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It Seems To Me . . .

Faulty altitude training might have led to U.S. fatigue against Mexico.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

(Tuesday, April 9, 2002) -- Following last Wednesday’s 1-0 victory over Mexico in Denver, United States men’s coach Bruce Arena blamed his team’s poor performance of the fatigue of some of his players. He said, for instance, that he replaced Landon Donovan in the second half because, after playing two Major League Soccer matches with a trip to Germany in between, Donovan was simply exhausted.

Arena’s assertions have basis in fact. Certainly a number of the players who flew from the U.S. to play in a March 27 friendly against Germany, clearly lost their legs in the second half against Mexico. However, it also might be true that Arena unknowingly could have contributed to his players’ physical difficulties in Denver.

A few weeks ago, physicians and athletic trainers from all over the world gathered in Los Angeles for the International Football and Sports Medicine Conference sponsored by world governing body FIFA, the U.S. Soccer Federation and the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine. One of the speakers addressing the symposium was Dr. Francisco Arroyo, an advisor to soccer teams in Guadalajara, Mexico, and an expert on the effects of altitude on physical performance.

It is widely recognized that altitude can adversely affect athletes competing in Mexico City, which at 7,470 feet above sea level is one of the highest capitals in the world. Less, recognized, said Arroyo, are problems that can occur at less altitude, say in his home city of Guadalajara which is at about 5,500 feet or about the exact same altitude as Denver.

"As altitude increases, exercise capacity is reduced," Arroyo explained. "The problem is well known in Mexico City, but can also be felt in places like Denver and Guadalajara. To play at different altitudes the athlete should be adapted to the physiological changes."

At altitude, the air in thinner and does not carry as much oxygen. During exercise, this means not as much oxygen gets into the lungs and blood, heart rate increases, the athlete is quicker to fatigue, and, depending on the altitude and other factors, can get into more serious trouble with preliminary symptoms of altitude sickness.

According to Arroyo, serious altitude illness is a factor above 10,000 feet. This means that it is actually potentially dangerous to play in places like La Paz, Bolivia, at 11,913 feet, one of the highest cities in the world where international soccer is played. But, he said, milder symptoms of altitude illness can begin to occur at about 8,000 feet or even in some lower altitudes.

The problem starts with fluid accumulates in between cells in the brain and/or the lungs. Mild symptoms can include headache, loss of appetite, lethargy, fatigue, lack of sleep and dizziness. These symptoms can resolve once someone is acclimatized to the altitude.

Therein is the problem. How long does it take to acclimatize to a higher altitude? The common-sense answer is the higher you are, the longer it takes. Generally speaking, in La Paz it could take 10 days to two weeks, in Mexico City a week to 10 days and in Guadalajara -- or Denver -- up to five days to a week.

What Dr. Arroyo has found interesting, and perhaps very relevant to last week’s U.S. match, is that an athlete’s process of an acclimatizing to competing higher altitudes, such as in Denver, is not a straight line where the athlete becomes more accustomed to the thinner air each day until on the fifth or sixth day he feels no difference than if he were at sea level.

What current research shows is the process is one of peaks and valleys. On day one, the athlete feels only minor effects from the higher altitude. But on second and third days, the effects are actually maximized. Then, an athlete begins to recover on day four and will become acclimatized over the next few days with each individual responding differently.

Assuming such research is accurate, U.S. preparations for Mexico in Denver were done exactly wrong. The U.S. players gathered on Sunday and Monday and, from all reports, practiced hard on Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday, the match day, was probably when many of the players were feeling the maximum effect of the altitude.

That, combined with the travel and playing several matches in a week, could easily explain the excessive fatigue that Arena saw on the field.

"There are two ways for teams being asked to compete at higher altitudes to deal with these problems," Arroyo said. "They can take the time to acclimatize with the coaches and trainers realizing that performance will have its ups and downs during the period. Or they can come in and play very quickly, before adverse symptoms begin to appear. The biggest difficulty occurs when teams spend too long, but not long enough."

Interestingly, it appears that Arena and the U.S. prepare properly when playing in Mexico City. Under Arena, the U.S. party comes into the city late on the afternoon before the match, walks through a light practice at the stadium and then goes out and plays the next day.

"You can play in Mexico City two ways," Arroyo said. "Go in and play immediately which is what most Mexican league teams do going to Mexico City to play matches. Or go in a week before and train gradually. Where you have troubles is in between."

Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at bobwagman@soccertimes.com..

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