With the U.S. national team’s World Cup qualifier in Mexico two months away, two subtexts have surfaced: altitude and politics.
Coach Bruce Arena addressed both during a conference call with reporters Thursday, outlining the approach to playing at 7,382 feet and playing down the impact of U.S.-Mexican relations and presidential policy on a soccer game.
First things first: Before facing their eternal nemesis June 11 at Azteca Stadium, the Americans will play Trinidad and Tobago three days earlier in suburban Denver.
A victory by the fourth-place United States against the bottom-dwelling Soca Warriors would ease the urgency of picking up points in Mexico, which is on track to become the first team in CONCACAF’s six-nation final round to secure one of the three automatic berths in Russia next year.
Nonetheless, any meeting with Mexico – World Cup qualifier, Gold Cup, friendly – raises heart rates and elevates interest.
So to best condition the players for the thin air, the U.S. Soccer Federation has chosen Commerce City, Colo. (5,164 feet) for a 10-day training camp and the T&T match. During that stretch, the Americans are also planning for a June 3 friendly against Venezuela at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah (4,449 feet).
There are two approaches to playing at altitude: acclimate over an extended period at high elevation or arrive at the game venue one day early before adverse effects take hold.
“We have a better chance of being acclimatized with having two weeks of training and following some procedures that we think will help the players adjust,” Arena said. “We want to have our best chance to leave Mexico City and Denver with three points.”
Altitude should work to the Americans’ advantage in the first match against Trinidad and Tobago, a Caribbean nation.
The United States is 0-12-2 in World Cup qualifiers in Mexico City and 1-18-2 in all competitions. It’s not just altitude: Poor air quality, summer sun, a ravenous crowd of some 100,000 and the fact that Mexico is historically the strongest team in the region have taken their toll on U.S. teams over decades.
The Americans can try to do something about the altitude effects. Arena and his staff will work with high performance director James Bunce, chief medical officer George Chiampas and strength and conditioning coach Daniel Guzman in formulating a nutrition and training plan for the 25 or so players invited to camp.
Since 2000, the USSF has tried different tactics. In qualifiers played in 2001 and 2009, late arrivals in Mexico City yielded one-goal defeats. For a 2012 friendly, with no time for training camp, they showed up late and won, 1-0.
In March 2005, during Arena’s first coaching tenure, the Americans trained in Colorado Springs (6,035 feet) and played a friendly in Albuquerque (5,312), then lost in Mexico City, 2-1.
Four years ago under Jurgen Klinsmann, they trained in the Denver area and played a qualifier against Costa Rica (in a snowstorm) before traveling south for a 0-0 draw.
“There are a lot of variables you’ve got to throw in there,” Arena said of matches at Azteca Stadium. “We’re going to try to get a little bit closer [to preparing perfectly] this time around.”
Mexican players will have to adjust, as well. More than ever, they are plying their full-time trade with European clubs instead of Mexican teams. Thirteen from the broad player pool are overseas.
Although the U.S. team has regained its footing after two early defeats, more than half of the qualifying schedule remains.
“We’ve got to be very good in our planning,” Arena said. “Perhaps we’re not in as much trouble as the last time, but I don’t feel good about sitting with four points after four games. We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re not complacent.”
As for the political backdrop leading to the U.S.-Mexico showdown, the temperature is sure to rise as rhetoric turns from walls on the border to walls blocking free kicks.
“When you go to Mexico, the politics are always there anyway, but Mexico-U.S. is such a big game,” Arena said. “I’m sure we are going to hear about it. I don’t think the Mexican fans are going to be pointing fingers at us because of the political climate. They enjoy the competition, and I think the competition is going to take precedent over politics.”