For all their feats of hustle and late-game heroics, the fact remains that the Americans continue to wallow in mediocrity on the world’s biggest stage. They’ve reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup just once since 1930. As of April, they were ranked 13th in the FIFA world rankings, behind Switzerland and Greece.
The reality is that the best soccer teams in the world rely on a much less hyperkinetic style of play than the one the Americans excel at. In 2013, Paul Bradley, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in the Department of Sports and Exercise Sciences at the University of Sunderland, led a study on the relationship among speed, endurance, and success at varying levels of the sport.
The researchers isolated factors that included distance covered and sprint speeds as well as total ball touches and successful passes. Bradley discovered that teams in England’s League One and League Championship—the Euro equivalent of minor leagues—cover far more ground on a game-by-game basis than teams at the sport’s uppermost echelon, the English Premier League. Those elite teams, such as Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea, employ a more economical style of play, consciously covering as short a distance as possible.
“They are more technically proficient with the ball and thus don’t need to run around,” said former U.S. coach Bradley. “Plus, they play more direct football, or a passing game, versus the bottom teams that use the long-ball game more.” The high-mileage American style of “kick and chase”—especially when under pressure on defense—resembles a lower-league team.
In addition to talent and skill, the other crucial attribute that elite European-league soccer players share is raw speed. “Modern soccer isn’t how much distance you can cover in 90 minutes,” says Sakihana. “It’s more like: How many sprints can you make, and how fast are you? Can you reach that maximum speed 10, 12, 13 times in 90 minutes? That’s more important than being able to run 12, 13, or 14 kilometers.” A study conducted by the staff at Bolton, a Championship team in England, found that teams whose players consistently covered more distance at high speeds of more than 5.5 meters per second had an 80% greater chance of winning.
With these observations combined, the attributes of a world-class soccer player become clear: He conserves his energy, is efficient with the ball, and has laserlike passing abilities and open-field speed—the latter of which he only unleashes when absolutely necessary. In other words, this guy does not play Sporting Fit.
On the third day of training camp, the U.S. national team continues dusting off the cobwebs: sprints, drills, and interminable mini-games focusing on technique and endurance. During one hour-long session, they launch into a drill called “10 v. 10 plus 1,” which features two teams, each with 10 players, and a free-roaming extra man who always plays offense. There are four goals, two at each end of the field. “It’s 100 miles an hour,” says Zusi, sopping with sweat.
Halfway through the game, Zusi scores with a nifty left-foot shot, then sprints 50 yards back to his position on the flank as play restarts. Moments later, he gains possession again, only to be taken off his feet by a sliding Mix Diskerud. Both players go airborne, their long hair flying, their bodies falling to the ground in hollow thuds. As the ball rolls out of bounds, a new one enters the field of play. Without any concern for their bodies, Zusi and Diskerud hop to their feet and hustle back into position. The drill continues, and the players just keep running. It’s what they do.
The former U.S. defender Hejduk, who proudly claims to have never lost a “fucking beep test” in his life, sums up the American mindset nicely. “There were plenty of times in my career where I played a guy who was twice as skilled as me, a guy who was tactically and technically better,” he says. “But you know what? I ran that guy into the ground. The last 15 minutes of the game, he couldn’t do anything. That’s when I was getting my ball, though, I was crossing the ball, and someone was scoring.”
And while the level of American skill continues to improve with each passing year, “we’re not really there yet, technically,” he says. “But at the very minimum, we have to be fitter than those guys. That’s been a big, big component of American soccer over the last decade and why we’ve done so well. It’s become who we are. We’re known to be this team that will still be in for a dogfight at the very end.”