican federation lodged an ill-fated complaint.) It wasn’t pretty, and there’s almost nothing to take away from it, for either side—yet there’ll be highlights and photos that’ll last as long as anything from the history of American soccer. And for a federation that turns 100 years old this year, that’s a gift they’re probably not going to return.