Consistently Inconsistent - WCQ Away from Home Never Easy
Among the accomplishments in the USA’s victory against Cuba on Saturday evening, which earned the team six points and sole possession of the top place in Group 1 of CONCACAF qualifying, was the fact that it was the first time that the U.S. Men’s National Team had ever won three consecutive World Cup qualifying games on the road.
With a 1-0 victory in Barbados in the previous round and a pair of 1-0 wins in Guatemala and Cuba so far in this semifinal round, putting them in the best possible position to advance to the next phase. One thing is for certain, it wasn’t easy.
Former U.S. coach Bruce Arena successfully navigated the team through two cycles of World Cup qualifying during his coaching tenure from 1998-2006.
"There are a lot of issues that complicate World Cup qualifying,” said Arena. “From short preparation time, travel for players from different continents, the different levels of fitness in your group and the climate, all these factors add up. When you put that all together, it's never easy.”
Defender Marcelo Balboa, who played in 10 qualifiers during his career from 1989-1997, has plenty of experience with road games that often present a tougher match up on the field than they do on paper.
“You have to get on a plane, play in a hostile environment and deal with the fans,” said Balboa. “This is for the World Cup. It means a lot to the federations and to the players, and the bottom line is that they find energy and ways to make games hard.”
Many different factors present a challenge to a road team, but add in the fact that a large portion of the U.S. National Team is based in Europe and therefore have to make the long journey back to the Western hemisphere and a difficult task becomes even more tough. Long-time U.S. defender Tony Sanneh, who has 16 qualifying caps to his name, realizes the difficulties of traveling across the globe.
“We have a much bigger European base now and a large portion of our team is flying all the way in from Europe while a lot of the teams we play are based domestically,” said Sanneh. “The standard of living isn’t what we’re used to, neither is the food or the quality of the fields. Adding all those things together can honestly be a recipe for failure.”
Guatemala has long been considered one of the most difficult places in the region to play, and the U.S. has not fared well in the Central American country, holding a 1-4-3 record there leading into the August 20 matchup.
Sanneh was part of the squad that earned a 1-1 draw in Mazatenango, Guatemala on July 16, 2000 during the qualifying rounds leading up to the 2006 FIFA World Cup. He knows the challenges of playing there first hand.
“When we played in Guatemala, they put us very far away from Guatemala City in a smaller stadium, so it was in the mountains where it was very hot,” said Sanneh. “There were cars driving around at night making noise and keeping us awake throughout the night.”
“One time before a game, we got stuck in an elevator because they turned off the power, said Balboa. “Another time they had horns and radios blaring outside our hotel all night. Sometimes the fire alarm goes off at 3 a.m. and keeps going off all night.”
When arriving at a visiting stadium, the Americans don’t always receive a warm welcome. Some adversity is environmental – unfamiliar weather, tiny locker rooms and bumpy fields.
“It was over 100 degrees,” said Sanneh, recalling his experience in Guatemala. “The game started off okay, but then we got a little overheated and they scored a goal on a rebound. We were probably a better team that day, but the conditions were very difficult.”
Other game-day factors include the fans, whether they’re loud, offensive, throwing objects onto the field or all of the above.
“It’s hard to describe what it’s like to step on that field,” said Balboa. “What you have to realize is that countries like Cuba have only one shot every four years to try to qualify, and if they do that just one time it would mean everything to their country and their people.”
With stadium renovations in Havana, Cuba, being completed as game day approached, the lights at Estadio Pedro Marrero went out completely during the teams’ warm up. Both teams also dealt with a less-than-ideal surface that took some time to adjust to, especially with heavy rains pouring down throughout the game.
“It was a tough game,” said forward Clint Dempsey. “Obviously both teams had to play with (the field conditions), but it wasn’t a flat surface. Even if you hit a good pass, the ball can bounce up on you and when it’s slick, too, that just adds on top of it. I thought in the first half neither team did too well with the conditions.”
“You can’t go somewhere and try to play pretty soccer when the ball doesn’t take a true bounce, or you’re playing in two feet of water,” said Sanneh. “Your job is to go there and win the game. It has to be workmanlike and businesslike. You have to be willing to walk away from these games at 1-0.”