JACKSONVILLE, FLA. – Before his team came together at Stanford University some 3 ½ weeks ago, before they kicked off their World Cup preparatory training camp with two weeks of punishing three-a-day practices, and before the team landed in Sao Paulo, United States men’s national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann predicted what sort of summer this would be.
It would be an “extreme type of World Cup,” he said, “a World Cup of patience.” There would be heat and humidity and grueling travel, all of which would conspire to produce grinding games. This will probably not be a World Cup where the beautiful game thrives aesthetically. The European club season has been as long and hard as any year, and the conditions certainly don’t help.
And so there were two approaches Klinsmann and his staff could have taken to get their team ready. Rest up, or go hard.
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They chose to go hard. Believing that by approaching what is essentially the postseason for most USA players – a dozen play in Europe and one in Mexico, while Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley have had no off-season in a year – like a pre-season, they could re-energize and kind of reset their bodies so as to better condition them for all that Brazil will throw at them. The MLS players could catch up to those with full seasons in their legs.
If this approach seems demanding and testing, the players have nevertheless bought in. Klinsmann has emphasized conditioning for the entirety of his almost 3 years in charge – not that the program ever slacked in the fitness department before. “We have a nutritionist, we have a physio, a sports scientist, all that stuff,” said defender Geoff Cameron, who just completed his second season as a regular for Stoke City in the English Premier League. “They monitor us all, we trust them.”
On a Saturday night, following the final tune-up game against Nigeria here, the players admitted that fatigue had set in — but they deemed it productive. “Tired, man,” said striker Jozy Altidore, whose brace had felled the African champions 2-1. “Tired. Tired legs – in a good way. We worked really, really hard in Stanford to be fit, to be strong. Jurgen stressed that since we started camp. Now, obviously, you’re going to see tired legs out there like you did today but the team worked through it and I think it’s only going to help us and we’re going to peak at the right moment.”
The final week of camp took place in Florida on purpose, as it offered the closest comparison to the Brazilian climate this time of year. “It’s important to build your fitness in these games because you want to make sure when you’re down in Brazil that you’re as fit as possible,” said captain and forward Clint Dempsey. “Because when you’re as fit as possible, you make better decisions. When you’re tired is when you start making mistakes.”
“It’s no secret that these are the conditions that are waiting for us in Brazil,” echoed midfielder Michael Bradley. “So to get a few good days of training in hot, humid weather, to get 90 minutes under our belt in this kind of weather is great.”
This approach carried some amount of risk, of course. Pushing the players hard when they had already been going for many months exposed them to injury. But that gamble – if you can call it one, because the coaching staff certainly puts a lot of thought and research into this stuff – paid off. There were only been minor knocks for Dempsey and Brad Davis – routine, short-term afflictions. “It’s a big plus to go through that hard work and nobody gets injured or carries something from a training session or a game,” said Klinsmann.
Since taking over in July 2011, the German head coach has stressed that players consider themselves professionals at every hour of every day. He has introduced elaborate fitness tests, blood sampling and devices to monitor his players’ sleep patterns and quality. “[The absence of injuries] also speaks for everyone that they are taking care of themselves,” he said added. “They understand that it’s not only the game, the training. ‘No, I’ve got to get treatment. I’ve got to go in the ice bath. I’ve got to eat right. I’m going to get my sleep in.’ All those things add up hopefully that we’re not getting injured much. Obviously, the guys right now, after that workload, they’re banged up a little bit but we would have done a bad job if that wasn’t the case.”
Now that the work is done, the Americans hope to reap the benefits. And maybe turn the “extreme” aspects of this World Cup into advantages.