Steve Davis
Friday April 23rd, 2010

Back in 2002, the United States played five World Cup matches over 17 days. Lost in the intoxication of that mad quarterfinal dash into history was the physical difficulty of it all.

It truly was a grueling stretch of matches.

The odds may be against something similar this time around. Still, it's Pierre Barrieu's job to see that Bob Bradley's men are physically up for the task in South Africa.

Barrieu is U.S. Soccer's man with the fitness plan. He was also fitness coach for Bruce Arena during the 2002 and 2006 World Cups.

Like any World Cup, this summer's tournament brings specific challenges. Chief among them is having less preparation time than either of the last two tournaments. Plus, Barrieu must tweak the program for several players who are coming off injury -- and aren't necessarily in the same places in their recovery bids. Unfortunately, the list of players to which this applies is fairly significant.

In terms of physical and mental demand in the sport, nothing tests and stretches like a World Cup. Switch off for a minute because of creeping fatigue and you risk shattering millions of hearts back home. Barrieu says even seasoned vets have been surprised by the intensity and subsequent mental and physical drain of matches at this level.

He will have 28 days to prepare them for it once the U.S. squad begins arriving into Princeton, N.J., on May 15. Workouts begin two days later. That gives Barrieu less than two weeks to hammer the base of tough fitness training before the May 30 departure for South Africa. Once there, the team will back off on physical prep while getting acclimated to the altitude at its Pretoria base (altitude: 4,000 feet).

Recall in recent World Cups that the U.S.' first match was six days into the tournament. That effectively provided Barrieu with almost an extra week to establish the important, initial base of fitness. (Something worked right; recall the miles logged by Landon Donovan and others in that heroic, exhausting nine-man effort against Italy in Kaiserslautern.)

No such luxury this time. The Americans get right into the fight, facing Wayne Rooney and England about 24 hours after tournament kickoff. On the other hand, Barrieu can be less concerned about recovery between matches this time around thanks to a fairly forgiving first-round schedule. The Americans get five and four days rest between first-round encounters.

(If the United States were to ambush England straight away, a la Portugal 2002, and manage to finish atop the group, it would have only two days' rest before a second-round clash. Don't think that fact is lost on England; Fabio Capello's side will inherit the same challenge with a first-place group finish. Good luck with all that.)

So Barrieu must design a program that stretches the players' strength and stamina while in the States -- but doesn't break anyone -- and then tapers appropriately on the ground in South Africa. That's going to be especially critical for guys like Oguchi Onyewu, who may come into camp without having competed in a match since last fall. Charlie Davies? Who knows what he and his delicate situation might require? And where will guys like Benny Feilhaber, Clint Dempsey, Steve Cherundolo and others be as they return from recent injury and reach for peak fitness? That's all on Barrieu to quickly measure.

Barrieu, 38, acknowledged that his job would be simpler if everyone were at the same starting point. "It's not going to be easy, but it's not like we're not prepared for it," he said Thursday from California. "We've known this was coming for a long time."

There is one other issue Barrieu need concern himself with: arranging a program that fits European players and MLS men alike. Talent from the Old World will be on the back end of their campaigns. MLS men are on the front end of theirs and probably need to be pushed harder in camp. In this case, Barrieu says it's not as tricky as it seems. After all, how many guys who aren't wearing goalie gloves really are coming off exhaustive, extensive European action? Michael Bradley, for sure. Carlos Bocanegra, perhaps. But Dempsey and some others, for good or bad, had injury-related breaks. Still others aren't playing regularly, so they remain relatively fresh.

"I wish it was more of problem," Barrieu said. "I'd rather deal with this problem than not have to deal with it."

Surely, a lot of U.S. supporters feel the same way.

Three important things to take away from Seattle's controversial 2-2 draw Thursday at Dallas: Once again we see that this isn't the old MLS, where games in April and May didn't amount to much. In MLS 2010, teams understand that points in spring are every bit as important as points in summer and fall. That's why the Sounders were utterly apoplectic at Terry Vaughn's 93rd-minute penalty kick award. There was much huffing and puffing in the postgame aftermath, where GM Adrian Hanauer kicked a wall in disgust.

Seattle manager Sigi Schmid measured his comments carefully but was clearly disgusted. He allowed that Vaughn "had a bad night," while also offering that he's been thrown out of matches twice as a pro coach -- both times by Vaughn. As for Thursday, he said FC Dallas players approached him afterward and copped to the inaccuracy of the call. Across the hall, FC Dallas manager Schellas Hyndman had this response: "I think he should worry about his own team, not mine."

Delicious stuff. In April. Imagine what it will be like in August and September. Game on! The Sounders already had reason to be upset when they landed in Dallas. From there, they travel for a Sunday match in Toronto.

Making the schedule is tough, and every club will find something to dislike. Still, requiring these Thursday-Sunday sets is something MLS really must work harder to avoid. At the very least, the league shouldn't ask a team to travel on both legs, as the Sounders will this week. Last week, it was Toronto that had to travel on the back half of a Thursday-Sunday set. It got clobbered last Sunday in Colorado.

Hanauer and the rest of the Sounders took it in stride. He pointed out that schedule making will always be full of foibles. For instance, his side will play Red Bull New York on May 15, completing its season set with Hans Backe's team before summer reinforcements arrive. Of course, as Hanauer also noted, that means some poor team out there plays Red Bull twice with the fresh faces.

Also, Seattle's designated player, Freddie Ljungberg, was on the bench to begin Thursday's match. He said Schmid essentially gave him a choice: start Thursday or start Sunday, but not both. How much sense does that make for the league? MLS has a great player like Ljungberg but arranges a schedule so that he can't play in every possible match.

Long flights on either side of Thursday's match exacerbated the issue. Ljungberg noted that in Europe players would typically only stretch themselves over two close-proximity matches if one was a big Champions League encounter. Clearly, a night in Dallas with about 3,000 fans in the stands (announced attendance: 8,512) doesn't fit the criteria. As for Thursday-Sunday sets generally: "In my opinion, there's not enough games in the league to have to do it, really," Ljungberg said.

One day we might have a New York derby to drool over, and won't that be a hoot? Until then, Philadelphia Union-Red Bull is a crackerjack of a substitute.

Who knew we would be saying this, but Los Angeles gets its toughest test yet Saturday in the heartland, facing a much-improved Kansas City Wizards team. Four smart, new acquisitions (Ryan Smith, Jimmy Nielsen, Stephane Auvray and Kei Kamara) have added much to the overall quality at little CommunityAmerica Ballpark. The Galaxy need to keep stacking and racking the points now; Landon Donovan (and quite possibly league scoring leader Edson Buddle) has five matches before reporting for national team duty.

List Chivas USA and Toronto as teams desperate for points this weekend. Both have three points after four matches and risk falling too far behind if they can't gain ground during home matches in Round 5.

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