Landon Donovan on Saprissa Stadium: “I was never ever part of a game like that, so much passion literally. In the locker room, the stadium was shaking. There is such an intimidation factor that they use to their advantage that you don’t see anywhere else in the world, even in big European games.” (www.AndyMead/YCJPhoto)
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
When the U.S. men’s national team ventures to Central America for World Cup qualifiers, the players are not only battling the team on the field.
There are plenty of issues and distractions off the pitch, such as transportation problems, local supporters blaring loud music outside the team hotel at night, moats around the field and trying to avoid flying projectiles and even bags of urine and coins hurled at the Gringos.
In September, the USA will tackle not one but two matches in Central America. For the first time in 21 years, the United States will play two World Cup qualifiers. The Americans travel to El Salvador to kick off the 14-game series on Sept. 2. After hosting Canada in Nashville, Tenn. Sept. 5, the Americans will return to Central America visiting Honduras Sept. 8.
Who knows what the USMNT will find before, during and after the games?
Perhaps former U.S. international defender Jeff Agoos put it into the proper perspective.
“It’s part sport, part war, part theater,” he told the Washington Post years ago. “The best way to describe a qualifying game on the road is like watching the old Roman warriors fend for their lives. . . . You just want to get in there, do your job and get out of there.”
Whether it has been for club or country, it has always been an adventure for U.S. sides, probably more so for the USMNT 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 FOX commentator Alexi Lalas, who played in Central America for club (LA 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,” former USMNT 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.”
The late Sigi Schmid 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 Sounders in the Concacaf Champions League.
“You have to do your homework,” Schmid told this writer years ago. “You have to double check to make sure things are there, the buses, the stadiums are arranged.”
In 2010, the Sounders had an issue on whether they could have lights turned on 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.”
When you’re in Central America, you need to have Plans A, B, C or D because there are plenty of surprises.
It certainly was for Sarachan when he was an assistant national coach to Bruce Arena (currently the New England Revolution coach) during qualifying for the 2002 World Cup 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.
“With the national team, everything gets ramped up at the highest level you can imagine,” Sarachan said.
The first 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 USMNT 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, as a late goal by striker Carlos Ruiz salvaged a point for the hosts.
A week later, the U.S. returned the tropics 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. dropped that encounter, 2-1 on a phantom handball called on defender Gregg Berhalter – yes, the same Gregg Berhalter who is the current USA head coach – that was turned into the game-winning penalty kick late in the match.
Referee Peter Prendergast of Jamaica called a phantom hand ball in the penalty area on Berhalter two minutes into stoppage time of a 1-1 deadlock. Berhalter, who was defending with both his hands behind his back, headed the ball out of bounds. According to television replays, it appeared the ball accidentally hit Berhalter in the upper arm area after he had headed the ball. Many game officials usually won’t make the call unless it was intentional.
Hernan Medford converted the ensuing penalty kick past goalkeeper Kasey Keller and several minutes later Costa Rica walked off with a controversial 2-1 victory.
“It was early on in my National Team career,” Berhalter said. “It was something that was an eye opener. Some decisions go your way and some decisions don’t go your way. That was an eye opener because it was a reality of what could happen in that environment. That’s just part of the game. Getting over that, not reacting the way we did, putting it in the past. It’s unfortunate that the ref called it. I remember, after heading it, then all of a sudden the ref pointed to the penalty spot.”
The Purple Monster
Saprissa is situated in the Tibas neighborhood of Heredia just outside the Costa Rican capital. Parking is next to impossible as fans walk blocks or even miles to root for their favorite team.
What has made this ground different from the others is the fans, who can be quite voracious when they want to be. They are loud and can make Toronto FC fans seem like petty litterers when they have thrown streamers onto the BMO Field.
Saprissa’s fans are notorious for their intimidation, as some 24,000 fans sounding more like 50K, which strikes fear into the hearts of its opposition.
“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 for a game 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.”
Added forward Brian Ching, who had lost there with the USMNT and the Houston Dynamo: “The atmosphere is electric. The stadium seems to move and be alive with the fans. “And they really create a home-field advantage for their team.”
Call it what you want — the Purple Monster — purple is the team’s color – the Cave, the Cauldron or the Pit, the place where the U.S. has never won.
Just ask former USMNT great Landon Donovan, who remembered his first Saprissa experience during a 2-0 qualifying loss in 2001.
“I was never ever part of a game like that, so much passion literally,” he said. “In the locker room, the stadium was shaking. There is such an intimidation factor that they use to their advantage that you don’t see anywhere else in the world, even in big European games. You don’t see the same environment you see in some of these places.”
For the record, the U.S. never earned a World Cup point out of six games at Saprissa. Since then the Americans have squared off with the Ticos at Estadio Nacional, losing both encounters.
Lalas has been pelted by coins, bags of urine and batteries. He and his teams have been protected by police dogs, moats and policemen 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 September 1989. The game had been moved from El Salvador due to fan violence at a qualifier.
Watch out for elevators and water bottles
“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 Meola, then 20, 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 difficulty winning in Central America and Mexico for decades, although Dallas and Toronto made some history with key CCL victories in 2011. 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.”
While not in Central America, the USA has had more than its share of experiences in Mexico.
Walter Chyzowych, the coach of the U.S. team, remembered how poor the conditions were in Mexico during 1978 WCQ, in his 1982 book, The World Cup.
“The bus that was to take us to the training round arrived one hour late,” he wrote. “Upon arriving at the field, the gate was locked, and the players were forced to climb the wall. The team had a 35-minute workout before darkness set in — hardly enough.
“We were told the game would be played at noon the next day. Prior to departure, the kickoff time was changed to 3 p.m. Upon arriving at the stadium at 1:30 p.m., the Canadian referee, in a rush, informed us that we had 30 minutes to prepare for kickoff, which was apparently now at 2 p.m. After a frantic dressing and taping scene in the American locker room, the team made the official kickoff time without a warmup and was down 2-0 within 20 minutes.”
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
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, ahem, get wiped out south of the Rio Grande in more ways than one.