To the untrained eye, soccer is soccer. One team tries to kick the ball into the other’s goal, and (most times) someone wins and someone loses. The athletes, coaches and trainers who play, however, realize the sport goes much deeper. Some teams make supreme technical skill their calling card. Others overpower you with brute strength. Then there are those, like the MLS's Sporting Kansas City, that simply run you ragged over the course of the game.
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“[Soccer is] a multifaceted sport, and you can’t just rely on the physical aspect to win games, but it does become a deciding factor in the last 30 minutes of a match, when you’re fatigued,” says Mateus Manoel, Sporting Kansas City’s head fitness coach. “If we have a tie score or a home team losing at home, the emotional and physical domains will push you through whatever you need to get through to get [the win].”
KC's style of play, dubbed “Sporting Fit,” is a hyper-aggressive system based on peak fitness levels. It’s demonstrated on the field and it’s developed through their approach to training and nutrition. Sporting Kansas City plays a “high-pressure” 4-3-3 scheme (four defensemen, three midfielders and three forwards.) After a shot on an opponent's goal, most teams hunker down on their half of the field and wait for the ball to cross midfield before they aggressively defend it. Sporting Kansas City jumps right down their opponent’s throat.
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“Our team is expected to be in your end, basically right in your face, not allowing you to play from your goal toward our goal,” Manoel says. “Our players are expected to do a whole lot more aggressive defensive work compared to other teams. We do more sprints, more changes of direction, more 40-, 60-, 80-yard runs, compared to a typical team."
During their training, the team operates on what Maneol refers to as “micro cycles”—week-by-week training patterns that change depending on what’s happening with the squad and its schedule. Generally speaking, Sporting Kansas City focuses on recovery from their previous match early in the week, schedules their hardest workouts during the middle and tapers down as they approach Saturday evening's game.
“By the time they show up for match day they’re as fresh as can be, and they’ve gotten that stimulus toward the middle of the week to try to and make them a bit fitter for [the match,]” Maneol explains.
What separates Sporting from other MLS clubs isn’t the mileage they log during practice, but the mindset with which they approach training. “The thing that determines our way and gives us that [physical] foundation is training intensity,” Manoel says. He likens it to two individuals going for a 5-mile run. One runner jogs the whole way, and one sprints as hard as possible with breaks between sprints. Sporting Kansas City is the sprinter.
“You cannot judge a training session by total distance. You have to judge it by the high-intensity work a player does: the changes of direction, acceleration, deceleration, number of sprints, number of times they reach a certain high-intensity speed band,” Manoel says. “What we try to do here at the club is pay very close attention to that high-intensity work.”
Take their 8-on-8 practice games, for example. Other clubs might play a 30-minute game where some players dog it. Manoel says Sporting Kansas City condenses that action into 10 minutes, during which the players are expected to perform at high intensity for the entire time. The team's dedication to physical fitness starts all the way at the top of the club and trickles down to each individual player. “[Head coach Peter Vermes] is the driver for the culture and expectations, and the athletes are only going to follow them if they believe in it,” Manoel says. “For them to believe, it takes a whole lot of work, which I don’t think can be replicated that easily.”
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Manoel stresses that it’s just as important for the bench players to maintain their fitness as it is for the starters. “[The bench player] travels and doesn’t play,” says Manoel. “There are a couple days that he doesn’t train, and that can accumulate throughout the season, where we see a degradation of their physical capacity. The bench guys are the ones we have to pay the most attention to.”
He tests those players a few times during the season to ensure they’re not losing their edge. The tests include a Yo-Yo beep test, a 30-meter speed test using laser gates, a Pro Agility test and a vertical leap test. If a player has lost a step, Manoel prescribes extra work, usually on the field. He shies away from pushing any of the players on the 18-man roster too hard in the gym.
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“You have a bench guy and you put him in the gym two to three times that week, then our starter gets injured the day before a game. Now that bench guy who worked out three times this week has to play 90 minutes,” Manoel says. “I don’t like to gamble and I prefer to stay on the safe side, so those guys are usually more on the [same] schedule [as] the starters.”
Just as important as their training is their nutrition.
“I always give the example to our athletes: you can’t buy a Porsche and give it unleaded 87 gasoline, because you’ll never use that engine to its full capacity unless you put premium gas in there,” he says. “I like to think of our players being sporting fit as Porsches.”
Sporting Kansas City feeds the players breakfast at Sporting Park, but the rest of the day they’re on their own for meals. Manoel gives them a deep-dive on nutritional strategies and fueling tips early in the season so they can make smart choices, whether they’re cooking for themselves or eating out. Easy tips include eating every three hours and guzzling an ounce of water per pound of body weight each day.
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The work isn’t easy, but you can’t argue with the results—Sporting is the defending MLS champion. “[This system] creates a foundation to truly have an opportunity to push through whatever condition is upon us," says Manoel.