Friday Newsletter: U.S. Soccer Choosing Minnesota and Ohio in Deep Winter to Host World Cup Qualifiers Is a Terrible Idea
Plus I Answer Your Mailbag Questions
Bruce McGuire doesn’t get it. There’s no bigger soccer fan in the state of Minnesota, and as a lifelong supporter—he grew up going to Minnesota Kicks games in the old NASL—McGuire has always looked forward to the day when the Twin Cities would host a USMNT World Cup qualifier.
But even McGuire thinks it’s an awful idea for U.S. Soccer to choose to schedule a crucial home World Cup qualifier at Allianz Field in St. Paul outdoors in the dead of winter against Honduras.
“I don’t understand why you would come here and do that on February 2,” McGuire told me when I called him on Thursday. “It’s traditionally one of the coldest weeks of the year. Our weather is a jet stream that comes straight from the North Pole. It can be absolutely brutal. I mean, I think it’s going to get up to zero today.”
St. Paul ended up having a high of 4 degrees Fahrenheit on Thursday and a low of minus-10. During the evening hours when the game would take place, the temperature was minus-4 and the wind chill minus-14. The current 10-day forecast predicts a low of 3 degrees on the night of the game February 2.
Minnesotans enjoy participating in winter sports like cross-country skiing and skating, McGuire says, but that’s different from standing outdoors at a game. “There are lots of big sporting things that take place, but they’re all activity sporting,” McGuire says. “They’re not standing in one place for two to three hours in a stadium just getting pelted by the wind, and it can be scary. It can be dangerous. It is dangerous.”
What’s more, U.S. Soccer’s decision to stage its two winter home qualifiers in the iceboxes of Minnesota and Ohio (next Thursday’s game vs. El Salvador is in Columbus) actively hurts the U.S.’s chances to win these games from a soccer perspective and shows that U.S. Soccer still has a debilitating fear that having some fans of opposing teams in stadiums will rattle the U.S. players.
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This isn’t your father’s USMNT, which needed to schedule winter games in Columbus against Mexico. Today’s USMNT, with players from Chelsea, Juventus, Barcelona and other top European clubs, should have a significant soccer advantage over both Honduras and El Salvador. Why on earth would you not choose to make the most of that advantage by staging these qualifiers in the warmer weather and ideal field conditions of, say, Florida? Why give your opponents the chance to take advantage of what could be ugly games in potentially hazardous weather?
It’s not like any of the U.S. players are accustomed to the Arctic temperatures they’ll experience in Minnesota, either. And several of those players, including Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, have been prone to picking up muscle injuries over the last few years.
Part of the problem is that leaders at U.S. Soccer have bought into the false narrative that staging a pivotal 2017 home World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica in Harrison, N.J., led to a 2-0 U.S. loss because a percentage—not a majority—of the New York City-area fans in the stadium were rooting for Costa Rica. But that’s absurd. I was there. It was hardly a hostile environment for the U.S. team, which lost because it had some absolute brainlocks that led to Costa Rica goals. It lost for soccer reasons.
Now, though, that false narrative is in U.S. Soccer leaders’ heads. But if they’re worried about the fragile psyches of U.S. players crumbling in front of a few more Honduran or Salvadoran fans in, say, Jacksonville or Orlando, what does that tell you?
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, who has a big influence over where games are scheduled, has said putting these home qualifiers in St. Paul and Columbus helps cut down the travel time to and from the middle qualifier against Canada in Hamilton, Ont., but that doesn’t make much sense either. The USMNT always flies on crazy-nice charters, which means flights to and from Florida would hardly be onerous. And they’d be able to train in quality conditions as well. There’s a reason the team’s December camp was in Southern California and its January camp has been in Phoenix.
U.S. Soccer has noted that St. Paul and Columbus have heated fields, but so did the stadium in Commerce City, Colo., for the SnowClásico win against Costa Rica in March 2013—and it didn’t prevent that game from turning into a farce. (Look, I was there too, and while it was fun as a one-off, it was also ridiculous.)
