Mexico's 60-strong party, Canada's 'mind rooms,' Cuba's travel travails: Gold Cup's off-field challenges
HOUSTON -- Canada head coach John Herdman tells a story about the New Zealand women's national team's bus being hijacked in Papua New Guinea, the equipment stolen and the players left stranded.
The 43-year-old has been involved in more than 20 international tournaments over his career, and while this Gold Cup hasn't thrown up a story quite as extreme as a bus hijacking, for Herdman and the rest of the head coaches, backroom staff and players it has presented quite the challenge.
The level of competition in CONCACAF's Gold Cup may not be up there with the Copa America, the Euros or even the African Cup of Nations, but in terms of preparation and logistics, it's perhaps the toughest and most intriguing summer tournament out there this year.
Group A was particularly grueling, even though all the games have been held in the United States.
Mexico, Martinique, Canada and Cuba were subject to playing in the heat of the West Coast in Los Angeles, then the altitude of Denver, and finally the humidity of Charlotte, North Carolina. The group stage alone involved travel of 2,185 miles (3,516 kilometers), three different time zones and three games in the span of eight days. For any teams making the final in Chicago from Group A, it'll mean an odyssey of 5,575 miles (7,673 kilometers), five time zone changes and diverse climatic conditions.
There's not much you can do about glitches that complicate an already arduous schedule. For example, a technical problem with the plane that was transporting Mexico and Martinique from Denver to Charlotte led to a 10-hour delay on Thursday after the second group games; those teams rocked up at their hotels in North Carolina later than 5 a.m. on Friday.
Mexico coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino rationalized the episode as a freak incident when asked, but the teams have been using different ways of managing the strain on the players, largely in proportion to their means.
Mexico's Argentine coach heads a party of 60 with El Tri, with 15 extra members of the backroom staff compared to even 10 years ago. While Martino has been anti-rotation in his rhetoric, there were three changes for Mexico between the win over Cuba and the game against Canada, and then six changes from that second match to Sunday's 3-2 win over Martinique.
"When you play this type of championship, with three or four days between games, you look to recover the players, let them rest and work in doses in training," Martino said after the 7-0 win over Cuba.
But with a squad that has been plagued by injury concerns before and during the tournament, Martino is managing the group more than he lets on. For example, the Mexico manager didn't bring a player to the news conference in Pasadena ahead of Mexico's opener against Cuba, insisting that the travel would've involved a trip of up to three hours from the team hotel in Manhattan Beach, sources told ESPN FC.
In fact, no player has yet accompanied Martino at a news conference, perhaps because the squad hasn't trained in the stadium the day ahead of any game, instead doing so earlier at an alternate venue and then resting up the night before.
Canada has been homing in on the small details to prepare for the tournament, planning all the way back from a potential final and managing the group through each game using sports science.
"You've got an idea of your core group of players and the sports science team now looks at the risk assessment of those players, the accumulation of minutes right down to which players are affected most by altitude," Herdman told ESPN. "So our more explosive players, you can't put them on the pitch for a certain period of time if you want them to turn around."
He continued: "You can overthink it, but at the same time you almost have to overthink it and then come back to some simplicity. So for us on the sports science, we've had to look at how we manage the squad knowing that we don't have the depth of Mexico, where we could put two starting XIs out and guarantee a win against Cuba, so that Mexico game was managed carefully so we've got the energy level that's required when you come into heat [in Charlotte], which saps your energy and then you play a team that's not moving and if you stop moving you're in deep trouble."
Team captain Scott Arfield is unaccustomed to such conditions and long travel times, having been brought up and played all his career in the United Kingdom.
"In the U.K. you don't travel these distances, especially in Scotland ... this is the reason that I made this decision," the Rangers midfielder said ahead of the tournament. "If you overthink these things it has a massive bearing in your mind. You have to be aware of it, you have to respect it, but if you overthink these things then it has an adverse effect on your performance, not just individually but obviously as a team as well."
The mental side of coping has been mentioned regularly in camp and has also been key for Canada, who finished Group A with six points in second behind Mexico. At each of the three venues so far, specific mental coaches were brought in to complement the different mindsets required for each game.
"We had a military person in for the game against Mexico, which was about being in the fight and staying clear and together in adversity, and prior to that we had a different mental trainer," Herdman said. "We've targeted different mental trainers with different themes."
In addition there's a "mind room" set aside in the team's hotel, as well as activities like yoga offered to players in the evenings.
"It's all about ensuring that our players are training their brains to ultimately think clearly under pressure," Herdman said. "There's specific gadgets we've got, bio-neuro feedback that players are accessing and doing what we can to make sure they can survive the tournament, mentally and physically."
For Cuba and Martinique, limited resources hinder progress
The daily schedule can't be as detailed for the two Caribbean sides competing in the group.
The Cuban traveling party arrived in Los Angeles on the Thursday morning before the team's opening game against Mexico two days later. They had to travel to the Dominican Republic beforehand to apply for visas, with captain Yordan Santa Cruz denied his, reducing the squad to 22 before the team had even landed in the U.S.
"In reality they gave us the visas on Tuesday, so we couldn't travel here earlier," Cuba coach Raul Mederos said after the 7-0 loss to Mexico. "After that CONCACAF is in charge of the travel and they put it for Wednesday arriving here on Thursday."
Cuba's kits turned up only a day before the opening game, new captain Yasmani Lopez defected after a 7-0 loss to Mexico and Mederos admitted that he hadn't even seen Canada play on the eve of the game in Charlotte, a game for which just 17 players were listed amid talk of more players leaving camp. Cuba lost all three games, failing to score a single goal and conceding 17.
Martinique, not currently a FIFA member, had to raise money just to participate at the Gold Cup. The squad had a traveling party almost half the size of Mexico's, with only six full-time professional players in total.
"There were budget problems," Martinique defender Samuel Camille told ESPN Mexico. "The Gold Cup requires an important investment, not being a FIFA member means we receive less money."
"We called on the people of Martinique to help us economically and they achieved the target," Martinique defender Jean-Sylvain Babin said.
Babin and Camille both play in Spain and, along with the other pros in the group, brought boots, shirts and goalkeeping gloves left over from their clubs to camp to distribute among the rest of the Martinique players.
Coach Mario Bocaly stressed that recovery, stretching, hydration, proprioception and sleep management would all be important for standing up to the challenge of the group, but asked what specific sleep preparations the Martinique squad was using to prepare for the time zones, the manager made it clear a lot was left up to the players.
"No bedtime stories on our team!" Bocaly told ESPN FC. "They're not my children and they're not children. They're all grown men and outside of our set schedule, should be responsible of their own time."
A 3-2 loss to Gold Cup favorite Mexico was a dignified end to the tournament for the Caribbean side that faced some formidable odds.
Other groups have also provided specific logistical challenges, especially the trips to Costa Rica and Jamaica for initial group-stage games. Curacao warmed up for their already historic Gold Cup campaign by playing and winning the Kings Cup in Thailand, defeating Vietnam on penalties in the final on June 8, just nine days before losing 1-0 to El Salvador in Kingston, Jamaica.
This Gold Cup may not have the glitz and star names of the Copa America, but it has not lacked any intrigue off the pitch.