Forewarned is forearmed and clearly, at some stage in late November, Gregg Berhalter and US Soccer sat down, ran the tape, looked through the Edmonton squalls and saw in the frozen Mexican faces all the warning they needed.
In truth they could have saved themselves 90 minutes and read the French advice. Just 19 words of it. “To survive the Canadian winter, one needs a body of brass, eyes of glass, and blood made of brandy.”
Louis Armand de Lom d’Arce’s offering was published in the early 1700s but as Canada and the US men meet for their most consequential encounter for a generation, the message still sounds clear through winter’s air. Not least because the exploration that sparked such trauma in the third Baron Lahontan is within a stone’s throw of Sunday’s venue.
Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, a stadium sponsored by the country’s beloved coffee chain in a city about 70km south of Toronto, has no great footballing history. This potentially pivotal 2022 World Cup qualifier will in fact be the first time Canada’s senior men have pitched up at the stadium for a competitive international. But John Herdman’s young team are all about creating new stories, new history.
When they did just that in November, turning Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium into the Iceteca and vanquishing Mexico in a qualifier for the first time since 1976, Canada’s coach pointed to the piles of pitch-side snow and the mercury bottoming out at -9C (16F) with a wind chill of -14C (7F).
“Every country uses the terrain to their advantage,” the Englishman said after his finest night yet had seen Canada surge to the top of the Concacaf standings. “We see this as an advantage. There was a genuine opportunity here to bring out the Canadian in our players. They’ve all grown up on plastic pitches in cold conditions so for us, we wanted them to feel like it was home.”
So, having brought out the Canadian in his side at the Iceteca, it’s safe to assume that Herdman wants to do something similar on Sunday by choosing to bring the US to Hamilton. Perhaps hoping a place locals call The Donut Box comes with extra frosting. Forecasted conditions predict 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 positivity and belief that is in marked contrast to almost everything that has come before for the men’s team. But is there justification in his apparent belief that bringing Berhalter’s side to the wide open expanses of Tim Hortons Field, rather than taking things indoors in Vancouver, presents Canada with an advantage? Put simpler … great white north or great white lie?
“Well … the more you are exposed to cold the better you may deal with it,” Dr Gordon Giesbrecht tells the Guardian. The University of Manitoba physiologist is the planet’s leading authority on freezing to death. Due to his remarkable research projects he is known as Professor Popsicle. “Our normal response to cold is vasoconstriction, or decreasing blood flow to the skin. So adaptation to continual exposure decreases that. It makes your skin warmer, your hands and feet more functional. Also your receptors will be warmer so you won’t be feeling that cold as much. That in itself will help you cope psychologically.
“You know, we’re Canadian, we’re tough. There’s no question that Canadians think they’re tougher than anyone else when it comes to cold. So there’s some of that. It could be a couple of percentages but who knows.”
Giesbrecht, whose research has included injecting ice water into his veins, corrected that Sunday’s cold wouldn’t qualify as “extreme”. Berhalter, though, clearly wasn’t going to take any chances. The US opted to acclimatize and host the qualifiers either side of Sunday in cold-weather cities – against El Salvador on Thursday night in Columbus and bringing Honduras to Minnesota on Wednesday. Canada flew back home from their qualifier in Honduras, where daytime temperatures were around 28C (82F), on Thursday.
Ultimately the science has largely shown coping in the cold to be a matter of mind.
“As soon as your body temperature comes up, there aren’t a whole pile of physiological advantages for someone who lives or trains in a cold environment versus someone coming in from a warmer environment,” Christopher Minson, a physiology professor who studies the body’s response to extreme environments at the University of Oregon, tells the Guardian.
Minson works with professional teams and Olympic athletes to help them manage extremes. The progress of players from the US and Canada means the majority of both squads now avoid extremes – by playing in Europe. Sixteen of Canada’s squad are with European clubs to 14 Americans.
Nonetheless both physiologists suggested Canadians who spent significant chunks of their lives here would retain those cold weather benefits, particularly in terms of mindset. Essentially, once Sunday’s battle warms up all things are equal – apart from the mind. Canadian striker Cyle Larin’s facial hair may freeze over but it will be nothing new to a player whose club career took him to Turkey but was born and raised in the Toronto area. On the flip side, rapidly icing whiskers may perturb Californian midfielder Sebastian Lletget, for example.
“If you’re more accustomed to it, you’re more relaxed,” adds Minson. “You’re not going to have that fear in the mind. I’m a physiologist by trade. I’ve been doing this a long time. But I’m going to say it’s the brain. A large 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 may control it better by breathing through the nose and avoiding gulps.
From altitude at the Azteca to the heat and humidity of Central America and the Caribbean, Concacaf qualification has always been affected by environmental factors. The pandemic-squeezed schedule combining with Canada’s emergence as the most improved team in the region and the world has brought a new factor in from the cold. This is the first competitive January-February qualifying window for the Canadians since 1985, when they were en route to making it to their solitary men’s World Cup.
Berhalter seems acutely aware that psychological strength will decide a lot. “It’s a mindset,” he said. “I’ve played in Germany with short sleeves. Once you get running, once you get sweating, you’ll be ready to go.”
Berhalter’s former long-time assistant at Columbus Crew, Pat Onstad, was part of multiple Canadian generations for whom winters were barren and inactive.
“I remember playing one in November but it was a nothing game against Mexico,” Onstad, whose time in Canada’s goal spanned from 1988 to 2010, tells the Guardian. “It was in Toronto and it started snowing in the second half and I remember thinking ‘God, I wish this game mattered’. Now these games do matter.”
Onstad, general manager of MLS side Houston Dynamo, argues that given their wealth of young attacking talent, Canada don’t need conditions on their side. Naturally, he spares a thought for the goalkeepers. Milan Borjan continued his emergence as a Canadian cult favourite that night at the Iceteca when the keeper donned grey sweatpants and a snood-turned-babushka-headscarf.
“No lonelier place [than in goals] and no colder place,” laughs Onstad. “But it’s not about style. Just win baby.”
That, ultimately, is the aim. If the Donut Box brings out the Canadian in his side and the percentages of Professor Popsicle prove true, they’ll be one step closer to wintering in Qatar. One step closer to making more new history. At which time Canadian blood may well be made of brandy.