When hardcore international soccer fans see Zusi set foot on the pitch, they instantly recognize the characteristics of the stereotypical American player: the chiseled face and lithe, slender frame; that long, flowing brown hair often tied up high in a bun or pushed back with a headband—it’s a breezy look that would seem just as fitting in the crowd of a Colorado music festival as on a soccer pitch. (English footballers, meanwhile, tend to look more like bouncers.) And though he is indeed a laid-back and polite guy, Zusi brings to the pitch a near psychopathic intensity and threshold for pain. It turns out that his style of play is All-American, too.
At the 2010 World Cup, the American players covered an average of 73.6 miles per game. According to FIFA’s tracking technology, that figure was the highest of all the participating 32 nations. (Japan came in second at 72.1 team miles per game.) Midfielder Michael Bradley, another one of America’s fittest players, ran a tournament-high eight miles per match. Donovan, the man Zusi replaces on occasion in the team’s starting lineup, came in second, at 7.5 miles per game.
In soccer, the ability to outrun and outlast an opponent has advantages, especially at the end of a long match where a single mistake can lead to a goal. “It’s much easier to be focused in the 80th and 90th minute if you have that fitness inside,” says Mix Diskerud, a young American midfielder vying for a spot on the team.
So it’s no surprise that the Americans have thrived in late-game situations. In the opening match against England in the 2010 World Cup, the U.S. team conceded a goal in the fourth minute, only to tie the game in the 40th. (It ended 1-1.) Against Slovenia, the Americans fell behind 2-0 before halftime to rally in the 48th minute and then again in the 82nd to earn a second straight draw. In their next game, against Algeria, they dominated the possession but couldn’t score—that is, until the first minute of stoppage time, the extended play allotted for injuries and other delays, when goalkeeper Tim Howard hurled an outlet pass to a sprinting Donovan, who kicked the ball to forward Jozy Altidore. Altidore crossed to midfielder Clint Dempsey, who took a shot that was saved. Donovan, in perhaps the most memorable moment in American men’s soccer history, scored on the rebound. The entire play, at the close of a grueling match, unfolded in less than 15 seconds. The team fell to Ghana in the next round.
“We knew to some extent that we were physically better than most of these teams,” says Barrieu, who served as the U.S. team’s fitness instructor under head coach Bruce Arena between 2002 and 2006 and then under Bob Bradley from 2008 to 2011. “That was taken care of. We knew that if we were going to lose a game, fitness wouldn’t be the reason.”
In 2012 and 2013, when they played a total of 37 matches—during which Zusi logged 19 appearances—the U.S. national team scored 11 goals in the last 10 minutes of the first half and a whopping 21 in the final 15 minutes of the second. In that same span, they conceded just four goals and 10 goals, respectively.
Under Coach Klinsmann, one of the most recognizable faces in international soccer—he was a star forward for the German national team in the 1980s and ’90s, who relocated to Southern California after retirement—the focus on fitness has shifted but remains no less intense. Gone are the days of running lap after lap, sprint after sprint, as the team used to do under the aegis of Arena and Bradley. Training sessions now consist of prolonged on-ball drills, such as the five-on-five games, designed to improve skill as much as lung function. It’s a subtle change the Americans enjoy.
“All players appreciate when we’re able to do fitness while we’re playing,” says Benny Feilhaber. “Practice goes by a little bit quicker. Jürgen loves that stuff.”