Crew hopes altitude training evens odds in Concacaf Champions Cup final

Columbus Crew standout Darlington Nagbe is one of 10 players in Major League Soccer history to win at least four league titles.

But he hasn’t been able to sleep without hearing a wise joke from his wife, Felicia, for the latest sacrifice he and his teammates have made to prepare for another title pursuit this weekend.

Crew players have been altitude training, which includes sleeping while wearing a contraption around their upper body, to help them adjust for the nearly 8,000-feet altitude they’ll be playing in when they face Pachuca at Estadio Hidalgo in Mexico during the Concacaf Champions Cup final on Saturday night.

“She just thinks it’s funny. She makes fun of it. We’ve been together for a long time so she’s seen everything I have to do to try and win a soccer game,” Nagbe told USA TODAY Sports of his experience. “She says she’s going to burn it and throw it away. I told her it’s here to stay forever. So, we just joke about things like that. I can’t let her win, so I have to say something back.”

The Crew have a chance to be recognized as the best soccer team in North America, and earn a spot to compete for best in the world at the 2025 FIFA Club World Cup.

They enter as a +400 underdog on the road, with +310 odds to draw, while Pachuca is a -165 favorite at home, according to BETMGM.

The lack of oxygen at the high elevation above sea level will surely play a factor for the reigning MLS champions competing in Saturday’s final.

“Perceived exertion is maybe the most brutal of all. It just feels so much more challenging,” Hypoxico CEO Brian Oestrike said Thursday before driving a packed, 16-foot U-Haul truck with the training equipment Columbus used back to company headquarters in Hudson Valley, New York.

“So, you get winded faster, and your body just can’t transport oxygen as efficiently, which leads to increasing lactic acid, and on a cellular level, it’s debilitating as well. No matter how acclimatized you are, you’re still limited at altitude. It just helps if you’re more acclimatized, the effects of it are less.”

Crew players – along with sleeping inside the Hypoxico head bivy, or tents around their beds – have also endured 30-minute stationary bike rides while wearing oxygen masks attached to altitude training machines to enhance their endurance.

Crew head of sport science and medicine Chris Shenberger suggested the regime, which lasted about two weeks, and put it in motion three weeks ago when the club qualified for the Champions Cup final.

“We’ve done a number of things over the last handful of weeks to try and help the guys prepare and put them in what we feel like is the best position to go down there and be successful,” Shenberger said.

“We understand and know that the game is going to be won in between the lines by playing well and executing our game plan. But if we can make adjustments here that help us better prepare for that, that’s what we want to do.”

Oestrike said there have been at least six other instances teams have employed their equipment before a big game. Here are the results:

The U.S. Men’s National Team played Mexico in World Cup qualifying matches in 2017 and 2022 at Estadio Azteca, around 7,200 feet above sea level. They played to 1-1 and 0-0 draws.
The NFL’s Raiders, before leaving Oakland for Las Vegas, played two games in Estadio Azteca – winning 27-20 against the Houston Texans in 2016 but falling 33-8 to Tom Brady and the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in 2017.
MLS club Toronto FC played to a 1-1 draw against Club America at Estadio Azteca in 2018, winning 4-2 on aggregate to reach the Concacaf Champions League final.
Sporting Kansas City beat Deportivo Toluca FC 2-0 in 2019 to become the first MLS club in the Concacaf Champions League history to beat a Mexican club in a two-legged series when the second match was played in Mexico.

So, there’s a chance for Columbus Crew.

“I think they did a great job of smashing all this exposure into this short amount of time,” Oestrike said.

The Crew has already beaten Mexican teams Tigres UANL and Monterrey at relatively lower altitudes in Mexico during their run to the Champions Cup final.

They hope their altitude training can help them navigate the elements to win another major championship.

“We try to maximize everything in terms of the tools we have. The idea is not to scare them. The idea is to give them confidence with tools and to adapt,” Crew coach Wilfried Nancy said. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be how we play on the pitch.”

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