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2014 FIFA World Cup Soccer Fitness Preview: Belgium – The Latest “Golden Generation”

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Because this is a World Cup year, I have decided to countdown to the tournament by providing a short soccer/fitness related preview of each of the 32 participating nations. In this installment, I will look at the Belgium, a team that many in the media have dubbed as a dark horse to win the tournament this year.  Belgium have been drawn in Group H, which includes South Korea, Russia, and Algeria, and they play their first match against Algeria on June 17th.

The reason that Belgium has been picked as a potential favorite to win the World Cup this year is that the team presently includes several star quality players in their mid-to-late 20’s, who also happen to be in the peak of their careers and plying their trade for some of Europe’s top clubs.  Among them are:

  • Vincent Kompany (28 years old, Manchester City, England)
  • Thomas Vermailen (28 years old, Arsenal, England)
  • Marouane Fellaini (26 years old, Manchester United)
  • Stephen Defour (26 years old, Porto, Portugal)
  • Romelu Lukaku (21 years old, Everton, England)
  • Eden Hazard (23 years old, Chelsea, England)
  • Dries Martens (27 years old, Napoli, Italy)

These players have been called Belgium’s “Golden Generation”, as they have been together in the Belgian youth national teams for the past 8-10 years.  The label of “Golden Generation” has been given to many different teams in the past 20 years.  One key measure of the validity of the “Golden Generation” label for European teams, is how much success they have achieved at the UEFA U21 European Championship, a showcase for the top young players and teams in the continent, held every 2 years.  Sometimes, in the case of the Italian team of the late 1990’s / early 2000’s (winners of the UEFA U21 Championship in 1998, again in 2004, and the FIFA World Cup in 2006), the label is fitting, because the team has had success with a core group of youth players who eventually had similar success at the highest level.  In other cases, such as the England team of the 2000’s, the label of “Golden Generation” was given to a team that, while they did have a talented core group of players who had been together for over a decade, had not actually won any trophies, either at the youth or senior levels.

In Belgium’s case, the present “Golden Generation” has had some reasonable success, getting to the semi-finals of the 2007 UEFA European Championship, losing to eventual winners Serbia, and with a team featuring Lukaku, Hazard, Defour and Fellaini.  They were also extremely dominant in qualifying for this year’s World Cup,  topping a group that included Croatia, Serbia, and Scotland, and going undefeated in the process.  If the new crop of star players is truly deserving of their “Golden Generation” title, they will need tom prove it by winning some gold at the senior level at the World Cup this year.  We will have to wait and see what happens in 2 weeks’ time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.

Matches

2014 FIFA World Cup Soccer Fitness Preview: USA – Late Specialization and Long Term Goalkeeper Development

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Because this is a World Cup year, I have decided to countdown to the tournament by providing a short soccer/fitness related preview of each of the 32 participating nations. In this installment, I will look at the United States, one of the strongest CONCACAF teams, that is drawn in Group G, largely considered the “group of death”. Group G includes Germany, Ghana, and Portugal.  USA plays their first match against Ghana on June 16th.

The United States has a very unique soccer culture and history. While the country had some early World Cup success (reaching the knockout stages of the first World Cup held in Brazil in 1950), the sport of soccer never really took hold in the States.  Presently, soccer lags behind American football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and other sports such as NASCAR in terms of popularity and media coverage.  That being said, in the early 1990’s soccer experienced a resurgence in the United States, firstly when the country hosted the 1994 World Cup, and secondly with the formation of Major League Soccer (MLS), which still exists today and is presently the only North American professional soccer league.  The United States also poured a lot of money and resources into their national teams programs following disappointing performances at the 1994 and 1998 World Cups, and since then, they have reached a quarter-final (Korea/Japan 2002), and gotten out of the group stage at the previous 2 World Cups (Germany 2006, and South Africa 2010).

One interesting and unique aspect of the USA’s recent soccer success is the number of elite level goalkeepers the country has produced.  Presently, the USA has 3 goalkeepers playing with top clubs in the English Premier League, generally considered one of the best professional league in the world:

  1. Tim Howard –  Everton 
  2. Brad Friedel – Tottenham Hotspur
  3. Brad Guzan – Aston Villa

In addition to these players, the USA has also developed several high level other goalkeepers who have had successful careers at home and abroad, including Kasey Keller, Nick Rimando, and Tony Meola, to name a few. 

At the TFC Academy (where I worked as Fitness Coach for the past 2 years), our goalkeeper coach was John Conway, another US-born goalkeeper, who played professionally in Denmark, as well as in the MLS.  When we discussed this topic, he expressed his opinion that one of the reasons the United States develops so many elite goalkeepers is because young athletes in the United States are exposed to – and play a lot of – the popular sports there such as American football, baseball, and basketball, all of which require a lot of upper body strength, power, and coordination.  He himself played high school football and basketball, and he credited playing those sports as having a primary role in the development of some of his goalkeeping skills, including ball catching/handling, throwing, and jumping/diving ability.  Other US-born goalkeepers such as Howard and Friedel have also admitted in interviews that they believe playing “traditional” American sports as youngsters had a positive impact on their development as keepers.

In the Canadian Soccer Association’s LTPD (Long-Term Player development) model, youth athletes are encouraged to participate in a wide variety of sports, and not to specialize in soccer until the 5th stage of development (“Training to Compete”) which occurs between the ages of U15 – U20.  This model of “late specialization” is popular in some successful soccer countries (Germany, Denmark, Australia) but not the preferred method in others (Spain, France, Italy) who typically emphasize “early specialization” (specialized soccer training that can start as early as 8-10 years of age).  In the case of the American goalkeepers, however, the number of US-born keepers playing for top clubs around the world cannot be discounted.  Clearly, for the goalkeeping position, “late specialization” and participation in “traditional” American sports such as football, baseball, and basketball can have a key impact on the development of some of the athletic abilities necessary to become a top level keeper.

Two of the three goalkeepers selected for the 2014 World Cup roster by US coach Jurgen Klinsmann are Premier League keepers Howard, and Guzan (the third is Rimando, who presently plays for Real Salt Lake in MLS).  Of these three, Everton’s Howard is likely to be the starting keeper in Brazil.  Can the effects of his “late specialization” on his overall athletic development help him enough to lift the USA out of the group of death and into the second round for the 4th straight time?  We will have to wait and see what happens in 2 weeks’ time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.