Canada froze out Mexico in World Cup soccer qualifier in Edmonton. Will it happen again in Hamilton?

It’s not necessarily fun playing soccer in the extreme cold. In fact, Jelani Smith, head of soccer operations for Hamilton’s Forge FC, says it’s “difficult” and “very unsettling.”

But when Canada’s men’s national soccer team meets the U.S. at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton on Jan. 30 for a World Cup qualifying game, Smith said, the deep-freeze conditions will most likely challenge the visiting team. 

“They’re in the off season, so they’re not coming in top shape and then … they’re leaving pre-seasons from warmer places, so Arizona, Florida or California,” Smith, a former professional player, told CBC Hamilton.

“Having to come back here and having to deal with the weather in Hamilton outdoors would be very difficult, giving the Canadian team the advantage.” 

The World Cup is expected to take place in November and December in Qatar, with qualifiers underway. 

For the Hamilton game, playing in the cold at the end of January would be unpleasant — for both teams. 

“Inclement weather always makes it difficult, but playing in the cold is a particularly difficult task from a player’s standpoint,” Smith said. “Having to get warm, having to stay warm, having to stay mobile and flexible throughout the game — it’s difficult in the cold weather.” 

Last Jan. 30 in Hamilton, the temperature ranged from –4 to –11 C with the wind chill, according to Environment Canada. 

“Obviously, in regards to the guys [sitting on] the benches, it’s just painful or bitterly cold to be not in motion, and the guys that are on their field, especially their breathing, any time you have cold weather it’s a bit harder to breathe and harder on the lungs.”

Jelani Smith, head of soccer operations at Forge FC, believes the cold weather gives Canada an advantage in the game against the U.S. (Submitted by Nico Correa)

Smith said playing in the cold affects virtually every part of the body.

“Your feet are frozen, it’s harder to breathe, your hands are cold, a lot of congestion happens, your chest starts to hurt, the humidity is not there — so those conditions always affect game play.”

‘It really shocks your muscles’

Jayashree Pathak, goalkeeper for the McMaster University women’s soccer team from Hamilton — has been in competitive soccer for 16 years and has first-hand experience playing in the cold. 

Pathak, 22, has been on teams including Aurora League 1, King City Royals and Unionville Soccer Club.

She said some of her games were “in pretty cold weather.”

“When we went to nationals in my second year [at McMaster] … there was snow on the field on our game day.”

Pathak said her most recent time playing in the cold was when her team met Nipissing University in North Bay, Ont., in October.

“It really shocks your muscles in a lot of ways because when you warm up, you’re literally like warming up. You’re warming up your body, your muscles,” she said. 

“That cold. It’s kind of counter, you know, counters that process. So, it’s a lot of constantly keeping your body moving.” 

Jayashree Pathak, the goalkeeper for McMaster University’s women’s soccer team from Hamilton, has been playing competitive soccer for 16 years. (Submitted by Jayashree Pathak)

Pathak believes the Canadian team will have the advantage playing in the cold.

“When you grow up playing Canadian soccer, you’re used to playing in all kinds of weather, and that, I think, gives the advantage, of having that kind of experience,” she said.

“When you’re a kid in Canada playing soccer, you play in all kinds of environments, so you kind of become more and more accustomed to it.”

Special permission needed for leggings

Smith said team managers and equipment staff will generally give the players gloves and under armour for their upper bodies, but special permission is needed for leggings.

“Some of the guys wear neck warmers,” Smith said, adding that hats aren’t allowed “unless you’re maybe a keeper.” 

“Sometimes we try to get the heating pads for their hands and feet [pouches that insert into gloves and shoes], but it really depends on regulations from the governing bodies if they allow them to wear leggings. If they do, the leggings have to match the shorts, but generally you don’t see players playing in leggings.” 

Smith said the soccer ball is also affected by extreme cold.

“The ball itself feels more like a rock because it loses some of the elasticity. It’s not fun, to say the least,” he said. 

“From personal experience, it is very unpleasant. It’s just your feet are numb, right? And striking anything or even any motion that that senses is very unpleasant and unsettling … it literally feels like you’re kicking stones sometimes, and it just makes it unbearable.”

Home-team advantage

Canada beat Costa Rica in Edmonton on Nov. 12. The game was played in warmer conditions of 1 C.

On Nov. 16, Team Canada beat Mexico 2-1, also in Edmonton, where snow was piled up on the side of the pitch.

The Hamilton game could be one of the coldest in the series. 

“I think it will be unsettling for the U.S. national team to come here. A lot of players are either playing in warmer climates in Europe or the U.K., and if not, other players are playing [Major League Soccer],” said Smith.  

“It was evident Edmonton made the Mexican team very, very, very uncomfortable when they’re playing through it, not to mention the surface at Commonwealth isn’t the best, either,” he added.

The strength and conditioning coach for Forge FC, Jacob Miller, agreed the cold would be an advantage for Canada against the U.S.

Canada celebrates its 4-1 victory over Panama following World Cup qualifying action in Toronto in October. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

“I think that’s probably the case, just given that the body adapts to the things that it’s been exposed to,” Miller said.

“We’ve had, even just recently going through the playoffs here just a short time ago … some very cold temperatures. 

“It would be safe to assume that we’ll be much more acclimated to those conditions than the opposition might be,” Miller added. 

Capacity limit uncertain

It’s not clear if the home-team Canadians will have the benefit of a full-capacity crowd to cheer them on.

The City of Hamilton confirmed this week that while there is a capacity limit of 50 per cent for spectator events, under pandemic rules, it’s only set until Jan. 26. 

Tickets for the game — in a venue that holds around 24,000 — sold out quickly, as CBC reported in December. 

“As of now, I think all things are a go until we hear anything different,” Smith said. 

Either way, “it will be an exciting opportunity for Hamilton sports,” said Smith. 

“I know that Hamilton is a big sports city with Forge FC being there, with the Ticats being there. Being able to host a World Cup qualifier in a game that’s so important versus a viable and competing country … it’s exciting for Hamilton, for Tim Hortons Field and for Canada soccer,” he said. 

“I think we need to get everyone we can out in droves. Hopefully it’s not too cold for the fans, but cold for the U.S. guys.”

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