A few days after Sporting Kansas City suffered a first-round playoff exit last October, its captain, Matt Besler, stood against the wall of the team’s training facility and assessed the most demanding year of his soccer career. He described the need for a multi-week break — his first in 22 months — before joining the United States men’s national team for its annual January camp.
Most of his national-team teammates took similar time away from the game following the MLS season. And that apparently didn’t sit well with national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
After a U.S. loss in Chile, Klinsmann criticized his players’ fitness levels, later adding that the team wasn’t physically prepared for the Jan. 28 match.
Besler returned to the Sporting KC training facility Friday for the first time since his latest stint with the national side, and he addressed the criticism.
“I think it’s unfortunate that a player has to answer questions about fitness,” Besler said. “I won’t say anything about his comments. He can say whatever he wants.”
Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes, a former member of the U.S. team for nearly a decade, was a bit more candid in his assessment of Klinsmann’s comments.
“To expect those guys to be in top form at a January camp — and I mean this — I think it’s utterly ridiculous,” Vermes said.
The annual camp started in the midst of an MLS offseason, after most players had battled through a 9- or 10-month regular season and playoff schedule.
Besler said he took three weeks off after Sporting KC was eliminated in the first round of the MLS postseason, then amped up a five-week training schedule.
“Personally, fitness is not an issue for me,” Besler said.
Two weeks before he departed for U.S. camp, Besler and Sporting KC fitness coach Mateus Manoel developed a more in-depth offseason training schedule designed to prepare him for another MLS season.
“My goal is to be in my peak fitness on March 1,” Besler said. “That’s when my season starts. It goes from March to December. So on Jan. 15, we devised an offseason plan for me to hit my peak fitness on March 1, and I think that’s what most of the guys did.
“If the expectation is different, that’s something that needs to be discussed so we know going into a camp where we need to be.”
Besler said his fitness numbers for the January camp — which are tested by the national team’s coaching staff — didn’t match where he was last June prior to the World Cup, but his plan was never devised to meet that goal.
Vermes further expressed the need for resting players, and he used Graham Zusi’s stress fracture in his foot as evidence for it. The injury is a product of overuse, the likely effect of Zusi playing in the World Cup, then rejoining Sporting KC without a break.
The stress fracture cost Zusi a spot on the national-team roster in January, and he still hasn’t fully rejoined Sporting KC’s training camp, though he says he’s close.
Vermes offered Zusi and Besler the option to take two weeks off following the World Cup last summer — citing his personal experience after the 1990 World Cup, when he felt a physical and mental break was required. That experience led to his refutation of Klinsmann’s assessment.
“Totally disagree with the comment,” Vermes said. “I have a lot of respect for Jurgen. Obviously he was a great player, and he’s done tremendous things as a coach, as well. But that doesn’t mean every time someone opens their mouth, they’re right. And I completely disagree.”