United States men’s national team administrator Sam Zapatka arrived in Doha, Qatar on Friday, Jan. 3 in preparation for January training camp.
It was his first trip on the job.
U.S. Soccer’s standard procedure on training trips abroad is to send an advance team two days prior to the team’s arrival to get connected with local officials and set up the training grounds.
For the 2020 January training camp, that team consisted of three staff members: Zapatka, U.S. Soccer’s veteran manager director of administration Tom King and team equipment manager Kyle Robertson.
On the 13-hour flight from Chicago to Qatar, Zapatka, King and Robertson heard the news quickly spreading across the world: a United States drone strike in Iraq killed Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, among others.
“That really set the wheels in motion of, ‘Hang on a sec, we may need a backup plan if we pull the plug on coming to Qatar for this particular camp,’” said King, who has worked with U.S. Soccer on the men’s and women’s sides since the 1999 World Cup.
Upon landing in Qatar, King met with officials from the U.S. embassy for around three hours. After a few calls back and forth, U.S. Soccer ultimately decided not to go forward with the camp in Qatar.
— U.S. Soccer MNT (@USMNT) January 4, 2020
Unbeknownst to the real-time details of King’s discussions at the embassy, Zapatka and Robertson waited at the hotel.
“I unpacked my entire suitcase, expecting to be in the country for 23 days,” Zapatka said. “While Tom was meeting with our contact there from the embassy, Kyle and I had a really delicious meal right across the street.”
Hours after arriving, the three USMNT staff members began finding a new training ground, transportation and hotel for 25 USMNT players and 29 U.S. Soccer staff members.
They sat in the hotel lobby for six-and-a-half hours, making calls and sending emails to check hotel space and coordinate taxi travel until 5:30 the next morning when Zapatka and Robertson flew out.
Once the decision from U.S. Soccer was made to postpone the trip to Qatar, it was Zapatka’s job to find the hotels, book travel and organize accommodations for all 54 people. There were options at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. and Carson, California.
After U.S. Soccer settled on Bradenton, Zapatka sent out hotel details — amount of singles, doubles, meeting spaces — to different contacts in the area. He credits a past team admin, Jon Fleishman, with some of the ease.
“Bear in mind, this was a Friday night for us in Qatar, and a Friday afternoon here [in the States],” Zapatka said. “So the amount of turnaround was pretty incredible.”
Additionally, the flights to Qatar and return flights to the US had to be canceled, as well. U.S. Soccer used the assistance of Anthony Travel, a university and sports travel solutions company, to rebook all of the canceled flights.
With the hotel set and the tickets rebooked, there was one more aspect that needed to be sorted: Robertson had to reroute the national team’s three tons of equipment, which was set to arrive in Qatar Saturday, Jan. 4 to a camp that was no longer there.
Getting the Gear
The equipment was not easily transported to Qatar. Robertson was in charge of getting the two shipments–one from LA and one from Chicago–to Qatar. Due to its sheer mass, the equipment could not fly direct on a commercial flight, stopping in London before Qatar.
When the group landed in Qatar, only half of the equipment had arrived. The equipment coming in from LA was set to arrive the following day. Adding to the logistical gymnastics, customs was shut down for the weekend, which runs Friday-Saturday in Qatar.
“When we found out that we were going to be moving to Bradenton, immediately I had to get on the phone and talk with our shipping company, SOS Logistics,” Robertson said. “So that once the gear landed in Qatar, there was a way to get it right back on a plane so that it could fly down to Miami.”
Robertson and Zapatka left Qatar less than 24 hours after arriving, with King leaving the following day. The three staff members arrived in Florida ahead of the rest of the team and the equipment. The team used supplemental shipments of training and medical gear while waiting for the shipments in Qatar to return stateside.
One of the few bumps Robertson ran into didn’t involve the three tons of equipment, rather his own entry back into the US.
Customs stopped Robertson in Miami for 10 minutes, questioning why he was in Qatar for such a short amount of time. After a quick explanation of the situation, customs allowed Robertson to return.
While his colleagues reorganized a 23-day training camp for 25 players in a different country than originally planned, King made sure U.S. Soccer’s partners were the first to know about the change of plans. This included the Qatar Football Association, Aspire Academy, Red Bull Salzburg and a Qatar Stars League team, which the US had originally planned to scrimmage behind closed doors.
“There was a sequencing,” King said. “For instance, we were incredibly sensitive to the fact that the Qatar Football Association and the Aspire Academy would find out from us first before they could read any press release.”
The national team will spend the majority of January camp training in Bradenton, Fla. before flying to Carson, Calif. for a friendly on Feb. 1 against Costa Rica at Dignity Health Sports Park. The USMNT plans to return to Qatar in the future for a training with the intention of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
“Adversity sometimes brings people together,” King said. “We were faced with making a very, very difficult decision based on a whole series of facts that were presented to us. When that was delivered to the leadership of the Qatar Football Association and the Aspire Academy, the way they reacted, the way they understood, the way they supported and the way that they were in our camp, so to speak, with with this decision was really classy.”