This year’s World Cup will be one of the hottest in history, with the temperatures in Qatar expected to reach into the high 80s and the humidity regularly topping 70%.
So, naturally, the U.S. is preparing for that by playing some of the coldest World Cup qualifiers in history, beginning Thursday with a game against El Salvador at a frigid Lower.com Field. The temperature in Columbus peaked at 19 degrees Fahrenheit Wednesday and the forecast Thursday calls for a chance of snow and 30-degree skies at kickoff, one degree above the record for the coldest U.S. qualifier this century.
How cold is that? According to the U.S. Soccer Federation’s own index, the 21-degree wind chill is just outside the orange level, which presents a “risk of cold-related illness.”
And that won’t even be the chilliest game for the Americans in this three-match winter window. The game Sunday with Canada in Hamilton, about 40 miles southwest of Toronto, will start in a wind chill just above freezing — which represents a warming trend for the U.S. team — while the forecast for the game next Wednesday with Honduras in St. Paul, Minn., calls for temperatures of 10 degrees with a wind chill near zero.
Under those conditions, which fall in the black alert level, U.S. Soccer Federation’s guidelines recommend games be canceled or moved indoors.
The U.S. players say they’re unconcerned.
“It’s cold, but we’re going to be ready for it,” attacker Christian Pulisic said of Thursday’s game. “We’ll be able to play.
“It’s not going to affect us too much. We’ve all played in cold weather.”
To prepare, the players have been practicing in blue long-sleeved shirts and blue elastic training pants, gloves and wool hats this week in Columbus, occasionally battling snow flurries and temperatures in the teens. Some of the coaches wore heavy blue winter coats.
Coach Gregg Berhalter, who grew accustomed to punishing winter weather during a playing career spent mostly in Germany and the Netherlands, said there are things you can do to alleviate the cold, such as rubbing Vaseline on your feet and drinking warm liquids before leaving the locker room. But bitter cold is more a mental challenge than a physical one.
“It’s a mindset,” he said. “It’s mind over matter. Once you get running, once you get sweating, I think you’re good to go.
“Our guys, who have been playing in Europe and cooler temperatures, will be ready to go.”
Fifteen of the 28 players Berhalter called up for these three qualifiers play in Europe. Yet even the domestic-based players say they’re not intimidated by the cold.
“You’ve got to embrace it, you’ve got to enjoy it,” said forward Gyasi Zardes, a Southern California native who plays in Columbus. “Not every day you get to play in extreme weather like this. So we’re really looking forward to it.
“Every time I get an opportunity to play in extreme weather, you know, you’ve got to take advantage of it.”
Nashville defender Walker Zimmerman added: “I want it to be freezing. I want it to be cold. I want the snow.”
Thursday’s qualifier will be the 11th in Columbus, the most of any U.S. city, and the second in this World Cup cycle. The U.S. has lost just one of the previous 10 here.
But the weather isn’t the only challenge the Americans will be dealing with. Starting goalkeeper Zack Steffen did not travel to the U.S. after developing back tightness last week, remaining in England to receive treatment from his club team, Manchester City. He will likely be replaced by New England Revolution keeper Matt Turner.
Defender DeAndre Yedlin may also be unavailable Thursday after his departure from Turkey, where he plays for Galatasaray, was delayed by a snowstorm that closed the Istanbul airport. He did not participate in Wednesday morning’s practice session, but Berhalter said he was expected to arrive later in the day.
Mathematically, the U.S. (4-1-3), only a point behind Canada in the eight-team CONCACAF qualifying table, can secure its World Cup invitation with three wins in this window. But that’s unlikely because, in addition to the U.S. running the table, that scenario would also require either Mexico and Panama — who play each other next week — to lose all three of its games, among other things.
“We’re in a good position. And by the end of the window we can be in a great position,” Pulisic said.
El Salvador (1-4-3), which held the U.S. to a scoreless draw in the first game of qualifying in September, is in tougher straits. The country made its last World Cup appearance in 1982 and it has little chance of going back this year without a win Thursday, said its coach, former U.S. international Hugo Pérez.
The top three teams in the 14-game tournament go directly to Qatar while the fourth-place finisher advances to an inter-confederation playoff; anything short of a victory Thursday would leave El Salvador at least eight points out of fourth place with five games to play.
“If we lose,” Pérez said in an interview with ESPN “it will be hard to catch the fourth place.”
U.S. vs. El Salvador, Columbus, Ohio
Costa Rica vs. Panama
Jamaica vs. Mexico
Honduras vs. Canada
U.S. at Canada, Hamilton, Canada
Mexico vs. Costa Rica
Honduras vs. El Salvador
Panama vs. Jamaica
U.S. vs. Honduras, St. Paul, Minn.
Jamaica vs. Costa Rica
Mexico vs. Panama
El Salvador vs. Canada