On Wednesday, FC Dallas departed for Mexico, but this is no pleasure cruise for head coach Oscar Pareja and team. FCD is venturing south of the border to prepare for what might be the most important match in club history – the second leg of the 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) semifinals next Wednesday at CF Pachuca in Mexico.
On March 15, Dallas defeated Los Tuzos (the Gophers) 2-1 at Toyota Stadium, but this game will be a much different animal for FCD, mainly because of a factor we’re not accustomed to here in Frisco…. the altitude.
Pachuca sits 7,979 feet above sea level. Compare that to Denver, which is between 1,600 and 1,700 feet, the highest altitude FCD plays at during a normal Major League Soccer season. So, Dallas will spend most of the next week training in Puebla, at just over 7,000 feet, trying to acclimate their bodies in time to be ready for next Wednesday’s clash with Pachuca.
Pareja, who is a native of Colombia, knows a thing or two about what it’s like to play at such a high elevation, something he did rather regularly in South America prior to coming to MLS.
“I’ve played in Bolivia. I think that’s over 3,000 meters (9,843 feet),” Pareja said. “Sometimes you feel it, but I think at the same time, your heart and your mind has to be strong enough to handle it.”
While the primary goal of these training sessions is acclimating his players to the higher elevation, they must also prepare for what promises to be a fierce battle with Pachuca. The winner will advance to the CCL Finals and the loser of the two-game, aggregate-goals series, is out of the tournament. Pareja also wants to get several players returning from recent injuries as close to full fitness as possible.
Just trying to get the team together for five days before the game,” Pareja said. “At the same time, we’re acclimating the team to the altitude as much as we can, making sure that the things that we can control, we will do them right.”
Dallas can leave DFW early because its road match with Colorado at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, which was originally scheduled for Saturday, April 1, has been rescheduled for October. FCD captain Matt Hedges speaks for the entire team in saying that extra time they have in Mexico to properly acclimate to altitude should pay dividends come next Wednesday.
“The altitude is a real killer there,” Hedges said. “It’s several thousand feet higher than Denver, which is the highest place we play most of the time. So, I think getting there a couple days, maybe a week, early and training and getting acclimated will help us.”
The conventional school of thought for a team traveling to a game at a much higher elevation is to either travel in less than 24 hours before the game so that the effects of the higher elevation are minimized or to travel in a week before to get acclimated.
FCD is clearly doing the latter, a trip which Pareja sees as another outstanding opportunity for his team, which has several new faces, to become even closer as a group.
“We have a few guys that are new to the club, that always helps at this stage of the year, to jell with them by getting together to understand much more what we want, so that’s another thing that helps,” Pareja said.
Dallas traveled for a good part of their preseason, including a productive stay in Argentina that spanned over a week. It’s hard to argue with the results thus far, as through three league games, FCD has seven points, second-most in the Western Conference behind Portland who has played one more game. FCD currently leads MLS with 2.33 points per game.
A tightly-knit group was one reason in 2016 Dallas won the MLS Supporters’ Shield, given to the team finishing with the top regular-season record, for the first time in 2016 and also why FCD captured its second US Open Cup championship in club history. And, at least for the club’s captain, any chance to become closer as a unit is never a bad thing, especially this early in the season.
“Yeah, I think definitely spend a lot of time together in the hotel, at team meals, practices. Just being together for that week, it is really helpful,” Hedges said. “We saw that in Argentina. I think our team chemistry has been very good this season. This can only make it stronger.”