Speculation is growing that the USMNT might schedule a mountain venue in Colorado or Utah for its March 22 qualifier against Costa Rica, but that could prove to be a costly mistake.
The idea sounds good at first.
The USMNT can choose its home venues for hexagonal World Cup qualifiers. It has and will continue to choose game sites based on any perceived advantage a specific stadium may offer.
On March 22, the USMNT hosts Costa Rica in its second hexagonal qualifier for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Four days later, the USMNT travels to Mexico City for a game in the dreaded Estadio Azteca, at a smoggy 7,200 feet above sea level.
Therefore, why not use the Costa Rica game as an opportunity to acclimate to altitude? The U.S. needs to be careful here, or run the risk of outsmarting itself.
The formula for a successful campaign through the hex is clear: Win the home games.
As the name implies, the hex consists of six teams. After 10 rounds of games, the top three national sides advance to the World Cup. (Fourth place will play the Oceania winner for a spot in Brazil.) Given that CONCACAF qualifiers are notoriously difficult on the road, a successful campaign includes strong performances at home.
A team that can win all five of its home games most likely would not need a single point from the away ones.
Consider needing points from a trip to Panama City, where local fans of their national team are likely to enjoy all-night fireworks displays outside your hotel. Things can get downright nasty in CONCACAF, and teams do themselves a favor by not needing results on the road.
Because these two March games are many weeks after the Feb. 6 opener (when the USMNT travels to Honduras), players will return to their clubs after that first qualifier.
For the March 22 game, the Costa Rican roster includes numerous players who will be traveling from Costa Rica. The U.S. roster, in contrast, may have 11 starters traveling from England and Europe, as noted in this earlier Bleacher Report article.
The English Premier League plays games on March 16, impacting Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey and Geoff Cameron. Another time zone further east, the Bundesliga and Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson and Timmy Chandler also play on March 16.
Michael Bradley’s Roma has a game on March 17, just five days before the qualifier with Costa Rica.
These players and other potential USMNT starters playing overseas, will board planes after their club games and fly across the Atlantic for that qualifier. Advantage Costa Rica, in terms of travel fatigue.
While rosters and starters have not been announced as yet, it is a pretty safe the U.S. will have more players making that cross-ocean flight. Asking them to adjust to another couple time zones of difference, flying to a Rocky Mountain site, adds to Costa Rica's advantage. Western Europe is eight hours ahead Colorado.
A less travel-fatigued Costa Rican side may then be able to better cope with 5,000 feet of altitude. Because the small Central American country is so mountainous, the players from Costa Rica’s domestic league experience altitude more often.
The last away team to win a World Cup qualifier at Mexico’s Azteca was Costa Rica, 12 years ago.
Altitude not only saps a player's ability to get enough oxygen. The ball reacts differently, too. It travels farther, and it does not bend as much.
If Costa Ricans are more familiar with those altitude affects than are players in English and European leagues, taking the Ticos up to one of our mountain stadiums may be playing right into their hands.
The impulse for the U.S. to do everything it can to prepare for Mexico City is understandable. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann will want to compete for points everywhere, and especially there. He is, after all, the only U.S. coach ever to have won at Azteca.
That was during a 2012 friendly. And it wasn’t against all the starters the U.S. will face on March 26, in the qualifier. In other words, the U.S. beat Mexico’s B-team in a game with no official consequence.
But it was consequential. The U.S. celebrated what it considered a historic win. And Mexico was embarrassed by the loss. It was only the 11th time ever they have lost at Azteca, in the 45 years the Mexican national team has called that stadium home.
Their A-team will be well motivated to do everything they can to prevent the USMNT from leaving Mexico City with points.
This is a very good Mexican team. It might be that country’s strongest ever. The odds that Mexico can hand the USMNT a loss there are fairly high. Add in the extra motivation of paying back the U.S. for that earlier "offense," and anything else would almost be shocking.
The USMNT shouldn’t play around with its home qualifiers while chasing long shots like a result at Azteca.
Klinsmann needs to think less like a player and more like a campaign manager. The Americans needs to concentrate on gaining three points against Costa Rica at home, rather than risk zero points in both games by looking past the Ticos.
The best venue for March 22 would be one at lower altitudes and in the Eastern time zone.