COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – You could say that the US men’s national team puts in peak performances where they’re playing among actual peaks.
For the third straight World Cup qualifying cycle, the US is hosting a Hexagonal match at a high-altitude MLS stadium. In 2009, at the then-new Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, at 4,500 feet, the US beat El Salvador 2-1 en route to South Africa. In 2013, of course, Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado, was the site of the epic Snow Game, a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica that set the US’ qualification train back on the rails after a rocky start. The US returned to Rio Tinto Stadium later that cycle, beating Honduras in Utah.
On Thursday, the US come back to Colorado for a crucial qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago (8 pm ET | FS1, UniMas, UDN). Like the 2013 match at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, it’s paired with the US’s trip to play Mexico at Estadio Azteca in the same international break. This time, the games come after an extended camp at high altitude that included last Saturday’s 1-1 friendly draw against Venezuela at Rio Tinto.
And as American captain Michael Bradley noted prior to Wednesday’s practice, it may just be the winning formula that it was four years ago, when the US followed the Snow Clasico with a scoreless draw at the Azteca.
“We did this last time,” Bradley noted. “We followed a game here with a game at Azteca. We feel good about the 10 days of preparation. Now it’s just about enjoying the next few days. They’re big games, with a lot on the line, and we’re excited.”
Bradley added that the high-altitude preparation made the ’13 qualifying experience in Azteca easier.
“We have experience. No two situations are exactly the same, but we have enough guys who have been through this before, who understand the difficulties of playing these types of games,” he said. “We’re still looking at this in positive ways, in that we didn’t get off to the start that we wanted, but March was a really good response, and now we’ve got two more big games.”
“It was obviously part of the plan to get us up here and to Utah,” he said. “Hopefully, it’ll pay dividends for us.”
Of course, Azteca has a number of factors that make it a formidable place to play. At 7,200 feet, it’s even higher than Dick’s Sporting Goods Park and Rio Tinto Stadium. Heat and smog can make it physically difficult for players. The stadium’s official attendance is 87,000, though El Tri typically draws a bellicose crowd of 100,000 or greater.
DSG Park normally fits a small-by-comparison 18,000, though a US Soccer spokesman noted that the stadium has been expanded to 19,500 for this match, and it was close to a sellout on Thursday morning.
Bradley thinks the animated home crowd will make a difference.
“The atmosphere around home qualifiers is always special and unique,” he noted.
At a Tuesday evening event looking back on the Snow Game, Bradley recalled that when the Costa Rica contingent tried to get the match stopped in the second half due to increasingly deteriorating conditions, “the crowd just got louder … and that really helped us to keep going.”
Brad Guzan, the goalkeeper for that match, added at the Tuesday night event “the fans and the support during that game were unbelievable. The fact that no one had left, no one sat down as the conditions got worse, that just brought us closer and closer together.”
US head coach Bruce Arena expressed optimism about how his team will handle the altitude over the next few days.
“I think we’ve had a good plan and hopefully it works. I think the players are ready to play; I think the preparations have been good,” he said. “The attitude of the team has been terrific, so I’m confident that they’re going to step on the field and give a really good effort tomorrow night.”
He continued: “It gets complicated with the altitude, and the distance we travel as well. It’s similar to club play, where at times you travel great distances in a short amount of time to play two games.
“However, a club team doesn’t have the depth that a national team does. And so I think, whatever the circumstances in terms of playing the second game, we have solutions.”