It's "winter" in the southern hemisphere, and in Eastern Brazil the earliest sunset of the year occurred just three weeks ago. So when the United States men's national team takes the Arena das Dunas' field tonight at 6 p.m. EST against Ghana in the squad's opening match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, it won't be under the blazing Brazilian sun. While it will be 84 during the day, the forecast calls for around 72 in the evening, the perfect temperature for a soccer match.
The humidity tells a different story.
While the rain, which poured down for three straight days, finally stopped on Sunday, the stickiness in the air didn't abate at all. Today, it's actually supposed to jump from 74 percent during the day to 86 percent at night (which is significantly higher than the average humidity in Bellingham, Washington, the U.S. city with the highest humidity level.) That, my friends, makes for some sweaty soccer.
The American team has been preparing for this since January. They are one of the fittest teams in the tournament and know that's their route to beating an opponent who might be more technically skilled. "When you can take that factor [fitness] out of the game and know that your fitness is under control and you don't have to worry about it, then you can worry about other things on the field, the soccer aspect of the game," Graham Zusi told me back at the January camp.
The conditions may play into the Americans’ favor. "We've played in this during qualifying. We've trained in Miami. Everyone is adapted and accustomed to know what to expect," center back Geoff Cameron said. Meanwhile, the playmakers from Ghana include Kevin Prince-Boateng, Jordan Ayew, and Kwadwo Asamoah, who call the top leagues in Europe home, where they play in cool conditions on beautiful fields. Many of the Americans, of course, call Major League Soccer home, and are used to playing games in Houston in the summer.
When the Americans arrived in Brazil, they brought along an 11-member performance staff—including a strength and fitness coach, four trainers, two doctors, two equipment managers, one chef, and one nutritionist—to help prepare the U.S. players to deal with what they will face on the field. Masa Sakihana, the fitness coach, knows it's hard to give the players instructions once they are on the field, but he has time between the halves. "When they come back to the locker room at halftime we can give them things to make them a little more energized," he says. "We can help them to sustain energy a little bit more." (He won’t divulge what those things are.)
The weather is only going to get worse, however, when the U.S. heads to Manaus for the second game against Portugal. "It's crazy not having timeouts. We had to dial back our rhythm to catch our breath,” said Italy’s coach Cesare Prandelli, referring to his team’s victory on Saturday against England in Manaus. “It was impossible to maintain the intensity."
Of course, the losing team agreed.
“All European teams are going to suffer," England manager Roy Hodgson said.