Two coaching legends who had their challenges coaching in the CCL in Central America: Bruce Arena and Sigi Schmid. (Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)
This 2011 Tropigol.com story was about MLS teams trying to overcome playing in Central America in the Concacaf Champions Cup. Sigi Schmid contributed to the article.
Welcome to the jungle
It gets worse here everyday
Ya learn ta live like an animal
In the jungle where we play
If you got a hunger for what you see
You,ll take it eventually
You can have anything you want
But you better not take it from me — Guns ‘N Roses
By Michael Lewis
Another Major League Soccer team is set to play south of Rio Grande in the CONCACAF Champions League when the LA Galaxy play at Morelia, Mexico on Tuesday.
Who knows what the team will find before, during and after the game?
When American or Canadian teams venture into unknown or even the known, players and coaches have learned to expect the unexpected, whether it is bags of urine or coins being thrown at players, police dogs, moats or having loud music played outside the team hotel at night.
Whether it has been for club or country, it has always been an adventure for U.S. and Canadian sides, probably more so for the National Team rather than a club team.
“You first have to go through a mental realization that comes from a history,” said former U.S. international defender and current ESPN commentator Alexi Lalas, who has played down there for club [Galaxy] and country. “There is all this folklore about the atmosphere, the crowd, the heat, the pollution, the crazy beyond Thunderdome type of environment that is down there. A lot of it is true, but a lot of it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy to a certain extent.’ ”
Some of it is gamesmanship, sometimes its pre-gamesmanship.
“It’s always a challenge on almost every level — the logistics of lodging, travel, heat, venue, gamesmanship, refereeing,” LA Galaxy associate coach Dave Sarachan said. “It’s always a challenge as a team mentally to make sure everyone’s pretty much prepared that if it can go wrong, it likely will. Mentally, that’s a huge obstacle to make sure we’re on top of. You go in with some expectation, but you have to be flexible. There are some things that change, always on the fly.”
Seattle Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid has traveled in Central America, first with the Galaxy during its successful CONCACAF Champions Cup run a decade ago and then as coach of the U.S. Under-20 team and eventually with the Seattle in the CCL.
So, he has been there and done that.
All of the dominoes have to be lined up in a row and be ready to turn to Plan B, C, D or even Z — on the fly.
“You have to do your homework,” he said. “You have to double check to make sure things are there, the buses, the stadiums are arranged.”
Last year the Sounders had an issue on the question of having lights to train at night.
“We had to have negotiations,” Schmid said. “It’s unique issues from the ground. Grass is longer. The conditions are heavier. You have to get used to that. Locker rooms and all of that are a lot more spartan and a lot more . . . basic. For some of the players there for the first time, it is an eye opener.”
It certainly was for Sarachan when he was an assistant national coach to Bruce Arena (who is now the Galaxy coach) during 2002 World Cup qualifying in July 2000.
On back-to-back weekends, the U.S. played in Guatemala and Costa Rica, not exactly the best way to kick off any sort of competition, whether it be club or country.
“With the national team, everything gets ramped up at the highest level you can imagine,” Sarachan said.
The game, originally scheduled Mateo Flores National Stadium in Guatemala City, was changed to Carlos Salazar Stadium in Mazatenango, a small city on the Pacific Coast almost 150 miles from the capital city. Mazatenango’s weather is usually hotter and more humid, so it was a strategic move.
“The further we went, the deeper into to the forest jungle it seemed,” Sarachan said. “So, now you’re dealing with heat. The lodging was different. To be fair, the food and all that was fine. It was a whole different environment that you have to be prepared for.”
The match was played in the jungle and near an extinct volcano. Sarachan remembered the U.S. team staying at a “fairly nice resort, but they were like little huts, little two-person bungalows.”
Not that the American players were going to get much sleep.
“Once midnight hit, they brought trucks around and had huge amplifiers and just played music for four hours outside those bungalows,” Sarachan said. “The air conditioning didn’t work great. It is always that stuff. Never violent, really, just enough to try to throw you off, them making sure that you know that this game means something.”
