If you’ve watched one of the greatest highlights in U.S. Soccer history -- Landon Donovan’s last-minute goal to beat Algeria and save the U.S. from elimination in World Cup 2010 -- you can’t miss Pierre Barrieu. Celebrating next to the dog-pile of U.S. players in the corner, Barrieu is the guy in the fuchsia penny who gives a full-bodied, double-fisted roar for the ages, accurately reflecting the mood of the U.S. team and fans that day.
It was a symbolic moment for the French-born Barrieu, who was the head fitness coach for the U.S. at three World Cups (2002, ’06 and ’10), reaching the quarterfinals in ’02 and the Round of 16 in ’10. The fitness levels on that 2010 U.S. team were remarkable, as the players showed in their whooshing counter-attack in the 91st minute that led to Donovan’s goal.
“The coaching staff spent so much time preparing for that goal,” Barrieu (who was in charge of scouting Algeria) said by Skype from his home in France this week. “And I remember being on the bench, looking at the clock and thinking there’s no way we’re going back home. From the second we scored, I don’t remember running to the corner, but I remember being there and thinking, ‘You know what, we deserved that! Let’s go!’ It’s a good memory.”
From 2002 to ’11, working under two head coaches (Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley), no single person did more than Barrieu to establish superior fitness as a calling card of the U.S. men’s national team. Those U.S. squads might not always have the world’s most talented soccer players, but by god they could run all day, and it made a difference in the modern game, where athleticism is more important than ever.
So Barrieu finds himself wondering what’s going on when he reads U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s remarks lately. When asked about the U.S.’s struggles in friendlies -- the U.S. has won just once in nine games since the World Cup victory over Ghana -- Klinsmann cited a missing culture of fitness in the team to reporters:
“In many different ways, [the results are] explainable. The tension drops after the World Cup. I think all of the teams go through that, but I think the more experienced teams, the teams that have far more peer pressure in their environment, they maybe allow themselves to drop 10 or 20 percent and not 30 or 50 percent. That is the difference to what we deal with [in] the aftermath of the World Cup in Brazil.”
After the MLS offseason, Klinsmann added, “It’s difficult for me now to get them out of vacation … They don’t have that, ‘Oh, O.K., at the beginning of December, go to Athletes’ Performance in Phoenix and get myself fit.’ That culture we don’t have yet … The culture is not there.”
That’s not the U.S. team culture that Barrieu knows. “It’s always hard to comment on situations that are taking place right now, because I’m not part of it,” Barrieu said. “The one thing I can talk about is what went on during my years on the team with two different regimes, Bruce and Bob. Fitness has been a hallmark of the team. People were always saying, ‘You guys are hard to play because you’re very fit.’ So now when Jurgen said this, I’m scratching my head. It’s surprising.”
Barrieu does want to make one thing clear: The U.S.’s reputation for top-level fitness isn’t due to some sort of genetic advantage. It’s due to a culture of hard work.
“Sometimes it’s interpreted as the U.S. guys are really superior fitness freaks. But that’s not the case,” he said. “We had guys who were starters for years, who are big names in the U.S., and they are not superior fitness specimens to European players. We had teams that were really fit because it was a priority. The coaching staff was like, ‘If we lose games, we will totally make sure it wasn’t due to bad fitness, because this is something we can control.’ It comes down to the players, the work and the training method, which is why I really enjoyed my years in the U.S. Players were willing to do the work.”
But for a few years even that part was a work in progress. When Barrieu first joined the U.S. team before the 2002 Gold Cup, he said, “a lot of players got hit like a ton of bricks” by the fitness requirements. By around 2004, though, he said a culture of fitness had been built up within the team, one that included regular communication and instruction when the players were not in national team camp.
“What started as a big surprise ended up as an expectation,” Barrieu said. “This is sociology here. They don’t think the same, they don’t function the same, but I saw a tremendous improvement … You design a good program, you stay in touch and you have feedback and guidelines. Then it’s up to them to do it or not, knowing there would be a way for us to verify if their work had been done or not in camp.”
Barrieu left U.S. Soccer when Bradley was fired in 2011. He then worked as an assistant coach and head fitness coach for the United Arab Emirates national team. He left that job last year for Sheffield Wednesday, which was set to gain a money infusion from new owners from Azerbaijan. But when the purchase fell apart, Barrieu’s job was one of the casualties. He’s currently working as a FIFA technical instructor running coaching symposiums in different countries.
Barrieu didn’t mind questioning the current regime was when it came to the three U.S. hamstring injuries suffered during the World Cup by Jozy Altidore, Matt Besler and Fabian Johnson.
“This is my personal opinion: When it comes to these soft-tissue injuries, I’ll tell you flat out: I don’t think this is a coincidence,” he said. “What can explain this? Again, I wasn’t there to witness the workload and all the other factors during the camp and the days that preceded it. But it would be foolish to have three injuries like this -- three non-contact soft-tissue injuries in the same muscle group -- and think this is a coincidence. And I’m sure [the coaching staff] didn’t do that.”
Barrieu said he still has fond memories of the U.S., and that not a day goes by that he doesn’t check what’s happening with MLS and the national team.
One of my favorite stories: Barrieu wasn’t above installing some humorous methods of keeping players honest. Once, during Arena’s tenure, he included in the late-December home-training program a workout that was literally impossible to complete. “No one could do this,” he said, “because it was just too fast, too much distance and not enough time.” When the day of that workout came, right after Christmas, he got 15 phone calls and e-mails from players who were coming into that January camp.
“Guys were telling me, ‘F---, there’s no way I could do it,’” he recalls. “And I’m like, ‘Great! Because you’re not supposed to! Good work. Keep going!’” Another third of the players wouldn’t check in, and only after he contacted them would they say there were a couple days behind. And then there were a final few, six or seven, he would ask about the impossible workout. “Oh, great, no problem,” they’d tell him. “And I’d say, ‘I’ll see you on January 4!’” he said, laughing. “So this is sociology.”
It’s not an exact science, in other words. But if there really is a significant problem with the fitness culture in Klinsmann’s team -- and not everyone is sure that there is -- it’s a decline that has happened under his watch over the past three-and-a-half years.