TFC prepared for Colorado’s altitude advantage in Champions League

Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore (17) celebrates with forward Sebastian Giovinco (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO – A chilly reception awaits Toronto FC in the opening leg of its round of 16 series against the Colorado Rapids in the CONCACAF Champions League.

Tuesday’s forecast for the Denver area calls for temperatures as high as -7 C, and a low of -15 C. There’s very little TFC can do about the cold weather, aside from ensuring its players are properly dressed at the time of kick-off. Simply put, they just have to deal with the frigid temperatures.

But the Reds have taken steps to combat the other major environmental factor at play in Tuesday’s tilt: the altitude.

Sitting roughly 5,200 feet above sea level, Dick’s Sporting Goods Park has been touted as a distinct home-field advantage for the Colorado Rapids ever since it opened in 2007. The Rapids’ home stadium has long believed to be a major obstacle for opposing teams – visiting players who are not accustomed to playing at altitude are thought to tire and fatigue more quickly because there is less oxygen.

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To that end, TFC spent part of its pre-season training camp earlier this month in Mexico City. The Mexican capital is over 7,300 feet above sea level, and it was there that the Reds not only practiced, but played four exhibition games against teams from Mexico.

The trip to Mexico City not only allowed TFC to prepare for its Champions League opener, but also acclimatize to playing at altitude ahead of Tuesday’s match.

“Denver, you feel [the effects of the altitude] a little bit, but you can run through it, for sure. It’s not something that totally kills you. Obviously, having spent the time in Mexico City, we feel like we’re as prepared as we can be. In the 14 days leading into this game in Denver, we will have spent 11 of those days at altitude, and a good number of those days at an altitude even higher than Denver,” TFC captain Michael Bradley explained.

Experienced players such as Bradley have played at altitude before, so there will be no surprises for him. TFC’s captain also hinted that the altitude factor often gets blown out of proportion, an opinion shared by coach Greg Vanney.

“It’s there. I’m don’t know how much of an advantage percentage wise [the altitude] gives you,” Vanney said, while also admitting that “playing in Colorado has its challenges.”

For Vanney, overcoming the altitude is partly a mental issue, that players have it in their head that it’s a bigger issue than it really is because it’s always talked about whenever the Rapids get set to play a home game.

Goalkeeper Clint Irwin, who used to play for Colorado, made that same point when speaking to local reporters two years ahead of a TFC road trip to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.

“I think it’s more mental than anything,” Irwin said at the time. “It’s not necessarily physiological, at least in my opinion. When we were there we tried to play it up as much as possible, but I think it’s more of a psychological factor than anything.”

Still, playing at altitude does take some adjustments.

“At altitude, there’s less oxygen available, and so the challenge is in recovery. You don’t recover as fast, so if you make one sprint or two sprints, then the recovery to then be able to make the third or fourth sprint, it takes a little bit longer because you have less available oxygen,” Vanney explained.

“At the beginning of a game and when you are working through your first wind, you feel [the effects] pretty quick. Then you go through a good stretch of the game where you’re alright, and then when you get towards the end of a game you start to feel it again because your body has put in quite a bit of work and you’re trying to recover after being fatigued.”

Vanney also warned that the ball can move quicker and carry farther at altitude.

“Sometimes when a ball is hit at you it comes a little faster, arrives on you faster,” Vanney said.

NOTES: Toronto FC begins the 2018 MLS regular season on March 3 versus the Columbus Crew at BMO Field. It’s the first time in franchise history that the Reds will start a new campaign at home… Canadian forward Tosaint Ricketts has resumed training with TFC after sitting out most of the team’s pre-season camp due to a thyroid issue… General manager Tim Bezbatchenko confirmed earlier this week that he is still in talks with veteran defender Jason Hernandez and Japanese winger Tsubasa Endoh about signing them both to new contracts.


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