fA word of caution, and sometime in late November, Gregg Berhalter and US Soccer sat down, ran the tape, watched the Edmonton gusts, and saw the frozen Mexican faces give them all the warning they needed.
In truth, they could have saved themselves 90 minutes and read the French advice. Only 19 words of it. “To survive the Canadian winter you need a body of brass, eyes of glass and blood of brandy.”
Louis Armand de Lom d’Arce’s offering was published in the early 1700s, but as Canada and US men meet in their most momentous encounter in a generation, the message still rings clear on the winter air. Not least because the exploration that caused such trauma in the third Baron Lahontan is a stone’s throw from Sunday’s venue.
Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, a stadium sponsored by the country’s popular coffee chain in a town about 70 km south of Toronto, doesn’t have a great football history. Indeed, this potentially crucial 2022 World Cup qualifier will be the first time Canada’s seniors have played at the stadium for an international match. But for John Herdman’s young team, it’s all about creating new stories, new history.
When they did just that in November, turning Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium into the Iceteca and beating Mexico in a qualifier for the first time since 1976, Canada’s coach pointed to the pitch-side snow piles and the mercury that was -9C (March 16) ° F) reached its lowest point. at a wind chill of -14 °C (7 °F).
“Every country uses the terrain to their advantage,” said the Englishman after Canada topped the Concacaf rankings on their best night yet. “We see that as an advantage. There was a real opportunity here to bring out the Canadian in our players. They all grew up in cold conditions on plastic pitches so we wanted them to feel at home.”
So having brought the Canadian by his side at the Iceteca, it’s safe to assume Herdman will want to do something similar on Sunday by opting to bring the US to Hamilton. Perhaps hoping that a place locals call The Donut Box comes with extra icing. Forecast conditions call for an icy start to Sunday with a morning wind chill of -21C (-6F) with snow flurries and temperatures around -10C (14F) for the afternoon kick-off.
Herdman has worked wonders with this new generation, instilling a positive attitude and conviction that is in stark contrast to almost anything that has come before for the men’s team. But is his apparent belief justified that taking Berhalter’s side onto the wide open spaces of Tim Horton’s field gives Canada an advantage rather than taking things indoors in Vancouver? Put more simply… Great White North or Great White Lie?
“Well… the more exposure you have to the cold, the better you can handle it,” says Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht the Guardian. The University of Manitoba physiologist is the world’s leading authority on freezing. He is known as Professor Popsicle because of his notable research projects. “Our normal response to cold is vasoconstriction, or a reduction in blood flow to the skin. So adapting to continuous exposure reduces this. It makes your skin warmer, your hands and feet more functional. Your receptors will also be warmer, so you won’t feel as cold. That in itself will help you cope mentally.
“You know, we’re Canadians, we’re tough. There’s no question that Canadians think they’re tougher than everyone else when it comes to cold. So there is something like that. It could be a few percent but who knows.”
Giesbrecht, whose research included injecting ice water into his veins, corrected that Sunday’s cold would not be considered “extreme.” However, Berhalter didn’t want to take any chances. The U.S. opted to acclimatize and host qualifiers on both sides of Sunday in cold-weather cities — against El Salvador on Thursday evening in Columbus and Honduras on Wednesday in Minnesota. Canada flew home Thursday from their qualifier in Honduras, where daytime temperatures hovered around 28C (82F).
Ultimately, science has largely shown that coping with the cold is a matter of the mind.
“Once your body temperature goes up, there’s not a whole heap of physiological advantages for someone who lives or works out in a cold environment over someone who comes from a warmer environment,” Christopher Minson, a physiology professor who studies the body’s response to extremes Environments at the University of Oregon, tells the Guardian.
Minson works with professional teams and Olympic athletes to help them deal with extremes. The advancement of players from the US and Canada means the majority of both teams are now avoiding extremes – by playing in Europe. Sixteen of Canada’s squads play for European clubs, along with 14 Americans.
Nonetheless, both physiologists suggested that Canadians who spent a significant portion of their lives here would retain these cold-weather advantages, particularly in terms of mindset. Once the Sunday fight heats up, all things are essentially the same — sanity aside. Canadian striker Cyle Larin’s facial hair may be freezing, but it’s nothing new for a player whose club career took him to Turkey but was born and raised in the Toronto area. On the other hand, fast-icing whiskers can bother California midfielder Sebastian Lletget, for example.
“Once you’re used to it, you’re more relaxed,” Minson adds. “You will not have this fear in your head. I am a physiologist by profession. I’ve been doing this for a long time. But I’ll say it’s the brain. A big part is the psychology.”
Minson also points to exercise-induced bronchoconstriction as a factor. In layman’s terms, it’s a tightness in the lungs caused by breathing particularly dry air, and familiar minds can better control it by breathing through their noses and avoiding gulps.
From the altitude of the Azteca to the heat and humidity of Central America and the Caribbean, environmental factors have always impacted Concacaf qualification. The pandemic-pressed schedule coupled with Canada’s rise to become the most-improved team in the region and the world has brought a new factor out of the cold. This is the first January-February qualifying window for the Canadians since 1985, when they were on course to make it to their lone men’s World Championship.
Berhalter seems to be well aware that mental strength will decide a lot. “It’s a mindset,” he said. “I played with short sleeves in Germany. As soon as you run, as soon as you sweat, you’re ready to go.”
Berhalter’s former longtime assistant with Columbus Crew, Pat Onstad, was part of several Canadian generations for whom winters were barren and inactive.
“I remember playing one in November but it was a null game against Mexico,” Onstad, who played in Canada’s goal from 1988 to 2010, told the Guardian. “It was in Toronto and it started snowing in the second half and I remember thinking, ‘God, I wish this game was important.’ Now these games are important.”
Onstad, general manager of MLS club Houston Dynamo, argues that given their wealth of young attacking talent, Canada need no conditions on their side. Of course he also thinks about the goalkeepers. Milan Borjan continued his rise as a Canadian cult favorite that night at the Iceteca as the goalkeeper donned gray sweatpants and a headscarf that became a babushka headscarf.
“Not a lonely place [than in goals] and no colder place,” laughs Onstad. “But it’s not about style. Just win baby.”
After all, that is the goal. If the donut box brings out the Canadian in his side and Professor Popsicle’s percentages prove true, they’ll be one step closer to wintering in Qatar. One step closer to making more new history. At this point, Canadian blood can certainly be made from brandy.