Playing on the road in hostile environments is par for the course in international soccer. The Men’s National Team players, former and current, have their share of road stories, be it gamesmanship, unique discomforts or simply the experience of playing in soccer-mad countries. But it’s rare for Youth National Teams to face similar conditions on the road with so much riding on getting a positive result.
On Friday, the U-23 MNT players got one of their first experiences when they dueled Colombia to a 1-1 draw in stifling heat of Barranquilla in the first leg of the 2016 Olympic Qualifying Playoff.
Colombia scheduled the match for 4 p.m. local time, where the temperature at kickoff was 90 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity near 70 percent. The sun was intense. There were an estimated 20,000 fans in the stands at kickoff, and with a field that sits in a bowl below ground level, it felt much worse than the reported figures.
We checked in with a few players to describe the experience:
RIDE TO THE STADIUM:
Defender Kellyn Acosta: “Their fans were all behind them. Even on our way to the game, you saw everyone was supporting Colombia 100 percent. There were jerseys being sold in every corner. It was crazy. You normally don’t see that – tons of people walking to the stadium. It seemed like in every direction there were people all wearing yellow. It’s something I’d never seen before; even playing in Mexico it was never that big. From when we walked out to warm up all the way to the end of the game, they were into it. It was a sea of yellow.”
Defender Eric Miller: “When we were walking out from our locker room to go warm up we heard the roar of the crowd when Colombia came out before us, but when we jogged onto the field the noise was much louder. It seemed like every fan in the stadium started whistling at us. The overhang from the tunnel is pretty low and we heard almost every insult in Spanish that I know, and I'm sure there was plenty more that I don't know being thrown at us. The heat was already immense and engrossing with the sun beating down on us at the time we started warming up.
Midfielder Fatai Alashe: “It was kind of cool actually, because it’s not something you get to experience that often. You kind of appreciate how much they care about soccer and their team. It’s rare at the U-23 level that that many people come out to support their team. Obviously some of them were saying stuff to you, some mean stuff, but you kind of just laugh it off. Some of them spoke English, too, and obviously they knew some bad words (laughs). It was pretty cool to be able to experience that.”
HOW HOT WAS IT?
Acosta: “It felt like Dallas or Houston in the summer. It was incredibly hot. Even the locker room was hot – it felt like a sauna. The first half was brutal with the sun just beating down on us. The second half was a little bit better when the sun went down.”
SCENE FROM THE SIDELINES:
Alashe: “It was pretty funny seeing some of the gamesmanship play into it a little bit. The Colombian Federation definitely took care of themselves better than us. When we came out in the second half, we saw they had water misters spraying down onto their bench. We kind of just laughed at it saying, ‘I’m sure they’re all comfortable over on their bench.’ At the same time it’s one you just brush off because it doesn’t matter – what mattered was the guys on the field.”
AND WHAT ABOUT THE DOG?
Midfielder Khiry Shelton: “Our fitness coach, Marcelo [Martins], called the guys on the bench to warm up, and five minutes in we were surprised by a stray dog who just seemed to want some attention, and I was the one he wanted to play with. It walked by me and then it came back, and when I was running it was it was trying to play with me. The crowd was going crazy when they noticed this animal was at my feet - laughing and whistling. I looked one way and then the other and saw the dog right by me.”
Alashe: “It was crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it – a stray dog running around while players are trying to warm up. We had gotten up to begin to warm up on the sideline next to the bench, and this dog is kind of coming at us. I wasn’t sure what to do ‘cause I wasn’t going to touch it. It was running around and it was kind of jumping at people. I think it jumped at Khiry and I was afraid it was going to bite him. I just started backing up trying to hide from it, honestly. They did do a good job getting it away from us before one guy grabbed it and took it in the tunnel.”
Alashe: “At first it was one or two guys running on the field and they looked like they were trying to get jerseys from the Colombia players, but then all of a sudden there were way more coming on and running around. Then obviously there’s security guards running after them, so it’s just like chaos and you don’t really know who’s who. At that point you’re just trying to get off the field as fast as possible.”
Miller: “They still hadn't turned on any form of air conditioning in the locker room, so we were trying to cool down in a room that was even hotter than outside. We found a room in the back on the other side of a turf warm-up room that had air conditioning. About 15 of us were piled into like a 10’x10’ room sitting down and trying to cool off.”
Miller: “The game, the heat, humidity and soft field all combined to wear us down over 90 minutes, but every player knew how important the result there was and everyone was willing to sacrifice whatever necessary to ensure that we got a positive result. The mood was super positive and everyone was happy to have gotten a result.”
Shelton: “Overall the experience in Colombia was awesome, and it's always nice to step outside of your own comfort zone and have the experience I did. I wouldn't trade it for the world. We got a good result and everyone seemed to have been in a good mood after the game on the way to Dallas.”