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Editor's Note: This article originally ran in the July 2006 edition of M&F.
This month in Germany, there's something happening called the FIFA World Cup, a soccer tournament between 32 countries that takes place just once every four years. Three million people will cram into 12 colossal stadiums to witness the spectacle in person. Thirty billion viewers will tune in for the games on TV, including 1 billion to watch the final on July 9. And entire cities south, east and west of here will shut down for a month to live and die with their national team's every touch of the ball. It's kind of a big deal.
And all the guys competing—but especially the ones wearing red, white and blue—are nothing if not freakishly fit. How do we know? For starters, they say things like this: "I find that interval training is more conducive to a gamelike condition than going out for a 12- or 13-mile run—but I do that, too."
For another thing, take a moment to consider the ground these guys cover.
IMAGINE A BASKETBALL game in which both teams are picking up full-court. Now imagine that court is a grass grid the size of a football field, only a little wider. And although we've expanded the field exponentially, let's only double the number of players from five to 10 per side, plus a goalkeeper, the only one allowed to use his hands to keep the ball out of a 24×8-foot goal.
Now imagine instead of running up and down this field for 40 or even 48 minutes, as in basketball, these players do it for 90 minutes, plus a few extra ticks at the end of each half. Oh, and if you get really winded, you're out of luck, because there are no timeouts. And hardly any substitutions, because just like in baseball, once you're subbed out, you can't return.
What you're imagining, depending on your outlook, is either hell on earth or what the rest of the world calls football.
To Americans it's soccer, and it's one of the most physically demanding team sports known to man. Recent studies using global positioning systems showed that the average player in a high-level soccer match runs about 6 miles, with midfielders traveling much farther. And that's only half the challenge: Players must leap 2 feet in the air to win headballs; they must explode forward in dozens of 10-40-yard bursts; they must lunge, stretch, shield, grab, push, pull, slide—and, oh yeah, kick. In other words, constant, ever-changing movement. A soccer player changes speed or direction every five seconds. Quads burn, hamstrings strain, hip flexors ache. Like we said, freakishly fit.
Which is why it's all the more impressive that, of all the soccer teams in all the world, the one from America just might run longer and harder than anybody. "I feel like in every game we play, we're the fitter team," says U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan.
This month in Germany, they'll try to outrun the world.
WHEN YOU'RE TALKING about the fitness level of the U.S. men's soccer team, you have to talk about Froggy. That's the nickname for Pierre Barrieu, the U.S. team's French-accented fitness coach. Raised in Paris, Barrieu was a fitness adviser for three European soccer clubs before furthering his studies at the University of Virginia.
Although assigned to work with the soccer team at UVa, Barrieu began helping out with the more American games like basketball and football, taking what he learned from these sports and applying them back to soccer, a sport not traditionally synonymous with weight training. "I looked around and kind of picked what I thought was beneficial from each sport, and I came up with one philosophy," says Barrieu. "We do a lot of push-pressing, a lot of standing, multijoint movements. It's always dumbbells, never machines. These guys have to keep their balance on the field, so I think it should be the same in the weight room."
Not only did Barrieu's philosophy work, but it worked at UVa, the place where U.S. head coach Bruce Arena had built a soccer dynasty, winning five national championships. In 2002, Arena asked Barrieu to prep the U.S. team for that summer's World Cup in South Korea/Japan. After the Americans exceeded nearly everyone's expectations in Asia by beating Portugal and Mexico and reaching the quarterfinals, Barrieu was kept around for good.
To prepare for this year's World Cup, Barrieu has been working with the team since January. At a typical training session, it's not unusual to see the U.S. players resembling the Rockettes as they perform dozens of high leg kicks without the ball. "Our guys have a lot of groin injuries," says Barrieau. "The reason you have groin injuries is a lack of flexibility. So I have these guys doing leg swings on a daily basis."
Leg swings are the easy part. To develop what Barrieu terms "aerobic power," he puts them through grueling cardio routines, such as the Beep Test, in which players must dash back and forth across the field, keeping up with a series of beeps blasted from a boombox. As the time between beeps shortens, players must fight to stay on pace before eventually dropping to the turf in exhaustion. In another test, the Star Drill, players have 10 seconds to sprint from the center of the field to eight different points and back, repeating this eight-pointed "star" four times. During drills like these, players wear heart monitors so Barrieu can gauge whether each is reaching his personal anaerobic threshold. Exertion is ultra-intense, but it doesn't drag; it's usually over in 25 minutes.
The same goes in the weight room. Barrieu leads the players through fast-paced 45-minute workouts, emphasizing the core (see "World Cup Workout") and conditioning the upper body with Olympic-style lifts and dumbbell bench presses off exercise balls. The players have bought in. "I can tell a huge difference," says U.S. defender Eddie Pope. "If I don't lift, I'll feel myself getting bumped around out there. But if I've lifted, I can hold people off a lot easier. The bigger my upper body is, without getting top-heavy, the better I am as a player."
Meanwhile, former players can only watch with envy. "With the training they do now, a lot of us older guys might have been able to play a year or two more," says Marcelo Balboa, a former U.S. defender and now a commentator for ESPN. "With Pierre, everything's calculated with the stopwatch, with the heart monitor. And you can see these guys – they're dead, but they're okay to go the next day. Back in the old days, you'd wake up the next day and you'd be dead. Dead."
