Greetings from Torrance, Calif. My name is Tony Beltran. I am an outside back for Real Salt Lake, and currently participating in the Men’s National Team January Camp. The first week of camp has now come to a close. Players, coaches and staff are enjoying some well-earned down time, and I am here to report on my personal experience of camp so far, and my overall first experience with the full National Team.
On Dec. 22, I was sitting in my parents’ house here in Southern California. My father was at the driving range, and my mother had just made me a tuna sandwich (a staple snack from my childhood), which I was enjoying. Mid-bite an email alert came up on my cell phone. The email was from the Men’s National Team Coordinator informing me that I had been invited to the January training camp, which would conclude with a friendly against Canada at the end of the month. While I prefer to keep most of my immediate reactions and emotions to myself, I can comfortably say that it was a euphoric moment. As a footballer, the highest honor is to be selected to represent your country, and the moment of first inclusion in such an elite group is not one easily forgotten.
But what at first was elation immediately became concern. I was in the middle of the offseason and had undergone minor knee surgery six weeks before. While my rehab was complete and my knee strong, our team doctor had advised me that there was no need to overdo it with fitness in December, as my club's preseason camp did not begin until late in January. But this email, and later in the day a phone call from Jurgen Klinsmann, changed everything. Jurgen made it clear that this was not a preseason camp. This was a camp to prepare for an international friendly. All players were expected to come in to camp in high fitness. I put down the phone and left for a run. There was work to be done.
The official report date for camp was Monday, Jan. 7. Most of the players included in the camp played domestically in MLS, though a few were traveling to Los Angeles from overseas. A short car ride from my parents’ house brought me to the doorstep of the team's hotel just after 2 p.m. I walked inside and was first met by the team administrator. He welcomed me, gave me my room key, and told me that I was in the 2:45 time slot for the nutrition evaluation and body composition testing. I set down my stuff and picked up gear. No time to relax here - straight to work.
Over the next few hours I met the majority of the staff. First was the team nutritionist Danielle Lafata. After speaking to her for a few minutes, I could clearly see how knowledgeable she was in her field and how much emphasis there would be on nutrition throughout camp. Based on each player’s body composition and goals, she would be designing each an individual meal plan while at camp. This plan would break down how to properly fuel and refuel ourselves with the various food groups. For example how many servings of fruits, vegetables and grains I personally need to eat with breakfast, and how to meet these serving requirements with various foods. I had worked with a nutritionist before, but never in such a detailed and personal manner. It was clear that the staff put much weight in a holistic approach to the game.
While performance on the field is how we are ultimately judged as soccer players, what is done in between trainings and games is highly contributive to performance. In our first week of camp most of our time would be spent in the gym with our fitness coach and in daily core workouts with a Pilates instructor. Players are kept busy with multiple workouts a day, but the necessary tools to take care of ourselves as athletes are always available and first-class. The environment is extremely professional and goal-oriented.
With most of the players in camp being from MLS, it creates an interesting dynamic. Some teams have multiple players representing them, some just have one. While you might not know everyone personally, names and faces are easily recognized as most have played against or with each other at some point in their careers. Often at team meals stories are told about respective club teammates, and management styles and lifestyles are compared and discussed. For me it is nice to have my team captain, Kyle Beckerman, in camp with me. Having the familiarity of a friend and teammate, and especially one that has been involved with the National Team extensively and in much success is invaluable. While the more established players can help in some ways to guide others inexperienced at this level, ultimately each player will be successful or not based on his performance. The atmosphere is light and friendly in meals and in the hotel between trainings. Team environments where a group is put through the paces are always conducive to cohesion. But once everyone is out on the field it is simply business. We are here to learn, perform, impress and improve. I personally am enjoying this new less familiar atmosphere so far. It is a chance to play with and measure myself with my professional peers, and of course take advantage of a huge opportunity.
Easily the most stressful day of camp so far was Wednesday: fitness testing day. Players were informed Monday night that testing would be Wednesday, and were given two nights and a full day to think about it. It's funny how the mind handles such situations. No matter how much preparation has been done, there can always be the thought of whether you did enough, or if you are accurately prepared. I personally have always taken pride in my high fitness level, but must admit I was a little worried if I was in the same level as the rest of the group. Such a high emphasis was placed on coming in to camp fit, and one does not want to fall behind the curve so early on. Most of the meal conversations were devoted to the topic, and players who had undergone the selected VO2 test gave their opinions and advice. If there are strategies to such a test they were debated, and the common consensus was that while the test was difficult, overcoming the suffocating feeling of wearing a mask was an experience in itself.
Tuesday came and went, and the morning of testing arrived. Any feelings of doubt had to be left at the hotel. Confidence in one’s ability as an athlete is paramount. This case was no different.
In addition to the VO2 fitness test, the group was also tested on agility, overall speed and jumping power. The tests were held at The Home Depot Center. The VO2 test was performed on a treadmill indoors. With any fitness test the anticipation is always worse than the actual test itself, and this case was no different. Only two treadmills were active, and while the group was split up into time slots, there was still quite a bit of waiting around for your turn and watching others do the test. To get going and run is a relief in the end, and I was happy that I didn't have to wait as long as some for a go.
In full credit to the group, overall the fitness level was very high. Impressively so, apparently, because the balls were brought out for training Thursday, Friday and Saturday much ahead of schedule. Having the testing done and now focusing more on soccer is a welcome change. Of course there is still a lot of work off the ball to be done, but now with the first week behind us some emphasis can shift to technical sharpness. The first week of camp was certainly a busy and productive one. I'm looking forward to the next week and continuing this journey.