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May 29, 2014

Training, science and hard work key U.S. fitness

ESPN FC's Shaka Hislop examines whether or not player fitness will be an issue for the United States in the World Cup.

When it comes to the United States men's national team, fitness has rarely been a point of concern; technique is usually the reason the U.S. falls short on the international stage. On the contrary, the team's physical condition is often held up as an area of strength.

All of this makes the fitness obsession of manager, Jurgen Klinsmann, even more noteworthy. Granted, it has been an area of focus since he first took over in 2011, but the intensity has ratcheted up recently and the team's placement in the "Group of Death" alongside Ghana, Portugal and Germany in the heat and humidity of Brazil was certainly a factor.

Ever since members of the squad began arriving at training camp at Stanford University May 14, though, words such as "foundation" and "building our base" have been floating around. Klinsmann brought up the topic in his first press conference.

Even before that, last month, midfielder Michael Bradley raised the issue of fitness at the World Cup. "We have to understand that for us to go into a World Cup and have a real chance at making a run, we've got to be the fittest team there," he said after the 2-2 draw with Mexico in April.

"We've got to be able to play at a pace and a tempo for 90 minutes that other teams aren't comfortable with, and we have to be able to do that every three or four days." Whether that was achieved in the two and a half weeks at camp remains to be seen.

The fact is that many on the U.S. side either were coming off a long season in Europe or are just a few months into the MLS campaign, so they were at different stages of fitness to begin.

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The players, to a man, believe their fitness will be just fine when the opening match against Ghana kicks off June 16. Partly, this is due to the fact that, with no league games occupying their thoughts, the players have been very much in preseason mode and can do more to push the physical envelope. There is also a high degree of faith in the team's staff.

"It's world class," defender Matt Besler said of the fitness program. "The staff, they think about everything, every situation, every possible scenario. They probably analyze it and discuss it. Their goal is to get every player up to his maximum level."

The man charged with getting the U.S. team up to speed -- literally -- is Masa Sakihana. The Tokyo-born coach has worked with EXOS (formerly Athletes' Performance), the company that runs the fitness program for the men's national team, for more than 10 years. At the last World Cup, he was on Joachim Loew's staff when Germany reached the semifinals, and his connections there eventually led him to join with Klinsmann.

In terms of the impact camp had on the players' fitness, Sakihana expects to see about five percent improvement. In a tournament as competitive as the World Cup, that could be the difference between getting out of the Group of Death and going home early.

To that end, every aspect of a player's fitness was examined. Off the field, that included nutrition and blood tests to make sure players were getting everything they need.

On the field, a player's endurance, power, speed and agility were pushed to the limit. And almost everything was done with the ball, usually in small-sided games of varying size. It makes for a grueling program, though the intensity of workouts will slowly taper off as the World Cup approaches.

"It's not going out and running suicides," midfielder Graham Zusi said. "It's what you put into training. You get out what you put into it. I think we've got a group that understands that and is really going to go hard these next couple of weeks."

Jurgen Klinsmann shadows Aron Johannson during a practice at the U.S. pre-World Cup training camp.
Jurgen Klinsmann shadows Aron Johannson during a practice at the U.S. pre-World Cup training camp.

There have been practices without the ball, such as gym sessions in which power and strength are emphasized. Then have been speed sessions on the field after regular practice. It is here that Sakihana and his staff examine a player's running mechanics more closely in a bid to make him move as efficiently as possible.

"They've been playing soccer since they were four years old, but not many coaches can tell you how to change your direction in an efficient way, how to get up to speed," Sakihana said.

"I cannot tell you that I will make them half a second faster than they are now. But the most important thing is, if you go to the 85th minute, can you make the same speed, the same sprint, like in the first 10-to-15 minutes? If you're moving more efficiently, you should be able to sustain a good speed, even if you are very tired."

While Sakihana solicits feedback from the players on how they're feeling, technology plays a significant role in how the workouts are planned. Thanks to heart rate monitors and GPS devices affixed to each player, the staff has been collecting data for the past two and a half years.

If a player's sprint times were short of his peak, he was placed in a workout group in which that is the focus. If a player isn't changing direction as well as before, his workout was tailored to sharpen that skill.

Even players' sleep has been monitored, with a wristwatch-like device that tracks how long they sleep and how often they wake up in the night. In other words, Big Brother -- or in this case, "Big Klinsi" -- is watching, even if for the players' benefit.

"The quality and duration of the sleep ... it can give us a performance indication for the next day," Sakihana said. "That really helps us in determining where they are in terms of fatigue."

So who graded out the highest? Sakihana had high praise for Zusi and Besler, noting that the pace at which their club, Sporting Kansas City, plays its games compares favorably to Borussia Dortmund, a club well known for its ability to grind teams into the ground with relentless pressing.

But the fitness king is Bradley. He performed best in the so-called "beep test", in which players run 20-yard sprints with an ever-decreasing amount of rest in between.

"His fitness level is world-class," Sakihana said of Bradley.

The irony here is that all three players Sakihana lauded are based in MLS and are the group of players Klinsmann said needed to "catch up" at his first press conference before camp. Sakihana sought to clarify Klinsmann's remarks, indicating that players involved in Champions League -- which is practically the entire German team -- have an advantage over their U.S. counterparts.

"If you compare the physical fitness of the Champions League guys versus normal domestic players, two games versus one game per week is a huge difference," he said. "That's probably what Jurgen meant. The amount of games they play makes a difference in terms of fitness. That adds up."

Sakihana is confident his efforts have paid off, but he concedes that fitness will only take the United States so far. There are technical, tactical and psychological components that have significant impact on a game's outcome as well. But the team's fitness is a starting point for being able to go up against Ghana, Portugal and Germany.

"To be able to compete against those guys, you have to have a good foundation of physical fitness, or even be five percent above the opponent's fitness level," Sakihana said. "That's how I see it, and I think Jurgen sees it the same way."

Both are hoping it adds up to victories in Brazil.