Klinsmann's health kick
Emphasis on conditioning in training camp lays foundation for proactive playing style
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- For many years, the scouting report on the U.S. national team has made prominent mention of its strong fitness and athleticism. In truth, the good shape the Americans were invariably in has gone some way toward compensating for weaknesses in other departments, allowing them to compete internationally and qualify for six consecutive World Cups.
Nevertheless, since taking over as national team coach in July, Jurgen Klinsmann has been fixated on taking his squad's conditioning further, scraping the outer boundaries of human capacity and barreling through them if at all possible.
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In his camps, no matter how short, Klinsmann has shown far more interest in physical preparation than is customary for national team coaches, who tend to leave much of the conditioning to the players' clubs and instead focus on tactics and team-building. In the national team's three-week offseason camp for domestic-based players this month, it became apparent just how far Klinsmann is looking to take it. The players spent nine days at the lauded Athletes' Performance center in Arizona, being put through the wringer physically with various cutting edge exercises, undergoing a battery of performance tests and getting lectures on nutrition. That was followed by a week in Los Angeles, where conditioning and complementary activities such as yoga befell them.
For the duration of camp, which culminated in friendlies against Venezuela last Saturday and against Panama on Wednesday, the U.S. kick started its days with a 30-minute morning run followed by two practice sessions. "I don't know if everybody expected how much fitness we actually did," said midfielder Benny Feilhaber, adding that the intensity was higher than in previous January camps under Klinsmann's predecessor, Bob Bradley. "We were on the field or in the gym more often than we were with Bob." This is no mean feat, because under Bradley, the conditioning program was highly sophisticated and demanding.
Superior conditioning underpins Klinsmann's master plan for taking the U.S. program to the next level, theoretically birthing a faster-paced game, increased possession and pressure on the ball, and a "more proactive" style intended to "go at the other team."
"It's part of elevating the level of the players, because the base of everything you do is how fast you can do it and how fast you can recover," explained Klinsmann. "So if you want to pick up the speed of play on a high international level, then you have to build a foundation for it. So everything we do, we do it with a lot of speed, with high intensity. You can't train slow stuff and then ask them to play 200 miles an hour [in a game]."[+] EnlargeVictor Decolongon/Getty ImagesHeath Pearce: "It was really beneficial for us to go through what we went through the last couple of weeks."
If the U.S. is to break out of its upper-middle class status in international soccer, there is much ground to be made up, argues Klinsmann. "What we're trying to do is catch up with the international game," he said. "At the end of the day, the difference in different levels of soccer is speed of play; it's the dynamic of the game. The transition will take time because the [players] are often not used to the level of work. You have to recover in a few seconds; you can't take 30 seconds to get back. There's still a lot of catching up to do, no doubt about it."
The U.S. player pool will undergo grueling baseline physical testing at least twice a year, measuring things such as speed, endurance, strength and agility. The attribute probably most closely scrutinized though is more ethereal: desire. "When they have heavy legs, we expect them to go through that tiredness and shake it off," said Klinsmann. "You have to get them away from their comfort zones, and then you can get a feel for a guy. Can he suffer? OK, how far can he suffer? Can he do the sprint in the 70th minute when he's basically already on the edge? Or is he giving up? All these elements we wanted to see with the players, so we ran them through the scenarios."
The hard labor bore fruit Saturday against Venezuela, a team that sat back and showed little appetite for venturing out to attack. Save for winger Brek Shea, who was doing battle with a cold and his physical man-marker, the U.S. was visibly more energetic than its opponent, covering more ground, pressing diligently and dominating time on the ball in spite of the bulk of its players being in their clubs' offseasons.
"We did an extreme amount of work, and that's what we told the players before the match. We said, 'Guys, you've put in now so much for two and a half weeks. Now get the reward for it. Go out there and go at them,'" a satisfied Klinsmann recalled after the 1-0 win that was more lopsided than the score suggested.
"With a team like that, who want to slow the pace down, it's important to keep the pace high, and with our level of fitness, we were able to do that," said defender Heath Pearce. "It was really beneficial for us to go through what we went through the last couple of weeks."
Several players indicated that they took comfort in the knowledge they were in better shape than the Venezuelans and could outlast them, giving them a psychological edge too. "That felt nice," said striker Teal Bunbury.
"We played for a whole 90 minutes and that's how you get the reward," added Feilhaber.
But however satisfying the 97th-minute game-winning header by Ricardo Clark was, it all seemed like just another workout to Klinsmann. Because after all, he said, "a match is the best fitness session you can have."
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.
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