National Writer: Charles Boehm

"It's mind over matter": USMNT embrace ice-cold conditions for winter World Cup Qualifiers

The pictures speak for themselves, driving home both the extreme conditions and historical symmetry.

On their first full day of an enormous week-plus of three crucial Concacaf World Cup qualifiers in seven days, the US men’s national team frolicked on a snow-shrouded pitch at the Columbus Crew’s OhioHealth Performance Center, just a stone’s throw west of the field where the program’s “La Guerra Fria” and “Dos a Cero” legends were born at Historic Crew Stadium.

As the white stuff fell, the mercury scarcely climbed above the freezing point all day in the Ohio state capital. Similar temperatures are forecast for Thursday, when the USMNT host El Salvador at Field (7:30 pm ET | ESPN2, UniMas, TUDN). Over the next few nights, the lows are slated to dip deep into the single digits in Fahrenheit.

But the Yanks are here by choice, and they insist there’s nowhere they’d rather be. It’s the start of a rare midwinter window of qualifying action, and in pursuit of any possible psychological or climatological advantage whatsoever, the USMNT are leaning into the theme. Way, way in.

“I was just outside today training and it's really cold, and my feet felt cold,” said Austria-based midfielder and Philadelphia Union product Brenden Aaronson in a Monday afternoon media availability. “But listen, I'm used to it, I just got back from where it was snowing last game. So I think a lot of these guys are used to it, playing in Europe, and most of the MLS guys, I would imagine. So yeah, I think we're ready to go.”

Gregg Berhalter’s squad wants to be prepared for the icy conditions awaiting them in Sunday’s visit to Hamilton, Ontario to face Canada at Tim Horton’s Field, a clash of the Octagonal’s top two sides at the moment. But their bigger priority is making El Salvador and Honduras, next Tuesday’s adversaries at Allianz Field in Saint Paul, Minnesota, as uncomfortable as possible in pursuit of a full six points from this window’s two home dates.

“It's just about embracing the cold. Get ready, understand that mentality and what it takes to succeed in those moments,” goalkeeper Matt Turner, a New Jersey native who’s familiar with the chill as a longtime regular for the New England Revolution, said on Friday. “And just have fun with it. I mean, this is America. This is the beauty. We could play in 90 degrees and we can play in 0 degrees in the same time of year. It's a pretty cool thing. So we're excited. We're looking forward to embracing it.”

That’s pretty clearly become a chief talking point for the USMNT.

“I look back at some of my first times watching the men's national team, and seeing that 2013 Snow Clasico\] game in Colorado against Costa Rica sticks out in my head. I was even talking to my wife over the break. I was like, 'I want it to be freezing. I want it to be cold. I want it to snow,'” said defender [Walker Zimmerman. “I want to be a part of something so iconic that I saw and really remember growing up. That's exciting to me.”

On Monday English-American fullback Antonee “Jedi” Robinson harked back to fond memories from the festive seasons of his youth.

“It’s something I think everyone's looking forward to. Growing up in England, I'm not a stranger to snow,” said the Fulham standout. “Kind of takes me back to when I was younger, I remember Boxing Day, it was a big thing in my Sunday league team, we used to play ‘dads vs. lads,’ so all the sons would be playing against the dads on a snowy pitch. That's some of the happiest football I have ever played.”

The natural rejoinder to this framing is to point out that the United States possess deeper player pools and superior talent to their winter guests, and risk shrinking that gap by flirting with conditions that could slow play or hamper peak performance. A hint of that possibility briefly crept into view when Aaronson was asked about his tactics for managing the temperatures.

“There's no real way of getting around how cold you're going to be,” he said. “I think just kind of coming to terms with it and having little things you can do, like getting hand warmers or maybe wearing double socks in the game, maybe little things you can do. But there's no, really, way of getting past that. I think it's just you got to get warm as fast as you can on the field and all the adrenaline starts to kick in, and then you're ready to go in the game.”

Berhalter has said he’s been assured that the heated pitches in Columbus and Saint Paul will ensure good field conditions, plus that his players are familiar with the cold. And on this region’s road to the World Cup, gamesmanship is widely perceived as a near-necessity, a box to be checked, and slyly.

After weathering myriad forms of it on trips to trips south over the decades, from sweltering tropical heat to pulled fire alarms and fireworks and loud all-night parties in hotel parking lots, the USMNT consider situations like this to be a rare chance for them to return the favor.

“It's mind over matter,” said Berhalter on Friday upon naming his 28-man roster.

“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. They're going to take a couple breaths in and it's going to hit them like they'd never been before. And our guys who have been playing in Europe, in cooler temperatures, and most of the guys here have played in cool temperatures, will be ready to go.”