While the United States Men’s National Team couldn’t neutralize every aspect of Mexico’s home field advantage on Sunday night, the team’s strategy to adjust to altitude played a key role in building fitness before the match. The more obvious parts of the strategy included holding camp in Denver (5,280 feet above sea level) over two weeks to get the players used to playing at altitude. Playing a friendly against Venezuela last week in Salt Lake City (4,226 feet) and scheduling the Trinidad & Tobago match in Denver also was part of the plan.
High altitude is difficult to prepare for and every person reacts differently to physical exertion when there is less barometric pressure so the body is less able to perform oxygen exchange between the lungs and the blood. This reduces an athlete’s ability to reach their VO2 max and perform at top level. Mexico City’s altitude (7,382 feet) would reduce performance by a bit less than 10%.
In order to help the USMNT players adjust to the altitude and prepare for the match, MLS released National Team players early. This gave the team more time to practice and form a game plan ahead of the qualifiers and allowed players a sufficient opportunity to acclimate to the altitude which takes about two weeks. In addition to that, Sports Illustrated reported that Daniel Guzmán, a fitness coach, and the federation’s high-performance director James Bunce had the players sleeping in high altitude simulation tents to prepare their bodies for the rigors of alpine soccer.
The innovative preparation strategy shows how much the U.S. prepared for the game and the lengths that they went to get the result at Azteca.