It’s been beaten into the ground and then shot repeatedly, but it’s hard to stress enough how different and weird this World Cup qualifying schedule is. Just the three-game windows, spread over just seven days, make for nearly impossible logistics.
So there are myriad reasons that U.S. Soccer has opted to play its two home qualifiers in this particular window in Columbus and St. Paul at the end of January. The big one is that the away game in the middle of it, in Canada, is in Hamilton, Ontario. Apparently that’s a real place. Anyway, both Ohio and Minnesota are short flights from there, meaning travel for a squad that has already mostly jetted over from Europe just yesterday or Sunday is at a minimum. That’s nothing to be sneezed at. Consider Canada’s travels the next week: Down to Honduras, back to Ontario to face the U.S., and then back to Central America to face El Salvador. This is the exact kind of thing the U.S. probably wanted to avoid, bouncing all over the country to stay warm with five or six hour flights.
They’ll also tell you that it’s prep for the conditions they’ll face in Hamilton (again, apparently a real place just south of Toronto). Staying in the north of the country will lessen the shock of what awaits north of the border, where the high on Sunday is going to be 24 and probably colder by the 3 p.m. local kickoff time. But this is where things get to be a stretch. A majority of the U.S. squad plays in Germany, or has played in Germany, and certainly plays all over Northern Europe. While 24 is definitely at the bottom of the range of temps one might see in Europe, it’s not like they’re dropping flamingos into the polar ice caps here. The players would be just about ready.
And the game in St. Paul, against Honduras, comes after the Canada excursion anyway. There’s nothing to “prepare” for. It’s basically only to freeze the Hondurans and to assure none of their fans show up. Which, considering the U.S. only needed a second half of competence to lace Honduras in Honduras in the earlier match 4-1, they really shouldn’t be all that concerned about.
What is really driving U.S. Soccer here is keeping things to a home field advantage, and that’s hardly new in international soccer. Mexico makes you play at 8,000 feet in air that resembles a brownie. Bolivia makes you play at 12,000 feet. CONCACAF opponents like Honduras or El Salvador drage the U.S. into the heat in the middle of winter when they’ve been playing in cold weather for their domestic seasons. Brazil has government officials storm the field to physically haul you off. Everyone presses what they have.
For the U.S. it’s about keeping the whole crowd in red, white, and blue (maybe I should have accentuated the middle color there). Neither Columbus or St. Paul has huge Salvadoran or Honduran populations. The U.S. is probably still stinging from a 2009 qualifier against Honduras in Chicago that was 70 percent Honduras fans. It’s why big metro centers have mostly been ignored throughout this qualifying cycle (Austin, Columbus, Cinci, Orlando, Nashville).
The U.S. is also hamstrung by not wanting to play on anything but a natural surface, something they won’t do in Canada. If they wanted to stay in the Twin Cities, it’s not like the Vikings are using their home stadium now. But that’s Field Turf. So would Indianapolis be, or Ford Field, or other sites within spitting distance of Ontario by plane. Although it seems that the U.S. would put that concern aside with the rumors that had Canada hosted this qualifier against the U.S. in Vancouver, the U.S. would have played in Portland. This is why the U.S. hasn’t played a qualifier in Portland, or Seattle, or Atlanta, three places it could count on ferocious support.
And it’s also a question of how much playing in a cleared out snowbank is an advantage. The U.S. is the better team than Honduras and El Salvador, and with Alphonso Davies not playing, it’s better than Canada too. Extreme conditions don’t generally lead to the smoothest and most coherent play, and when it comes to getting the ball on the grass and playing it around, the U.S. is clearly the superior. Why risk that by merely some theoretical psychological advantage of pulling a team like El Salvador or Honduras out of their comfort zone? Sure, you can, but do you have to?
Both Columbus and St. Paul have heated fields, so unless there’s some snowfall (and there isn’t forecast to be in either) the surface should be fine. And should the U.S. just bank the two home games and the six points that come with them, they’ll likely have a foot and a half in Qatar. After the last cycle maybe they don’t want to leave anything to chance and will press any edge they think they might have.
Still, the swagger this team does have (at least when things are purring), they should just roll out the balls anywhere in the country and feel they’re going to beat some serious ass no matter what. Feels too cute by half.