ST. PAUL, Minn. – Since World Cup qualifying entered this special winter session, the U.S. has embraced the cold and its accompanying advantage over an opponent from a tropical country.
The bring-it-on attitude will be put to a stiff test Wednesday night in Minnesota, where the U.S. will stage a critical match against already-eliminated Honduras. The forecast: a high of 8 degrees (minus-13 Celsius), a kickoff temperature around 5 (minus-15) and a wind chill factor well below zero.
So players will layer up, turn loose their attack and aim for those precious three points in the standings — even if they have to take a few minutes afterward to thaw out.
The game will set a U.S. record for the coldest home start. The U.S. Soccer Federation's cold weather guidelines call for a cancellation or a switch to an indoor venue when the wind chill is below zero, but the team said there are no plans to postpone the match.
“I have a pretty big head, so I don’t think it will really affect the way I head the ball,” star midfielder Weston McKennie said with a laugh during a video interview prior to practice Tuesday at Allianz Field, home of Minnesota United of Major League Soccer.
Every player on the team, McKennie said, has plenty of experience in cold and rain and the negative effect those conditions have on the feel of the ball. The U.S. team said it was told by the FIFA match commissioner that neck gaiters will be allowed for the players.
“We’ve played in two cold places previously before this game so I think we’re kind of used to it now,” McKennie said. “I think we’ve adapted well, and I think we’ll be prepared.”
The U.S. beat El Salvador 1-0 on Thursday night in Columbus, Ohio, on left back Antonee Robinson’s goal (and subsequent backflip) in the 52nd minute. The temperature for that game was 29 degrees.
Then on a 22-degree Sunday afternoon in Hamilton, Ontario, the Americans fell 2-0 to Canada on the first-place team’s artificial turf.
That left the Canadians in firm control of the eight-team group with 22 points. The U.S. has 18 points and leads Mexico on goal difference, followed by Panama (17) and Costa Rica (13). Mexico and Panama also play on Wednesday night.
The top three teams advance to the World Cup, which the U.S. missed out on in 2018.
After this week, there are three matches left on the 14-game, double round-robin schedule that the pandemic compressed into just seven months. The Americans play at Mexico on March 24 and at Costa Rica on March 30, with a home match in Orlando, Florida, against Panama sandwiched in between.
“The pressure is there automatically, but I think we don’t really let it try and get to us. I think we’re at our best when we have fun with the game,” McKennie said, adding, “We just want to enjoy the game and play it as if we were kids on the field, back when we were younger.”
For months, the heat has been on the Allianz Field grounds crew, which is tasked with cultivating and maintaining a playable pitch during the harshest weather of the year.
“It’s not standard operating procedure. When you go to turf grad school, you don’t learn any tips and tricks about how to grow grass in January or February in Minnesota,” said Ryan Moy, the head groundskeeper for the 3-year-old, 19,000-seat stadium.
Moy's crew deferred the typical fall work on the turf until the spring. Heating coils underneath the surface helped accelerate the melt, until last week Moy made the call for manual removal of the snow that remained. Setting aside the sting of the air for a second, the players will be able to stand on the grass and not see any difference in it from what it might look like in April or May.
“There haven't really been too many setbacks,” Moy said. “We’re very close to match day, and we’re very prideful and very happy with what we’re going to be able to offer on Wednesday.”
Last-place Honduras, which lost at home to El Salvador on Sunday, traveled north on Monday to meet an 80-degree (27-degree Celsius) temperature drop. The U.S. came from behind to win the road match against Honduras 4-1 in September.
“You could make the argument that now they’re playing free, they’re relaxed,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said. “It’s a dangerous opponent.”
U.S. midfielder Tyler Adams (right hamstring) and defender Chris Richards (right ankle) were injured on Sunday at Canada and will not play. Adams and midfielder Brenden Aaronson are the only Americans to play in all 10 matches thus far.
“We win this next game, and we can keep our hold of second place," Berhalter said. "That was our goal coming into this round.”
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