When it comes down to it, getting six points from the two home qualifiers this window is far more important than getting points in Canada (which obviously would be helpful if it happens). But U.S. Soccer has totally over-thought things in choosing where to put these games.
And that leaves Minnesota soccer fan Bruce McGuire lamenting something that he has spent the last few decades hoping for.
“Right now the forecast for the game is for a little bit warmer than [this week’s Twin Cities weather], like for 15 to 20 [degrees],” he says. “But you start to get any wind and suddenly it’s below-zero wind chill, and frostbite takes no time at all. That’s what I mean by it’s dangerous. I mean, I’m worried about some of the players out there.”
The U.S. should still get six points from its two home qualifiers, but it makes zero sense that U.S. Soccer would choose to make things harder on its team to do it.
OPENING THE MAILBAG
First off, a huge thank you to everyone who sent their questions to the ‘Bag. No fewer than 46 questions came in, so let’s keep them coming in the future! Here are some of the best ones from this week:
What are your thoughts on possible move of GK Matt Turner to Arsenal? Yes, the Premier League is many many steps above MLS in terms of quality, but he will not play much (cups mostly) being behind Aaron Ramsdale. Is the quality of training enough to justify such a move? I’m concerned that our top two USMNT keepers [Turner and Zack Steffen from Manchester City] don’t get regular game time in a World Cup year. There should be opportunities for a keeper of Matt’s quality to start somewhere, maybe not in the Premier League, but for sure in one of the other European leagues where he would face better competition than MLS offers.
I’ll keep this simple to start: If Arsenal’s offer is a decent one, and I expect it will be in the end, Turner should go now. It’s the best thing for his career, long-term, and for New England. Is it the best thing for the USMNT in a World Cup year? You always want your players to be playing at club level. But the fact is that if Turner stays and plays in New England, it’s not likely that he’ll regain the No. 1 keeper spot from Steffen even if Steffen continues as the backup at Man City. And perhaps there could be a loan from Arsenal for Turner to get playing time, just as Steffen was loaned by City to Fortuna Düsseldorf early on in his tenure there. I also think it’s important just to recognize Turner’s incredible career story to get to this point. You could make a movie out of it.
What has to happen for MLS to consistently sell young players for 8-figure sums? Ricardo Pepi is the obvious exception of late, but it seems like many of our top young players are available for $3 million to $7 million when moving to Europe and then can very quickly garner higher transfer fees when moving within Europe. Brenden Aaronson seems like a good example of this with the recently rejected $20 million bid from Leeds after he moved for an initial $6 million (what was guaranteed to the Philadelphia Union) to Salzburg. How does MLS capture higher initial transfer fees for its top players like South American clubs (primarily Brazilian and Argentine ones) seem better able to do?
It’s fascinating to keep track of the market for MLS players. Basically it comes down to 1) how promising is the player? 2) how young is the player? 3) where is the player from? Pepi, then 18, reportedly was sold for $20 million to Augsburg, and Paraguayan Miguel Almirón was 24 when he was sold for $27 million to Newcastle. But they’re outliers. For U.S. players like Aaronson, who reportedly has now drawn a $27 million (!) offer from Leeds United, I think his particular case could help push the market number up on other young U.S. MLS players of his profile in the future. What’s hard to know is whether Augsburg and Leeds, which have U.S. ownership (or ownership involvement), pushed up their bids because the players are American. It’s clear from the heavy Stars-and-Stripes content of Feyenoord’s Cole Bassett and West Brom’s Daryl Dike signings that these clubs think it’s in their interest to play up the U.S. angle.
What happened to our German pipeline for the USMNT? Do we not need it anymore? Are there just no/not good enough players for the caliber of the current squad? Are American servicemen not marrying Germans anymore?
Just before the 2014 World Cup I wrote a big story about the German American influence on the U.S. team under Jurgen Klinsmann. Certainly some of it had to do with Klinsmann and his preferences, but there was also a huge demographic reason for it:
But that demographic influence has waned, Klinsmann is no longer the coach and there aren’t as many obvious young German Americans who are pushing to be called in. The most obvious German American whose club performance would merit a call-up is John Brooks, but there appear to be issues between him and Berhalter. I think Brooks deserves to be called in, but it seems like he’s one of those players who Berhalter has decided either needs to start or not be called up at all.
What are your current predictions about “generational” change for the USWNT as it heads toward the next World Cup? Should we expect a bunch of strategically-timed retirement celebrations, or cut-throat competition between the longest-serving and newer players, or both?
I’m looking forward to what I think will be a tremendous competition for playing time and roster spots, much of which will be between entrenched veterans and emerging young players. The disappointing performance by the veteran-led team at the Olympics should give coach Vlatko Andonovski the leverage he needs to phase out any older players who are playing more on reputation than results these days. But some of those vets still have something to offer with the World Cup qualifying tournament in July and World Cup 2023 just a year and a half away. How much more do Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Becky Sauerbrunn have to give? We’ll see. And could we see breakthroughs from Catarina Macario, Trinity Rodman, Midge Purce and several others? I don’t think we’ll see any strategically-timed retirements until it’s clear that those players are out of the picture.
Hey, is the USMNT or USWNT ever going to play in Atlanta again? The USMNT hasn't been there since the Gold Cup disaster against Jamaica [in 2015], and the USWNT hasn’t been since 2016. The Benz is an excellent venue, and it's certainly clear that the city can support and will embrace the sport. But Atlanta is never one of the selected venues. Will they rethink this? Is there any chance at a World Cup selection?
Atlanta has clearly shown it supports soccer, as you can tell from its place all over the top of the highest attendances in MLS history. But Atlanta’s artificial turf remains a huge issue preventing U.S. Soccer from scheduling games there. (From the USWNT’s perspective, having to play artificial turf games has even been part of their case for unequal treatment from U.S. Soccer.) I don’t see U.S. Soccer changing its stance anytime soon. However, I do fully expect Atlanta to get games for World Cup 2026, in large part because they’ve promised to put a quality grass field in for that tournament.
Prediction for USMNT Starting XI against El Salvador?
Sergiño Dest-Miles Robinson-Walker Zimmerman-Antonee Robinson
Tyler Adams-Weston McKennie-Yunus Musah
Brenden Aaronson-Ricardo Pepi-Christian Pulisic
How do the pots for the World Cup draw work? Does winning CONCACAF matter? Is it FIFA ranking? How can the USA move into Pot 1? Wondering if USA can capitalize on this three-match cycle and all but guarantee a Top 3 spot, but is there more to play for since getting into the top pot seems to be an advantage?
If FIFA organizes the World Cup 2022 draw like it did for 2018, it will seed all 32 teams in four pots according to the FIFA rankings. I thought that was a good idea four years ago (as opposed to the previous policy of seeding only the top eight teams in one pot and comprising all the other pots on geography) and reduced the chances for a so-called Group of Death.
The main focus of World Cup qualifying for the U.S. has to be qualifying for the World Cup, but as the current No. 11-ranked team, the U.S. is in a position to be put in Pot 2—which is to say, expected to be the second-best team on paper in whatever group it’s drawn in. Can the U.S. get to Pot 1? Potentially, but rising that high in the rankings seems like a longshot. Yes, it’s true that one of No. 6 Italy or No. 8 Portugal is going to miss the World Cup, but the USMNT would basically still have to win all or almost all of its remaining qualifiers. I think that’s unlikely.
Who is the most likely uncapped player to make the USMNT in Qatar (assuming the U.S. qualifies)?
Joe Scally would be the obvious choice at this point. Maybe 17-year-old Gabriel Slonina as the third-string goalkeeper? Alex Mendez?
Have a great weekend, and let’s get ready for qualifiers starting next week! Couple of notes:
• For Founding Members, I’ll have one of my quarterly Zoom calls on Tuesday at 7:30 pm ET. Looking forward to it! And if you’re interested in upgrading your subscription to Founding Member, you can do that here:
• I’ll be back later today, Friday afternoon, with my thoughts on the USMNT roster.
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