Qualification for the World Cup in Concacaf is always a difficult gauntlet. Each of the region’s top teams use whatever edge they can to create a unique home field advantage. Mexico plays nearly every home game at Estadio Azteca, a legendary venue that sits more than 7,000 feet above sea level and requires teams to deal with the effects of altitude. Central American squads like Honduras and Panama host games in the middle of the day amidst sweltering tropical heat and humidity.
This month, the same gamesmanship will be deployed by the United States. While the U.S. Men’s National Team has enjoyed raucous home crowds through the first eight games of the Octagonal, the new January international window provides opportunity for another edge: winter weather in the middle of the country.
The USA will play both its home games this slate in the bitter cold of Columbus, Ohio -- a familiar fortress with plenty of history -- and St. Paul, Minn. -- a potential new polar stronghold.
“We expect to embrace the conditions, enjoy the conditions, and really be able to take it to our opponents in the big picture of this window,” said USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter during his press conference following last week’s roster announcement.
While the air above may dip into the single digits, the field below the players feet should be in great shape thanks to the well-seasoned grounds crews at Lower.com Field in Ohio and Allianz Field in Minnesota. Their extensive efforts will make these chilly contests possible as they maintain a quality surface in the face of potential inclement winter weather.
“For Thursday’s match against El Salvador, you can expect a uniform surface when it comes to playability, especially during winter in Ohio,” said Ben Jackson, Director of Grounds for Columbus Crew. “The field will not look as aesthetically pleasing this time of year. However, the pitch and subsurface should have good lateral and vertical strength as a result of the heating system. Air temperature shouldn’t have a significant effect on the field quality.”
Special underground heating systems at the venues in Columbus and Minnesota will ensure that the grass stays high-quality and playable for matches of this caliber. At Lower.com Field, the underground heat has ensured a field temperature in the mid-50s since early December and U.S. Soccer has rented out additional grow lamps ahead of Thursday’s match.
The Twin Cities’ underground heat and grow lights have kept its playing surface warm, growing and free of snow for almost all of the new year. In fact, the technology ensures that both fields have a “just watered” type of play due to the condensation of the warm field and cool air.
“No matter how much snow we get in the lead-up to the game, our underground heat and lamps can melt it,” said Allianz Field Groundskeeper Mitch Ronning. “We’ve dealt with plenty of snow before here. “We are utilizing our hydronic field heat system to warm up the subsurface temperatures to help ‘wake up’ the plant from the winter and also the field heat is helping melt some of the snow that is on the field.
“We will also be using field covers to cover the playing surface once snow is removed to help trap some of that heat for the plant and more so give the field protection from the cold temps.”
Ronning described the process of trapping the heat as “similar to that of a human using a blanket in bed at night to keep them warm” and is confident the process will help ensure the field is as good as possible.
Cold temperatures provide one challenge for field maintenance, but snow brings another wrinkle. While fans may dream of winter wonderlands akin to the 2013 Snowclasico game in Commerce City, Colo., the grounds crews have measures in place to keep the playing field clear of any kind of wintry mix.
Heating technology will keep the fields snow-free in the run-up to the game and can easily melt matchday dustings. With any kind of accumulation as kickoff draws closer, both crews prefer to avoid using plows in order to avoid potential damage to the field. While shovels serve as the main tool for heavy snowfall when game time looms, Minnesota also employs a thick cover to lay over and protect the field that a plow can drive over. If it really starts to come down, both stadiums have red paint on reserve to mark out more visible field lines.
Fans should enjoy cover from the elements as most seating at Lower.com Field and Allianz Field falls under the protection of overhangs. U.S. players will have the comfort of specially purchased heated seat cushions on the bench, but the squad stands more than ready to take on the arctic elements.
“You know what? I want it to be freezing. I want it to be cold,” said USMNT defender Walker Zimmerman. “I want the snow. I want to be a part of something so iconic that I saw and I really remember growing up. And that’s exciting to me. So, I think the guys are ready to embrace it, and it will be a really good environment for us fan-wise as well.”