This weekend, the 2017 Confederations Cup enters the final games of the group stages. The tasty game of the bunch comes Saturday when CONCACAF’s Mexico take on the host nation Russia with the winner guaranteed a spot in the semifinals. The game kicks off at 11 a.m. ET Saturday on Network FOX. The broadcasters at the helm: none other than fellow Bald John Strong and the always well-coiffed, former Houston Dynamo, Bolton Wanderers, USMNT midfielder, and one of the game’s truly nice blokes, Stuart Holden. The pair are in the middle of an eight-game, 16-day stretch that will see them travel thousands of miles. In this edition of Three Questions, we talk with Stu about what he’s seen between the lines in Russia, how the USMNT could have benefited from the experience, and one of the most fascinating narratives of every Confederations Cup: the way it serves as a trailer for the following summer’s tournament.
MiB: Let’s start on the field. What is the most intriguing storyline for you in this tournament?
SH: My favorite storyline has been the home nation, Russia. This is a footballing nation that has not succeeded on the international level in competitions recently. There’s still a lot of uncertainty around the team, and with President Putin coming out before the tournament and lumping a little more pressure on the team, they responded in the first game, beating New Zealand 2 - 0. You could feel the confidence of the team and the country here rise a little bit. A little run in this tournament could make the Russians even more excited for the World Cup than they already are.
MiB: How much would the USMNT have benefitted from this experience?
SH: We’ve said it a million times since we’ve been here, but we would have loved to see the American team in this tournament. This tournament gives teams a sense of the surroundings they’ll be in next summer and the top competition they’ll face. It would have been an invaluable experience for the U.S. But Mexico won the CONCACAF Cup in the Rose Bowl back in 2015, so they’re the ones benefiting from this, ultimately.
MiB: Away from the field, but still in the stadium, talk to us about the facilities teams and fans can expect in Russia.
SH: We started the tournament in St. Petersburg Stadium, which is brand new and they’re still getting a few things together over there. Little things like wiring and cables and access to elevators that will be ironed out by the games next year. But the last two stadium we’ve been at, Fisht Stadium in Sochi and Spartak’s stadium [Otkrytiye Arena] in Moscow, are both well put together and smooth operations.
MiB: What about the atmosphere away from the stadiums? Have you found the hosts welcoming? Is there already a World Cup buzz building?
SH: I think in the bigger cities, you can feel the fever leading up to the World Cup. In all honesty, the trip has gone better than expected. There’s still a little bit of an unknown with Russia for Americans with all the stuff that’s happened recently in the news. We’ve found it great. We have a Russian sideline reporter, Maria Komandnaya, who’s working with us. She comes from Russian television and has been our bridge to Russian society, I would say. She’s helped us get a good sense about how everyone feels about Americans and it’s been very, very positive. To be honest, it’s almost like they’ve heard things, but in reality we have a lot more in common culturally than most people realize.