The Men’s NCAA Division I Championship will be Dec. 9 in Hoover, Ala. In 2006 the championship was in St. Louis, which had a blizzard and the game had to be played with 3-foot high snow piles around the perimeter of the field. A year later, the championship was played in Cary, N.C., which I attended in 35-degree weather. Then came Frisco, Texas, outside Dallas; back to Cary; Santa Barbara, Calif., and finally Hoover, Ala. for the past two years. Finding a suitable venue for the finals while still honoring the various regions of the United States and avoiding the white-out of St. Louis proves difficult in December. Next year the finals will be held in Chester, Pa., which leaves open the possibility for snow. Since the finals are always in December on the edges of winter, we have to be prepared for anything as far as weather goes.
Soccer is generally played year round. This means that soccer has to be played in all kinds of inclement weather. I think of weather as the 12th player on the pitch. But this player has no conscience and cannot be controlled by benching or bargaining with. We can be promised one kind of weather and get the complete opposite. We roll the dice when we see storm clouds overhead or hear that a blizzard blows nearby and try our best to get the game in. On the flipside, when the heat is so overpowering, we change the rules of the game and have water and shade breaks in the middle of each half. We sit in our cars to outlast lightning or avoid a deluge. Around the world weather creates the backdrop for our soccer games, affects outcomes and even controls the audiences. As we approach Thanksgiving and that unofficial kick-off to winter, Black Friday, it’s not surprising that soccer families begin to think about what winter will bring to the fields.
Here in the United States, those of us north of the Mason-Dixon Line have to content ourselves with indoor soccer for most of the winter and early spring months. Even our neighboring states to the south can’t count on decent weather for outdoor soccer once December arrives. There’s rain, low temperatures and even freezing weather to contend with. Yet we persevere, carving out time on the pitch whenever possible. I’ve been to youth games where parents had to shovel off the fields and then sweep off the lines during half-time. Of course Packer fans are used to pitching in on that duty, so I guess it’s not so surprising that in the Midwest we would power through, even in snow. Nevertheless, nothing is sure when it comes to winter weather. I’ve sat freezing in the rain at games in October and sat outside in balmy sunshine in December. So winter can be fickle when it comes to creating a window of opportunity to get in a two-hour game.
In Europe, the soccer season extends from summer into the following spring for most teams, so many of the games are played in the dead of winter, which is cold, rainy, snowy, or all three. Even Italy, Spain and Portugal can suffer from the cold. But think about Scandinavia, where the sun disappears with the winter and the weather guarantees deep snow. So, their season, which once followed the model of the rest of Europe, went from an autumn to spring schedule to a spring to autumn schedule. Of course, that plays havoc with their teams training for regional competitions, such as Champions League, Europa League, European Championship, UEFA Cup and World Cup Qualifying, since those leagues and preliminary games run well into winter. Canada and northern U.S. states suffer the same fate. Coming up against teams in the spring who have been practicing outdoors for six weeks can be problematic when your players haven’t touched the pitch yet.
When those countries in the Southern Hemisphere are moving into winter they come up against teams that are deep into the heart of their season. It then turns vice versa as the year evolves. This throws a bit of a monkey wrench into global competitions. While the top half of the planet is sweltering in summer heat, the bottom half can find itself restricted by the colder weather. Most of Australia may enjoy balmy weather throughout the year, but it still experiences down time come winter or in the high temperatures of summer. New Zealand’s South Island can get slick with ice and drenched with rain in winter. Parts of Chile and Argentina get buried in snow and suffer from freezing rains. This is happening while participating in qualifying games for the World Cup.
We complain about heat and humidity in the summer for our soccer games. States in the Southwest and Southeast know how difficult it is to play when it’s 110 degrees out or 88 percent humidity. Many fields can be so dried out that players are kicking up dust and stressing out ankles and knees. The United States Youth Soccer Region IV Championships a few years ago in Nevada had to change the schedule due to the heat. The shoe soles of the sideline refs were literally melting on the hot artificial turf. Even in the Pacific Northwest, known for its comfortable summers, there can be a sudden heat wave that takes soccer by surprise.
The weather can affect the health of players, so despite the inconvenience we attach to weather, we need to also treat it with respect. We tend to worry more about heat. We protect against hyperthermia, dehydration and cramping in the heat by taking breaks, drinking plenty of fluids and using shade. However, we often don’t take the cold as seriously. While true hypothermia would be rare for soccer players to experience since it requires longer term exposure to the extreme cold, there are milder effects which can harm a player. In the cold, players need to protect extremities, especially fingers and toes. The body core may not drop much in temperature, but fingers, toes, ears and nose can get really cold, really quickly, causing tingling and circulation problems. Players should wear gloves to help hold the heat in around their fingers, and a thin sock under the soccer socks creates an air pocket to hold in heat on the toes. Heat is lost through the top of the head so a knit cap is a great idea to hold that heat in. Even a head band to protect the ears would be beneficial. Having Chap Stick in the soccer bag can be a life saver after a particularly windy cold game. Lotion takes care of chafing on the hands and knees. The players on the bench may suffer more than the players on the field because they are stationary and not generating heat, so having a few thermal reflective blankets to cover up with will help avoid cold injuries.
We may love the beauty of a fresh snow and appreciate the chance for winter sports like skiing and snowboarding. But as soccer parents, we know that we are just as likely to have to snowshoe into a game because winter came early or left late. We can often curse the weather and just as often delight in it. We have no control over it except to be prepared for anything and, therefore, laugh in its face. Whatever this winter brings, I know it will infringe upon soccer. Yet, I also know I’m ready for it with my heated chair, hand warmers, foot warmers, down jacket, hat, scarf and down gloves. It’s just too bad our kids can’t be similarly decked out.