USA focus on fitness before brutal World Cup qualifying stretch begins

SANDY, Utah —

The United States women’s national soccer team assembled here Friday to prepare for the upcoming Women’s World Cup qualifiers in October and, in the shorter term, a pair of friendly matches against Mexico. Amidst the mountains and thin air, they have labored and strained through mid-90s heat and the beginnings of a savage thunderstorm during two-a-day training sessions, whether they be in the weight room or on the training field.

There is tangible urgency to this camp, highlighted by games on Sept. 13 here and Sept. 18 in Rochester, NY. It is the team’s best — perhaps last — chance to get things right before Women’s World Cup qualifying kicks off on Oct. 15. They play Trinidad and Tobago in Kansas City that day, followed by four more matches in a mere 11 days — provided they reach the knockout stages. Three of eight teams will qualify for the big tournament in Canada next summer; a fourth will reach a playoff against the third-placed team in South America.

Much time has been spent trying to recapture an on-field familiarity between the players that may have slipped, now that the number of national team camps has been reduced to accommodate the National Women’s Soccer League, which runs from April through August. The real focus, however, is on fitness, to get the team through that brutal stretch of qualifying. During that time, the USA will have just one, two, three and one days between games, respectively. "We’re going to push pretty hard in this camp, through these games," said head coach Jill Ellis. "We’re certainly going to start to amp up our conditioning."

To that effect, fitness coach Dawn Scott carefully monitors heart rates, distance covered, speeds run, GPS data, positional necessities, nutrition and hydration during weight and ball sessions and away from the field and gym, too.

Whatever success the USA has had in the women’s game, and there has been much over the last 2 ½ decades, it has largely come on account of its superior athleticism. "We’ve gotta continue to have that American mentality of being fit," said midfielder Carli Lloyd. "We can never lose that. It’s not just good enough to be decently fit. We can still push on and get more fit."

As other teams have professionalized, the USA’s historical advantage is threatened. "One of the strengths of the American team has always been their fitness," said Scott. "I think now though teams around the world and in Europe are kind of catching up and have caught up, because obviously sport science has increased and the support for fitness [too]."

"So now we’re looking at what other things can add," Scott continued. "As well as the players doing the conditioning on the field, what things off the field can actually recover them quicker so they can train at a higher level? We’re really trying to individualize their training."

MONEY ISN'T EVERYTHING

She takes daily surveys on how the players feel, because the recovery process from all that exertion is equally important — especially when you may go just 47 hours between games, like the USA will between their games with Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala in Chicago. A recovery competition rewards the players with points for doing things like taking ice baths. There is no prize. "If you win, you just feel good about yourself," the uber-competitive striker Abby Wambach explained with a smile.

Wambach, for her part, argues that while the schedule will be grueling, the United States is as well equipped to handle it as any country. "I like our chances because we have probably one of the deepest rosters in the world," she said. "Our second team would probably be a top-4 team in the world, and that’s the truth." That will allow the Americans to switch out players according to strengths and needs and to allow for rest where necessary.

This, in turn, will be helpful in getting ready for next summer. "Actually, it’s perfect because the World Cup is going to be crazy," said midfielder Shannon Boxx. Now that the Women’s World Cup has expanded to 24 teams, the Americans will have to slog through an extra round to reach the final and finally win it a third time.

With seven games in somewhere between 27 and 30 days against competition that is growing stronger and more sophisticated, playing on unforgiving artificial turf, the USA will have to rotate regularly. "It’s all so much changed over the course of 10 years," said Wambach. "Gone are the days where you’re going to have 11 starting players that are going to play all the games."

There are 28 players here in camp. Only 20 will make it to the World Cup qualifiers. It’s survival of the fittest.