As the rain crashed down on Red Bull Arena last Saturday and delayed the Hudson River Derby, games of another sort raged on inside the NYCFC locker room.
There was soccer golf, players gaming on their smartphones and a makeshift basketball contest that involved aiming a lacrosse ball into a foam roller.
“That’s a big one. That is quite challenging,” newly-minted All-Star James Sands said. “But guys really like doing that.”
Though the game — initially scheduled for an 8:25 p.m. kickoff — didn’t even go ahead at its revised 10:52 start due to a waterlogged pitch, its buildup represents the odd balancing act required during a rain delay. It’s a skill New York City now knows all too well.
Before waiting nearly two-and-a-half hours to be sent home from Harrison, NYCFC had another delay just 10 days prior. Mexican side Pumas were in town for a Leagues Cup quarterfinal when an 8 p.m. start turned into a 10:58 launch, a 1-1 draw in regulation and a loss on penalties that occurred well into the next morning.
For Sands, who says it was his first MLS rain delay, and teammate Keaton Parks, who said it was just his second, the nearly-three hour slog was equal parts learning experience and team bonding session despite the drab weather outside.
“I think people would expect it to be low energy, we’re all kinda annoyed and upset and trying to get back out there, Parks said. “But for our locker room we’re hanging out, we’re juggling the ball, we’re making up all these random games just to kill time. I honestly think it’s a good time… I think we get through it really well.”
In the unfortunate event of a rain delay, you could do worse than to mirror NYCFC’s blueprint.
Visit New York City’s locker room during one and you’ll find (at least at certain points) a healthy dose of banter amongst teammates, players trying to name all 50 states in four minutes and captain Sean Johnson fulfilling DJing responsibilities with a mix of hip hop and Latin music.
“He plays all the right songs, some good rap,” Sands said of his goalkeeper. “But then it’s a bit of a struggle when we get in the rain delay and we’ve been playing like, heavy rap for two hours.”
Unsurprisingly, there are more pressing matters to address than Johnson’s next song up.
Director of performance Jeremy Bettle has two main priorities in this type of situation: making sure players don’t tighten up and keeping them properly fueled. Both have their challenges.
When a whole day of precise meal planning is disrupted, it’s on Bettle and his staff to devise contingency plans for various time intervals.
While a 30-minute delay doesn’t require much extra intake, he says, a slightly longer break will see the staff slinging out PB&J sandwiches to the players.
Even further down the line, when players have not eaten a proper meal for “four, five, six hours,” the performance staff will start to make chicken and pasta available.
Not everyone is interested in the heavier dishes. That includes Sands, who said he prefers to stick to lighter options like a banana or granola bar during a delay.
While the science may support Sands intaking more protein and carbohydrates before a delayed match, Bettle knows everyone needs to be handled differently. It’s an “art,” he says, that can be mastered through communication and an understanding of players’ bodies.
“Some people will have a very sensitive stomach when it comes to activity,” he said. “Other people will be able to sit down and eat a roast dinner and then go out and play right after. We’re very much judging on how the player’s feeling as well, and it’s constant dialogue with them of almost giving them the options that are available.”
It’s not just the players’ stomachs that need monitoring, as muscles can easily tense up during a long delay. Players know their individualized pregame routines, and have foam rollers, mini bands and stationary bikes at their disposal. But things can get tricky when your warmup plan is beholden to the timing of weather updates.
This requires the performance staff to frequently feed news to the players, as well as instructing them when they need to start warming up. But not even constant contact is guaranteed to prevent a false start.
Parks said there were multiple instances before the would-be Red Bulls game of him beginning to warm up, only to be alerted of another delay to the kickoff time on short notice.
While players are diligent in their warm-up routines, Bettle realizes it’s not realistic for them to be exercising for 2-3 hours straight before a match. After roughly an hour of delays, he says, players start to assume kickoff will drag even further, and the locker room drifts into a somewhat looser state of affairs during the second hour.
Bettle made sure not to micromanage during this period, allowing games like foam roller basketball to exist alongside his more scientific observations.
“That’s the problem with guys like me being around — we can overchoreograph these things,” he said. “Sometimes when the guys just need to have fun, they just need to have fun.”
New York City’s players and staff will be hoping they’re done with rain delays for a while, but the experiences haven’t been completely devoid of silver linings. The Pumas game — a competitive affair despite the disappointing result — showed the team’s adaptability, while the club was reminded of its support by the sea of blue fans who stuck around in Harrison.
The rain on those nights came and went, but the perspective gained, at least by one account, might just stick around longer.
“I think a lot of the time we’re so focused on what’s on the training pitch, what’s going on in the game that we often don’t have a lot of time to just be hanging out and relaxing with each other,” Sands said. “For me, I’ve just learned how much I enjoy spending time with all those guys.”
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