In World Cup qualifying matches, cheating is allowed. That is, when Ecuador plays its home matches, the venue is Quito, which at 9,350 ft. in altitude often leaves visiting teams gasping for air. When the U.S. plays in plays in places such as Honduras, the atmosphere is a steamy tropical cauldron with fans packed on top of a patchy pitch. It’s suffocating. Tough. Deal with it.
So when the U.S. faced Costa Rica on Friday in Denver, the temperature was 29 degrees and it was snowing hard in the Mile High City. Welcome to Colorado. At the Honduras vs. Mexico match, played in midafternoon, the temperature was more than 100, a decision that seems to have paid off in that the Mexicans wilted late in the game to surrender a 2-0 lead. The game ended in a draw, 2-2.
In other words, a level playing field is the last thing you want if you are the home team.
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In Denver, the field kept disappearing under a blizzard. If you are a skier, you are saying: snow, snow, snow! If you are a soccer player, this is less desirable. Nevertheless, the U.S. pressed their luck, and in the 16th minute Clint Dempsey, a Texan, bundled in a rebound for a 1-0 U.S. lead. What happened in the next 74 minutes or so wasn’t quite soccer and it wasn’t quite visible. The field at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park didn’t appear so much as a soccer pitch as a hockey rink. The snow piled up as groundskeepers struggled to clear the sidelines and penalty area—in soccer if you can’t see the lines, the match has to be abandoned. In the 55th minute the referee halted play briefly to have the lines cleared yet again.
Although the Costa Ricans were furious after the game—it was robbery, said midfielder Cristian Bolanos— they nevertheless plowed on. In the 70th minute the Ticos apparently crossed a ball to the back post that was headed in to the U.S. net, but the linesman somehow witnessed an offside. We’ll have to take his word for it.
By the last 15 minutes of the game, any semblance of soccer was only accidental. It is very difficult to pass a ball through 3 or 4 inches of snow. You just kick it long and hope for a crazy result. Completely bizarre, “beautifully ugly,” said Alexi Lalas, the former U.S. star.
U.S. Soccer chose Denver because of its altitude, not its weather. Next up for the U.S. is Mexico, in the Azteca Stadium, which is at 9,000 ft. It will be jammed with more than 100,000 fans; the atmosphere is intimidating and the pollution will be horrific. It will not be snowing. The Americans have never won a World Cup qualifier there.