NO ONE SYMBOLIZES the Americans' commitment to fitness – or their brand of soccer in general – more than the 24-year-old Donovan. At 5'8", 158 pounds, he could be called tiny, yet on the field he's anything but. "He's got the complete package," says Barrieu. "He's explosive. He's fast. He's not a burner, but he's got a very good first 20 yards." And his teams win. Donovan led the San Jose Earthquakes to Major League Soccer titles in 2001 and 2003; then in 2005, unhappy with his limited playing time during a four-month cup of coffee at German club Bayer Leverkusen, Donovan returned to the States to captain the Los Angeles Galaxy to his third MLS title, scoring 15 goals.
What's more, he's no stranger to the gym. Arena, usually quick to downplay the importance of lifting, points to Donovan as one guy who greatly benefited from weights before the last World Cup.
"Landon, when he's strong and fit, feels real good about his game," says Arena. "One of our goals this time around is to get him where he was in 2002."
Donovan fondly remembers his fitness level of four years ago. "I felt like a machine," he says. "I was strong, I was fast, I was fit. And I just felt like I could run through anybody."
He and his teammates almost did. One win away from the final four in Asia, the U.S. lost 1-0 to Germany, a team Donovan contends was beyond fatigued by the end. "They had clearly hit the wall after about 50, 60 minutes," says Donovan. "We were far superior, fitness-wise."
The question this time around is, can the U.S. do more than just give the rest of the world a good scare? Maybe, but first they'll have to fight to make it out of their own group. The Americans drew perhaps the Cup's toughest opening round, with games against the Czech Republic (June 12), Italy (June 17) and Ghana (June 22) – teams recently ranked by FIFA as No. 2, 14 and 50 in the world, respectively.
Of course, those same rankings tabbed the U.S. fourth, ahead of Mexico, Spain, England and even France, World Cup winners in 1998. The rating (the best ever for a U.S. team) comes after impressive wins in World Cup tune-up matches against Norway (5-0), Japan (3-2) and Poland (1-0).
Despite the Americans' lofty status, few would claim they possess even one player in the world's top 100. How, then, do you explain their success? They work hard, they play together, and they use their fitness as a weapon: The Americans mount strong counterattacks, they pressure the ball at all times, and they turn their wing defenders into offensive threats down the line. In short, they run, run, run. It's a strategy, says Arena, built out of necessity. "We're going to have to be fit to have a chance in Germany," he says. "We're not going to match up to the likes of the Czech Republic and Italy man for man. They have more experienced players and players of a better pedigree, so we have to be a better team, and part of that is having a fitness level to sustain what we're trying to do over 90 minutes."
Frankie Hejduk, a U.S. defender and the reigning Beep Test champion, takes the case for conditioning one step further. "I think the main thing with our team is fitness," says Hejduk. "We're blue collar. You know, we outwork teams. And if we can advance out of that group and go further, I think we'd prove to not only all of our critics but also to the world that we're a team to be reckoned with."
Brazil, consider yourself warned. M&F
WORLD CUP WORKOUT
Want a killer core routine? Do this workout used by the U.S. men's national team
Lie faceup on the floor with one leg raised. Have a partner grasp your heel and provide resistance as you try to pull your leg down by contracting your hamstrings.
Lie faceup on the floor with your hands under your hips. Cycle your feet above your pelvis. (Yes, these are the old-school ones you're thinking of.) One full revolution is one rep.
Lie faceup on the floor and tilt your pelvis to push your lower back into the floor. It almost ends up being an abbreviated crunch, because your chest is naturally going to rise off the floor. Hold each contraction for five seconds, then relax. That's one rep.
Shoelace (or Straight-Leg Crunch)
Lie faceup on the floor with your legs perpendicular to the floor. Crunch up with your arms extended to touch your shoelaces with your fingertips. Keep your head stable by contracting your neck muscles.
Get on your hands and knees on the floor, then slowly raise and straighten one leg behind you while slowly lifting and extending the opposite arm in front of you. Return and raise the opposite arm and leg. That's one rep.
Sit with your feet flat on the floor and knees bent around 90 degrees. Holding a 25-pound medicine ball close to your torso, move the ball from one side of your body to the other by twisting your torso. Both sides equals one rep.
Sit on the edge of a bench and lie back to form a 30-degree angle with the bench. Bend your knees 90 degrees. Extend your legs out in front of you and bring them back in one continuous "scooping" motion.
Lie faceup on the bench with your legs extended. Keeping your legs together, make circles in the air with your feet, keeping your torso stable. One revolution is one rep. Reverse direction and do eight more.
Sit atop an exercise ball, then walk your feet forward and lean back till your back is about 45 degrees to the floor; balance yourself with legs extended and arms near your sides. Have a partner toss a medicine ball to you. Catch it and, while keeping your balance, toss it back.
Sit on the ball similar to the previous exercise. Keep your balance as a partner kicks the ball. Start off with light kicks and work up to harder kicks.
Exercise-Ball Bird Dog
Same as the Bird Dog exercise, except you lie atop the ball on your chest and your feet are on the floor.