Joe Cannon has memories of the first couple of weeks the San Jose Earthquakes spent in training this spring. Few of them, however, involve what typically is the center of attention on a pitch.
“We came in the first two weeks, and we didn’t see the ball,” Cannon told MLSsoccer.com. “Actually, we saw it. We just weren’t allowed to play with it too much.”
That’s because coach Frank Yallop and his staff had other ideas in mind. Namely, raising the fitness level of a team that had been decimated by injuries a year earlier.
“We had so many injuries the first two years, in preseason, that I felt we never really got a good base, and I think that’s really helped us this year,” Yallop told MLSsoccer.com. “We decided to really work on the fitness.”
It has paid off. The Quakes have started the 2010 season 5-2-1, most recently defeating Seattle on Saturday.
“There was a little tougher preseason, physically, and it prepared all of us for the start that we got off to,” center back Bobby Burling told MLSsoccer.com.
The Quakes' improved fitness has shown up most later on in the game. In 2009, more than a quarter of the 50 goals San Jose allowed were scored in the 75th minute or later. This year, only one of seven goals the Quakes have surrendered has come that late—an 87th-minute strike from Chukwudi Chijindu of Chivas USA, a play that was given up not due to fatigue, but by a gaffe in a back line desperately trying to find an equalizer.
“I think the coaches, they kind of pinpointed what they wanted to see out of the group, and it’s just worked out so far,” Cannon said. “It’s still early, but right at the beginning, they knew we had to be a blue-collar team, and I think all of the training since Day 1 has been heading in that direction.”
With so many younger players on this year’s roster, Yallop wanted to make sure to set a tone for the season with his training camp work. Whenever the players “look a little bit leggy,” Yallop would either push them harder, or sometimes give them a brief respite.
“I think that when I had older pros before, and most of the clubs I’ve been at, or even on the national team, they knew how to take care of their bodies,” Yallop said. “I felt that we had to get a stricter regime so [the younger players] put the work in when they were with us and make sure that they know we’re going to win games by being fit and hard to break down, and we’ve done that.”
With Saturday out of the way, the Quakes face their biggest fitness test yet: Three matches in the space of eight days before the MLS’s World Cup break. San Jose will host Toronto (May 29) and Columbus (June 2) before traveling to Dallas on June 5.
Yallop, who is generally cautious about making lineup changes willy-nilly, said he hasn’t decided yet if he’ll rest some players during that stretch or try to ride his favorites into the break.
“We’ve got a number of guys who are itching to play. I feel good that we have strength in numbers,” Yallop said. “I think with that (depth), you can make decisions not before it happens but after the game. That’s what I’m going to do; see how they’re looking, how they’re feeling and make a decision then.”