By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 17, 2012) US Soccer Players -- The United States went down to St John’s, Antigua and--get this--found the conditions difficult. The field was a bog, slapped down in the middle of a cricket oval that had not wanted for use. It was muddy. The footing was intermittently treacherous. Passes missed their mark, not just because of inaccuracy on the part of the passer, but because the uneven surface played havoc with their course. When the wind picked up, balls sailed or veered off target, making long passes and crosses “hit and hope” prospects. The dimensions were tight, cutting down on the available space on the wings, making it tricky for the Americans to get the ball behind their opponents’ crowded defensive line.
The conditions were, in a word, difficult. Maybe that’s not enough to explain or excuse an underwhelming US performance, but it was certainly a factor.
Antigua & Barbuda manipulated all of the conditions, save the weather, to their maximum possible advantage. It was a choice to lay out a small field despite the expanse of the cricket oval making a much larger one possible. The muddy bog of the midfield, the part of the field most crucial to US success and Antigua’s efforts to frustrate, just so happened to coincide with the cricket pitch (the high-traffic playing area in cricket used for bowling and batting). Following what might be termed a “grand tradition” of CONCACAF gamesmanship, the minnow welcomed the whale, but made sure to make the stay as uncomfortable as possible.
There might be no other region in the world that is home to more home field machinations than CONCACAF. If there is, the massaging of conditions to benefit the home team are not nearly as central to the plot from round to round. Here, using whatever (legal) means necessary to negatively affect your opponents’ play is not only expected, it might even rise to the level of “tradition.” Anything done for long enough can become tradition, and CONCACAF certainly has enough history with the type of venue choices on display in St. John’s to make almost make it an indispensable part of the region’s identity.
South America has Bolivia, with their breath-stealing altitude advantage in La Paz. Europe has Russia, the only major nation to insist on an artificial surface, to go with the barebones facilities of tiny no-hope soccer nations like the Faroe Islands. Africa has sometimes dangerous, always intense, atmospheres from Egypt to South Africa and everywhere in between. All of those are prime examples of home field advantages being brought to bear for important qualifiers, but their particular brand of edges seems somehow less intrinsic to the process—and less contrived—than the standard in CONCACAF.
It’s not just the smaller nations like Antigua and Barbuda who play this particular game. Mexico has built-in advantages at their national stadium in Mexico City, but accentuate them by scheduling kickoffs for crucial qualifiers in the hottest, most smog-laden portion of the day. The United States, victims of the messy cricket field in Antigua & Barbuda with all of its bumps and bogs, strategically place big games in home team friendly locales with an added weather element tacked on for good measure. Without the cold of Columbus, there is no “La Guerra Fria”, no “Dos a Cero”, and a decidedly one-sided USA-Mexico rivalry.
The lore of the US National Team made in this century in some way exists because playing every card at your disposal is part of the CONCACAF ethos. A February qualifier in the sunshine of San Diego, Phoenix, or Tampa might make more sense for ticket sales and the quality of the play, but it wouldn’t make Mexican players shiver.
CONCACAF has a unique number of small, cash-strapped national programs who have to make do with ill-suited facilities like A&B’s cricket stadium. The essence of home field chicanery comes from that situation. For every United States or Mexico with well-kept fields inside well-maintained stadiums, 20 nations lack the funding to maintain the most basic playing surface standards. If there’s nothing you can do about the threadbare grass in the center of midfield, and you know you’re at a talent deficit, why not turn the sad state of the grass into an advantage? If Antigua & Barbuda is going to so blatantly manipulated things to their advantage, why shouldn’t the USA and Mexico?
The nature of it all is so much a part of the CONCACAF qualifying culture that we hardly question it anymore. Mexico moves kickoff to two o’clock on a weekday afternoon and we understand why. The US schedules the home leg against Mexico for Columbus in February (average high of 40 degrees), and it’s “smart.” Antigua and Barbuda make the US play them on a postage stamp despite nearly having the space to for two fields on their national cricket oval, and it’s par for the course. Teams manipulate field size regularly. They don’t often do it so cynically and in such a ridiculous manner.
Let’s face it: CONCACAF qualifying would be boring without the vagaries of home field advantage. For all the frustrations they cause, the cynical manipulation of conditions by the home sides shakes up a region that is otherwise extremely top heavy and lacking depth of quality. As long as teams operating within the guidelines handed down, it’s all fair. Some might prefer perfect settings all across the region, but really, what fun is that?
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