In 1993, when Major League Soccer was founded, the teams had no right to consider themselves competitive, world-class clubs. Looked upon by the rest of the world more as the little brother of futbol than as real competition, MLS wanted and needed to prove they could play with the best.
After 15 years of hard work and dedication, American clubs have gained a bit of respect and carry some international clout, as MLS stars are being transferred to top European teams—and vise versa.
A major catalyst for the league's development and evolution of its play is soccer-specific training. "Teams with strength coaches have seen a significant decrease in injuries, an increase in performance and have started adopting a more European-style of fitness training," says Steve Tashjian, strength and fitness coach for the Columbus Crew and President of the National Soccer Fitness Coaches Association.
Gone are the days of long runs through the woods and distance intervals coaches used in a standardized way to condition players for a 90-minute match. Tashjian has ditched these old training methods, because "it is very difficult to use a soccer match as your variable and standardize it.
"You just can't," he says. In a full, 11 v. 11 on a professional pitch, anything can happen. Instead of developing a system to test on the game, Tashjian and other coaches decided to analyze a match and work backward from there.
Breaking down the game to learn the average amount of energy used in a match helped Tashjian and his peers see "that this is not a sport where training energy systems individually makes any sense, because the sport itself utilizes every single energy system throughout course [of a match]."
He continues, "It's evolved into a much more analytical type of fitness training…spending more time trying to see what soccer does to the heart rate than seeing what metabolic work does to their ability to play soccer."
The Columbus Crew has reaped huge benefits from this fresh approach to training—like winning the MLS Cup in '08 and starting their '09 pre-season undefeated against England's top reserve squads, Liverpool and Everton.
This off-season, perform the champs' conditioning plan three times a week to get fit for the pitch and step up your own game. Tashjian also offers helpful advice to prevent injuries.
"The six-week program I write for [the Crew's] off-season is probably most important in terms of developing their athleticism," Tashjian says.
Simulating the workload a match delivers is another goal. "The drills [are] change-of-speed and changeof- direction, which are more soccer-specific than going out and running 200- or 400-meter intervals or long distance," Tashjian says. "[These drills] prepare them to develop the aerobic capacity and levels for anaerobic thresholds necessary to play at a high level…they are building blocks for their fitness development, to allow them to achieve the high levels of physical fitness they need to play at a professional pace."
"These drills are best with no prior fatigue, preferably in the morning," Tashjian advises. "I always encourage guys to go through five to six minutes of steady work, whether it is jogging or even light activity with the ball, just something very simple that keeps a steady heart rate. Once you are done, go through a light ballistic stretch for a couple minutes followed by ten minutes of dynamic movements—leg kicks, high knees, butt kicks, different hip movements that will really warm the system. Lastly, get in four to six reps of longer distance runs, similar to the distance that will be run during the drill, at a good pace."
"The program's target times are for very competitive, very serious high school soccer players, college and pro soccer players. Only advance to the next stage of the program when you have successfully completed the exercises under the target times and your body is able to fully recover the next day. If unable to complete the goals in the two-week time, do not jump up to the next progression; continue at the same pace until your body is ready to advance."
Tashjian says: "Don't start your cool down right away, because you were just running; that never makes any sense. Get a drink and allow your heart rate to drop for a minute. Then, start with a good-paced walk that just takes you around the field. Once you feel that your body is ready and your system has calmed down a bit, take it to a nice slow-paced jog around the field. Get in some static stretching and go through some dynamic movements. Finish with another jog, and get a nice long stretch at the end."
Training While Playing
"If you are playing club year-round, never do one of these drills less than two days before a game," Tashjian warns. "My advice to year-round soccer players is this: Focus more on when you are going to recover, rather than when you are going to do an off-season program. This is not a program to be done during any season. Try to find a long break in the year when you can rest for two weeks before jumping into the conditioning program."
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock