Sports

The Galaxy-Brained Choice That U.S. Men’s Soccer Will Regret if They Miss the World Cup

What are they thinking?

Gyasi Zardes, Kellyn Acosta play soccer in the snow.
Gyasi Zardes, Kellyn Acosta during a training session at Ohio Health Performance Center on January 24, 2022 in Columbus Ohio, Ohio. John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images.

On paper, the United States men’s national team shouldn’t need any extra motivation going into the penultimate three-game window of its 2022 World Cup qualifying journey. The team currently sits in second place on a CONCACAF World Cup qualifying table in which the first and fourth teams are separated by just two points, one point behind surging northern rivals Canada and one point ahead of both struggling southern rivals Mexico and the surprisingly resilient Panama. With just three automatic bids available, incentive to succeed this next week shouldn’t be in short supply.

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But in sports, motivation doesn’t have to be tethered to reality. Perhaps the key takeaway from last year’s The Last Dance was how illusory the grudges that Michael Jordan claims fueled his dominance were, so petty they’d be insignificant to anyone without the world’s most oversharpened competitive drive. Similarly, plenty of teams that large pluralities of people have definitely believed in have managed to block out all memory of that support in an attempt to claim some underdog edge. Slights can be manufactured, rivalries created out of thin air. Anything that can possibly fuel the competitive fires gets thrown onto the pile, even, for the USMNT this month, the weather.

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The U.S. isn’t snow-birding its way through the January window in Florida or Texas: It will face El Salvador in Columbus, Ohio, on Thursday and Honduras in Saint Paul, Minnesota, next Wednesday. Forecasts are inhospitable. Let’s check in and see how training is going:

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Right. That’s not even Minnesota yet, and the team is already in full Rocky IV mode, talking about how they’re going to embrace the suffering these games will require.

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You don’t have to be a sports scientist or a Buffalo Bills fan to know that frigid temperatures make things more difficult from a sporting perspective. There’s a reason MLS has been so resistant to the idea of changing its schedule to match much of the world’s August-to-May standard.

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The question here is: Whom do these conditions make things worse for, relatively? U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, who gets a lot of say over where the team plays its games, thinks El Salvador and Honduras will struggle more than the U.S. He compared the program’s weaponization of the weather to the difficulties of playing in the heat and humidity of Central America. “This is an opportunity for us to gain an advantage on our opponents. They’re all coming from the equator, and it’s going to be really difficult for them to deal with these conditions,” Berhalter said in a press conference Friday.

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U.S. defender Walker Zimmerman, who seems like the USMNT player most likely to know which two NFL teams played in the Ice Bowl, said he thinks the temperatures will give the games a twist of novelty that might make them especially memorable. Zimmerman invoked the famous Snow Clasico qualifier from 2013, where the U.S. beat Costa Rica in a Colorado snowstorm. “I want to be part of something so iconic that I saw and really remember growing up,” Zimmerman said.

But the flip side of iconic is embarrassing, and if the U.S. gets anything fewer than six points from its winter wonderland, then these games will loom as a mini-Couva in the 2022 cycle. With the margins of World Cup qualifying so slim, there’s no room for unforced errors, and some worry that U.S. Soccer’s attempt to go Art of War here is going to wind up stabbing its own team in the back. “Why on earth would you not choose to make the most of that [talent] advantage by staging these qualifiers in the warmer weather and ideal field conditions of, say, Florida?” wrote Grant Wahl. “Why give your opponents the chance to take advantage of what could be ugly games in potentially hazardous weather?”

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Soccer is filled with examples of teams using environmental factors to try to gain an edge, but it’s usually the underdogs leveraging these tricks. Teams used to grow their pitches out long enough to graze livestock on before Xavi and Andres Iniesta’s tiki-taka Barcelona teams came to town. As Wahl says, if your team is, theoretically, better at soccer than the opposition, then you would like as much of the result as possible to be dependent on your soccer ability. If Xavi had his way, all games would be staged in a hermetically sealed bubble.

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In other words, if either of these home games ends up played in a cesspool, the U.S., on paper, has further to fall. The biggest problem facing the U.S. team through eight games of qualifying is the chasm of uncertainty between its best performances and its worst performances. Anything, including the weather, that might tip the team closer to “worst” does seem like a risk, especially considering that nearly half of the expanded 28-man roster ply their trade in MLS, which has been in its offseason since early December. That’s a different type of cold for Berhalter to worry about.

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But while Berhalter and his players may be trying to put a positive spin on the weather, the real reason the team is playing its two home games in the depths of winter is because of its away game. The second U.S. game of the window against Canada is set to be played in Hamilton, Ontario, so by playing two games in the Midwest, the U.S. gives itself a full window of commuter-length travel, relatively speaking. Bridging three games with just two short flights must feel like an impossible luxury after so many windows filled with punishing flights to Central America and back, especially to the guys who have already flown in from Europe for the week. Canada, meanwhile, will have to fly back from Honduras for the game against the U.S. then turn around and head to El Salvador for its third. Hopefully Berhalter and the federation know the players well enough to know if this particular boon is worth the tradeoff of playing in cold weather.

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Unfortunately, much of this weather-related concern is—as talk about the weather usually is—a way to avoid talking about something else. Whatever marginal advantages or disadvantages might be accrued from the geography and the climate are small matters compared to the other big off-the-field factor that the U.S. and other teams are dealing with during this window. Nothing the weather can do will have as large an impact on the USMNT’s qualifying campaign as, say, midfielder Tyler Adams testing positive for COVID-19 on Thursday morning.

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The pandemic has already cost Canada its star winger Alphonso Davies, who is recovering from mild myocarditis after contracting COVID in December. For the U.S., midfielder Gianluca Busio already missed the call-up after testing positive last week, and Berhalter said in his press conference that his team was selected with Canada’s travel requirements, which require foreigners entering the country to be vaccinated, in mind. Keeping its players uninfected is the single biggest off-the-field advantage the U.S. might gain for itself.

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It could be cold enough in Minnesota next Wednesday for the Night King and the Revenant bear to get chased across the field by Marge Gunderson riding a Tauntaun, but if Zimmerman ends up needing to sub in as the goalkeeper—as Comoros left back Chaker Alhadhur had to do for his team’s African Cup of Nations match Monday—then it’s going to be the Zimmerman-in-goal game for all time. That scenario would be a boon from an inspiring-the-team standpoint, but not for the Americans’ competitive chances. Motivation can only go so far before reality sets in.

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