Conditioning Has Paid Off With 9 Goals in Final 15 Minutes Across 10 Games This Year
Of the 16 goals scored by the U.S. Men's National Team in 2004, nine have come in the final 15 minutes. Two of those goals sealed a U.S. victory, and four of them secured a draw after being down 1-0.
"One of the things we do when putting together a roster when we have a short time with the team is make sure we're bringing players that are fit," Arena said. "Fit players can recover quickly and be ready to play. Unfit players are certainly going to be a problem in recovery and they'll likely get injured because of that."
Not only is injury a problem, but players must also be able to produce for the entire 90 minutes. The most recent example of the team's ability to see the game through to the finish came in Kingston, Jamaica, when Brian Ching scored in minute 89 to keep the U.S. from dropping its first game ever against the Reggae Boyz. It was the fourth time the U.S. team came from behind to tie a game.
Part of the job of the coaching staff is to make sure that National Team players can play the entire game, stay healthy and be able to put up with all the travel required of them. That particular job is bestowed upon Pierre Barrieu, fitness coach of the U.S. Men's National Team.
"The main challenge of the fitness coach is to establish trust, so players will believe their efforts will pay dividends," Barrieu said. "Since we’ve been together for so long, the players understand that all the work I have them do will eventually pay off."
That work includes the proper amount of rest and recovery, with preventative weightlifting, proper nutrition and cardiovascular exercises, as well as individualized workout programs for each player to follow while practicing with their clubs. According to Barrieu, the programs are easy enough that they don't interfere with their clubs' objectives, but designed to achieve the national team's objectives. Coaches also focus on controlling practice volume so players peak on game day.
"This process is called 'periodization,'" Barrieu said. "The practice intensity is a key factor. Whenever it's time to prepare, you cannot afford to spend too much time working at a low intensity. This is one area where Bruce (Arena) deserves a lot of credit. His practices are close enough to game intensity that it pays dividends."
The "dividends" Barrieu refers to are the consistency and sometimes even late-game heroics displayed by players like Eddie Pope who, in April, scored in the 93rd minute to give the U.S. a well-deserved victory over Mexico in Dallas. Or like DaMarcus Beasley, whose 77th minute goal against Grenada in a World Cup Qualifying match, put the U.S. ahead 3-1, sealing the win despite a Grenada goal one minute later.
"Dividends" also include dropping only one game out of 10 this year, a 1-0 loss against a powerful Holland team in Amsterdam in February. Since then, the U.S. team has posted five victories and three ties. In two of those wins, goals were posted during injury time, reflecting the U.S. players' determination and physical ability to stay in the match until the very end. Beasley's first goal against Grenada in Columbus on June 13 came in the first minute of injury time in the first half and Greg Vanney scored in minute 92 of that match.
"One of the characteristics of the U.S. players is that they are not afraid of working hard," Barrieu said.