By Charles Boehm - WASHINGTON, DC (July 18, 2012) US Soccer Players -- Have the schedule-makers lost their minds?
That’s more or less the tone of the reaction to today’s midday Major League Soccer kickoffs in Los Angeles (Chivas USA - Portland) and Harrison, NJ (New York - Chicago), as well as the US Soccer Development Academy’s selection of Frisco, TX and Houston for its summertime postseason events.
Today’s host clubs are playing day games on a Wednesday in order to host participants in youth soccer camps, having decided that this form of outreach is worth losing the adult crowds that tend to be rather sparse on weeknights anyway. Those grown-ups who do plan to attend have taken to Twitter to express their distaste at the prospect of sweltering under an afternoon sun that's predicted to push the heat index well into triple digits. At least the spectators will have some shelter under Red Bull Arena’s European-style roof, unlike the players and referees.
Last month, for the second year in a row, the Developmental Academy's 78 member clubs congregated at the FC Dallas Stadium Complex for a weeklong slate of playoff games, many of which played out in the triple-digit temperatures which are a fact of life for two to three months of the year in North Texas. That provoked a tide of complaint and concern about the effects of the heat on teenage players involved in some of the most important matches of their young lives.
The top eight teams in each of the Academy’s two age groups advanced to Finals Week, which began at the Houston Amateur Sports Park on Monday. Although the steamy Bayou City can be one of the most inhospitable places on the continent at this time of year, late evening kickoffs and cooling rainfall have thus far mitigated its impact, and those who reach the championship final will get the opportunity to play in BBVA Compass Stadium, MLS’ newest venue and a gem by all accounts.
I spoke to US Soccer press officers Neil Buethe and Michael Kammarman about the heat concerns, and both emphasized that weather is just one factor among many when selecting venues for these events. The large scope of the Developmental Academy Playoffs and Showcase means that only a few sites qualify to begin with. “To get all the things that you want, and to create the environment that we’re looking for, it’s not a massive list,” noted Kammarman. For the past two years, Frisco’s amenities have trumped its June thermometer readings.
“The location for Finals Week is determined through a bidding process. We send out an RFP and review the proposals,” explained Buethe via email. “In both situations, the possible high temperatures in various cities are considered when making our decision on where to hold an event.
“We also take numerous precautions to try and reduce the impact high temperatures could have on the players. We schedule games in the morning or later in the evening so were not playing during the highest temperatures. We also supply the teams with adequate fluids, educate them about how best to handle high temperatures, and have the necessary medical staff on site.”
Extreme heat undeniably poses challenges, even dangers, to players at elite levels. Fitness is tested to the utmost degree, hydration and nutrition become even more paramount than usual and any wavering of mental focus is often disproportionately punished. Meanwhile, attendance, atmosphere and overall customer satisfaction can suffer when paying fans are placed in the same conditions.
Saying all that…this is nothing new, and there’s little reason to believe it won’t continue to an even greater degree in the future.
FIFA shrugged off these climatic realities when it brought the world’s most important tournament to these shores in 1994, scheduling World Cup matches in places like Dallas and Orlando at lunchtime and midafternoon in order to ensure primetime television viewing in Europe. Unaccustomed players suffering in the 100-degree weather could do little but persevere, some concocting superstitious remedies like lavish amounts of hair gel.
And results were undoubtedly affected: A totally unheralded South Korean side staged second-half comebacks against world powers Spain and Germany in Dallas and Saudi Arabia enjoyed its best World Cup ever in its maiden appearance. The 2022 edition has been awarded to Qatar, an even hotter locale, but those hoping FIFA’s scheduling decisions will elevate competitive interests over financial ones should prepare to be disappointed.
Those who represent the US on that massive stage will have already experienced the realities of CONCACAF qualifying, where weather is just another weapon in the never-ending search for home field advantage. Our southern neighbors delight in subjecting the Yanks to as much heat, humidity and general discomfort as possible, just as the US has consciously selected cold-weather venues when hosting important CONCACAF matches.
“Oh yeah,” said Kammarman, who has traveled to a range of exotic locales with the National Team over the past decade. “Mexico does it, everybody does it. [In 2002 World Cup qualifying] Guatemala put us in Mazatenango, two and a half hours from Guatemala City, a place that didn’t have a hotel. Game time temperature was extreme.”
So, while abiding by basic standards of child welfare, why should our top youth prospects not be exposed to the environments that they must face, and surmount, later in their careers?
“I wouldn’t ascribe our site selection and motivation to that, but it is a reality,” Kammarman said in reference to Development Academy event locations. “Whether or not you agree or disagree with the site selection, it is providing these guys an experience that they’re going to face down the road.”
As anyone who’s ever had to make small talk with strangers can attest, griping about the weather represents one of the few genuinely universal human experiences on earth, so this conversation will surely continue. Yet those fans clearly value World Cup events enough to maintain good attendance numbers even in high heat. The challenge for MLS is to reach a point where even a midweek game on a sultry afternoon is enough to draw a crowd.
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