HARRISON, N.J. – The swaddled, double-coated hordes marched to Red Bull Arena looking less like a crowd going to watch soccer for an afternoon than a colony setting off to build a settlement on the North Pole. They covered as much of their faces as they could with hats, scarves and anything else that might keep them warm. They clutched onto as many blankets as they could carry.
The stadium workers unfortunate enough to be stationed outside greeted the fans by dancing along to the tunes blasting from the PA system, just to keep moving. The sun beamed down from a spotless blue sky, obscured only by plumes of condensing breath, but it was no match for the skin-tingling cold – nature’s Botox.
Towards the end of the game, the wind chill from an arctic blast would plunge the temperatures into the single digits, but a sellout crowd of 26,000 or so was determined to watch the United States women’s national team take on England in their second game of the SheBelieves Cup.
While the atmosphere was typically festive and raucous, it also felt a tad off. The piercing shrieks that follow the American women around wherever they go were there, but the applause was not, muffled by thick gloves. When the stadium announcer requested that fans remove their hats for the national anthems, many quite understandably ignored him.
Some of the substitutes on the benches were bundled up so completely that you could only see their eyes, peering extra enviously at their teammates who got to run around. England goalkeeper Siobhan Chamberlain hopped and sprinted back and forth and left and right, forming crosses in front of her goal when the play was at the other end of the field.
The United States lost the game 1-0 in the first shutout inflicted by England in 29 years, but those who were there will remember the occasion for the weather conditions, not anything that happened – or didn’t – on the field.
“I need to take a second and thank all those incredibly brave people who sat through the cold,” U.S. head coach Jill Ellis said in her postgame press conference, interrupting her own analysis.
A women’s national team spokesman believed it was the coldest game in the team’s history. Or, at the very least, in the last two decades.
“It was friggin’ cold tonight,” said forward Christen Press, a native Southern Californian, who played her club soccer in Sweden for two seasons. She came into the game in the 63rd minute, meaning she had to keep loose for an hour before being expected to perform. “You try to stay a little bit more focused when you’re coming off the bench on keeping warm. Up and down more often. Keep the circulation going.” Like the entire team, she’d run more than usual before the game and warmed up for longer.
Of all games, this was the one in which 21-year-old winger Rose Lavelle made her national team debut. “At one point, I couldn’t feel my hands, but it’s fine because I can feel them now,” she said with a smirk. “So there was no permanent damage.”
Lavelle, as it happens, was unusually well-equipped on a team sourced disproportionately from California and the South. She played her college soccer at the University of Wisconsin.
“There was one game in Wisconsin that I played in probably two inches of snow,” said Lavelle, who had a hugely impressive national team debut. “I’m pretty familiar with the cold.”
Co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn had the misfortune of playing as a central defender, having to head lots of high balls – an especially unpleasant task when it’s cold. She couldn’t remember ever playing in lower temperatures.
“There was a moment in the second half when we were waiting [on an injury] that it got so freezing cold,” she said.
Midfielder Lindsey Horan was the only U.S. starter not to wear long sleeves, or indeed gloves. She looked bemused when she was asked about it.
“That’s always been a thing for me – I feel better wearing short sleeves, no matter the temperature,” she said, after having a dominant game in central midfield. “Obviously, it was freezing. But I’m from Colorado.”
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.