The U.S. tied that match, 1-1, on a late goal by Guatemalan striker Carlos Ruiz.
A week later, the U.S. was back in the tropics, this time in Costa Rica. While this Central American country has plenty of lush green country sides, trees and jungles, this confrontation was held in the boiling cauldron called Estadio Saprissa.
The U.S. also dropped that encounter, 2-1 on a phantom handball called on defender Gregg Berhalter that was turned into the game-winning penalty kick late in the match.
“People were throwing stuff at us,” Sarachan said. “Our locker room underneath [where the most fervent supporters are] where you literally couldn’t hear yourself speak. That was another interesting trip, too.”
Sarachan remembered when the U.S. showed up in which there was a line of 40-50 policemen on horseback that formed a line for the team. The players and team officials still got “pelted with rocks and all sort of crap,” he said.
“In all my experiences, I was never in an environment like that,” he added. Even though they changed to artificial surface and the environment is still the same.”
Future World Cup qualifiers are expected to be played at the new national stadium in nearby San Jose.
“If they want to put U.S. in the National Stadium, by all means, this is fine by me,” Sarachan said.
Indeed. Lalas has been pelted by coins, bags of urine and batteries. He and his teams have been protected by police dogs, moats and policeman with machine guns.
“You definitely do not see the sights when you go on these trips,” he said. “You are down there for one purpose alone. You go from the airport to the hotel and to the hotel to the stadium, play the game and you’re out of there. It is as much business as you possibly can. but its a real insulated type of adventure.”
Lalas then laughed.
It certainly was no laughing matter when former U.S. international goalkeeper Tony Meola and his teammates wound up trapped in a hotel elevator for two hours in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, for a World Cup qualifier against El Salvador in 1989. The game had been moved from El Salvador.
“I swore that was the Honduras team [behind it],” Meola said. “We had to climb through the top of the elevator and we had to climb up a floor. We got to the stadium 20 minutes before the game. I’ll never forget that. There were 11 of us. I am a little bit claustrophobic.”
The U.S. went out and defeated El Salvador, 1-0.
But there were other concerns as well. As Meola warmed up for the game, he was about to take a drink from a bottle left on the field. However, the late David Vanole, a goalkeeper on that team, intervened.
“He started screaming, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing?” Meola said. “I said, ‘What the hell is wrong?’ he said, ‘Don’t rink the water from the bottles they put behind the goal.’ And from that point on, I never did, even at home games in New York and Kansas City. I never drank from a water bottle.”
U.S. and Canadian teams have had difficult winning in Central America and Mexico for decades, although Dallas and Toronto made some history last month. Beyond the gamesmanship, there is another reason — some of these teams are damn good, Lalas said.
“Sometimes that is often the last thing that is mentioned. By the way, you’re playing some pretty good competition, some good teams. . . . You get a couple of rounds in and you’re facing stiff competition. Add all of the other stuff, all of the other baggage that comes and it’s not easy.”
So, when you play in Mexico or Central America, don’t expect to win many awards for beautiful football. The Galaxy won its first two games in the Champions League.
“It is about results, first and foremost,” Sarachan said. “If you can get results by making the attempt to play soccer the way you would be picturing it, where its possession, there’s movement, both sides of the ball are active. that’s all a bonus. But at the end of the day, it’s clearly about points, it’s clearly about results.
“Sometimes those games require just rolling up your sleeves and not about pretty soccer. We understand that.”
Given his experience in down south, Schmid was asked what sort of advice he would offer a team venturing into the jungle.
Bring your own — as in toilet paper.
It may sound crazy, but Central American locker rooms aren’t always furnished with that vital piece of material.
“The most unique challenge in Central America is make sure your equipment guy brings toilet paper,” said Schmid, whose team realized there was no toilet paper at a game last year.
“It sounds like a stupid request, but we needed it last year,” he said.
After all, you don’t want to get wiped out south of the Rio Grande in more ways than one.