By Glenn Crooks
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It was April of 1991, and I was embarking on my first trip to Lake Placid, N.Y., to play in the Soccer America Dawn-to-Dusk Festival. This was a high-level indoor event, and I was looking forward both to the competition and the camaraderie. Some of the teams garnered nicknames, and my team was affectionately called the “Teuchters” — a Scottish term for which “uncouth” is one of the kinder translations.
At the tail end of my drive north from New Jersey, I made a sharp turn when suddenly the ski jump tower — where 11 years earlier Finland’s Jouko Törmänen won gold at the 1980 Winter Olympics — emerged from above the tree line. It was a Friday night and we were competing the next morning in the village of Lake Placid.
What a thrill it was to soon march onto the 1980 Rink, home of the ”Miracle on Ice,” in which national heroes Mike Eruzione, Herb Brooks and Jim Craig helped defeat the Russians in a historic event later captured in the 2004 movie, “Miracle.”
I had been warned weeks prior to the festival that it would be best to prepare for the effects of altitude. At the rink, we were at a mere 1,800 feet above sea level. Over at Whiteface Mountain, where Lichtenstein took home the most medals in the ’80 alpine events, the elevation eclipses 4,000 feet.
High altitude, as it is defined by MedicineNet.com, is from 8,000-12,000 feet above sea level, and its effects on the human body can be quite damaging. Consider that the Estadio Hernando Siles is at nearly 12,000 feet and has long been a home-field benefit for the Bolivian national team. Just ask Argentina master Lionel Messi, who reacted as if he had been drinking like a Teuchter when he heaved up his lunch in a 2013 World Cup qualifier.
Altitude sickness is common at those elevations — but at 1,800 feet? I was a fairly fit man in my early 30s when I prepared to take my first shift on the pitch in Lake Placid. I recalled Eruzione’s late goal which led Al Michaels to famously proclaim, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” The miracle I experienced after stepping onto the carpeted surface was getting back to the bench area mere minutes into my shift. My lungs were burning and I was gasping.
What I learned was that less oxygen was being driven from my lungs into the blood. For athletes in superior condition, altitude will have little effect on the body up to 4,921 feet (which is why two of my friends who were in top physical condition were guffawing as I stumbled back to the bench).
New York City FC, coming off an invigorating triumph over MLS Cup finalist New England in front of 43,000 boisterous supporters at Yankee Stadium, flew to Denver on Thursday in preparation for the Colorado Rapids – at altitude. Dick’s Sporting Goods Park is approximately 5,280 feet above sea level, or at a point where the body may suffer the effects of altitude even among the fittest of athletes.
“The altitude can play a factor for sure,” explained Jason Kreis, who experienced some difficulties in Denver as a player for FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake. “When I played I felt like I had dry mouth all the time. And you can tend to get fatigued quicker in the second half.”
NYCFC rookie Khiry Shelton played youth soccer in Denver for the Colorado Storm before moving to Texas.
“When I moved from Colorado to Texas it was easier to breathe,” said Shelton, the second overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft. “Then when I traveled back to Colorado for academy matches, it really affected me.”
VO2 max testing — now a standard function of sports science — reflects the aerobic fitness of an individual, and is an important determinant of their endurance capacity during a match. VO2 max decreases significantly at the elevation in Denver. Empirical studies indicate that an athlete would need approximately two weeks to acclimate to the elevation in the “Mile-High City.” There are some who suggest four to six weeks at a minimum, while others specify that no matter how long one prepares, you cannot ever fully adapt to the altitude.
I have often read about those who brave the hazardous conditions of the climb up to the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest point. Mountaineers spend days, sometimes weeks, at certain elevations to better acclimate before resuming their ascent. In Major League Soccer, the teams heading to Denver do not have the occasion to prepare in the same manner.
“I’ve been around the acclimation discussion with seven years at Real Salt Lake,” said Kreis, though the elevation is 1,000 feet less in Salt Lake City than in Denver. “We feel like the right decision is to go as early as we can and train out there.”
Some professional teams have a different approach, and set a travel schedule that allows them to arrive at altitude within 24 hours of competition. Little acclimation will have taken place, but the classic symptoms of altitude stress will not have had time to manifest themselves, according to multiple studies. The Oakland Raiders have traditionally arrived for their games against the Denver Broncos within the 24-hour contest phase.
For New York City back Chris Wingert, it makes little sense to generalize about the effects of altitude.
“Everybody’s different,” said Wingert, who spent seven years at RSL with Kreis. “I don’t think it’s too much of a factor unless you make it a factor.”
But the statistics would say otherwise. Since their inaugural season in 1996, Colorado has a home record of 146-73-6, or a .667 winning percentage. On the road, the Rapids have won but .299 percent of their matches (70-164-4) over that same period. The Denver Nuggets, with their uptempo style, have won 67.6 percent of their home games since the 2001-02 season, while just 39.5 on the road. That’s the widest gap among all NBA franchises over that span.
While the Rapids’ home formula will favor setting a high tempo attack, Kreis’ side must regulate their effort over 90 minutes. Physiologically, it is the sprints repeated over and over with short recovery periods that will work against the visitors.
“Hopefully, we’ll have a lot of the ball,” said Wingert. “Then we won’t have to worry about tiring ourselves too much.”
As for the ‘91 Teuchters, we won the Dawn-to-Dusk Festival with yours truly clearing the potential equalizer off the line with under a minute to play. That was my “Miracle on a Carpet.”
Glenn Crooks is the color commentator for New York City FC on WFAN and the former head soccer coach at Rutgers University. You can follow him on Twitter at @GlennCrooks and glenncrooks.sportsblog.com.