Why did the USMNT have so many damn hamstring injuries?

Posted on July 7, 2014

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Did anyone else initially think USMNT had something to do with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT)? Michelangelo FTW.

I’ve been surprised at the lack of coverage on all the injuries the US men’s soccer team had in this year’s World Cup. Particularly the muscle issues. Even more particular, the hamstring issues. Other things happened, like Demspey’s broken nose and Gonzalez’s sprained ankle, but those are more “shit happens” injuries. When it comes to the strains, I’ve only seen one thorough mention of it here where someone, rightfully so, questioned the USMNT’s preparation coming into the tournament.

First of all, I want to be clear, hamstring issues can be and often are multifaceted. Like many injuries, various factors need to be accounted for. That said, I still think we can glean some insight into what happened.

By my count, four guys had hamstring issues for the U.S. According to their head coach,

“What leads to injuries is fatigue,” coach Jurgen Klinsmann said when asked if he was concerned. “What leads to injuries is playing on the highest level and highest intensity that you’ve ever played before.”

Fair enough. Fatigue is certainly a big portion of getting hurt, especially with a non-contact injury. However, in the first game Jozy Altidore pulled up in the 21st minute and Matt Besler pulled up in the 41st minute. Two starters go out with hamstring issues before the end of the first half of the first game??? How fatigued are these guys already? If you’re that fatigued your preparation has to be severely questioned. Especially in a sport where you know at least 8 of 11 players need to go at least 90 minutes.

Our third hamstring, Fabian Johnson, happened at the 30th minute in the Belgium game. Again, we’re not even at halftime yet, and there were a solid four days of rest between the Germany game (last of group play) and Belgium game. If fatigue is truly the issue, why the hell are we so tired before the first half even ends?

As I’m sure you can tell, I’m not buying this explanation. At least not in the way Klinsmann is proposing it. That these guys were pulling hamstrings like Miley Cyrus pulls on G-strings because they were expending so much energy in such an intense environment.

Next, I happened to catch the fact Johnson had kinesio tape on the hamstring he hurt:

Fabian johnson hamstring

With Johnson, you could perhaps tell me he was suffering not from acute fatigue against Belgium -he was tired just from that game- but he was suffering from chronic fatigue at this point. That three and half World Cup games had worn him down. But the fact he had kinesio tape on his hamstring indicates he hurt this thing earlier in the tournament. Probably in one of the group play matches. Where again, how tired should this guy be in group play? It’s not like you don’t have FOUR YEARS to get ready for this thing.

By the way, kinesio tape is worthless.  I could have told you that back in 2005 when the chiropractor for the USA olympic team gave it to me. (Yes, I actually had him work on me. I randomly found him and he by chance happened to work in a nearby town when I was a teenager.)

Which brings us to our fourth hamstring, Deandre Yedlin. Luckily I was able to find a replay of the entire game here. In the 120th minute I swore I saw Yedlin pull up as well. The ball was quite close to him but he appeared to be limping some. He stopped running and leaned over for a second.

Yedlin Hamstring Screenshot

Then a couple of minutes later he hit the deck. The announcers dismissed it as “cramping,” but it sure as hell didn’t look like a cramp. It happened to him when he swung his leg up -thoroughly stretching the hamstring, prime territory for a strain- and he damn near collapsed. Bottom right of this GIF:

Yedlin GIF

Even if it was cramping, that’s again a sign of poor preparation. Which I cover in my post on Lebron James cramping. 

Because he came in at the 30th minute and this happened in the 120th minute, for Yedlin it happened after 90 minutes. Basically a full game of play.

To recap: Altidore and Besler hurt their hamstrings in the first game. Johnson likely hurt his around this time as well, it just wasn’t as bad. And Yedlin, while it was against Belgium, it was his first full game. Basically, all these guys seem to have gotten hurt in either 1) Early in the game 2) Early in the tournament 3) In that respective player’s first game. There is a very real chance four players pulled their hamstring in each of their first game of play.

By the way, Dempsey also had a groin strain in training camp right before the tournament started.

Oh, and Brad Davis also had a hamstring strain preventing him from participating in the Nigeria friendly (~week before the Cup started).

I didn’t watch many games besides the U.S. ones. But I didn’t see so many guys on one team having this issue, and can’t imagine it happened to another team. If nothing else, I didn’t see one player pull up on any team the U.S. played.

At a minimum, six of our players suffered muscle strains around the World Cup; four in the Cup. There are only 23 guys on the roster, and three of them are goalies. Only including the guys who run, 30% of our players experienced a strain. If that weren’t bad enough, not every guy even played!

By my count, besides Tim Howard, 13 guys got significant playing time. 14 if we include Altidore. Which means for just hamstrings, 4 out of 14 players pulled up. Nearly 30%. If we include Dempsey’s groin and Davis’s hamstring, that’s 43%. And there could have been another guy or two as well, we just didn’t hear about it. Klinsmann seems to be Belichick esque after all. (Plays coy with injury reports.)

Welcome to the land of the physically ill prepared

In the post on Lebron James cramping I talked at length about the influence of heat on fatigue. Namely, you need to be acclimated to it to deal with it.  Someone left a great question in the comments section:

“So this should mean that the South American teams will have an advantage in the World Cup right?”

My response:

“Interesting question!

Maybe.

From a cursory look: The average high this time of year in Rio De Janeiro is 77 degrees fahrenheit. Most of the cups cities are coastal, so I’m assuming the temperature won’t vary much beyond that, at least for the coastal games. In Manaus, which is considerably inland, the average high is about 86. That could start to matter.

(My answer went on from there.)

Of course, where did the U.S. play one of its games? Manaus. The hottest area of the whole tournament. Makes sense to prepare for this, right? Where did Jurgen Klinsmann take his team for training camp? Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA. For those who don’t know the area, this is the bay area of northern California. It’s notorious for brisk weather and an obscene amount of clouds. The most recent training camp was in May. Their Manuas game was played in mid-June.

-> Average high in Manaus in June = 87 degrees

-> Average high in Palo Alto in May = 74 degrees

Never mind the fact Manaus, and Brazil, is renown for its humidity. Manaus is the Amazon after all.

According to here, “Klinsmann didn’t want to train in a locale that was too hot or humid as he plans to get the players as fit as possible heading into Brazil.”

Uhh…

Over and over again I’ve read and heard this guy bitching and moaning how the U.S. players are “behind,” we don’t have the same “foundation,” we need to play “catch up,” yet apparently our coaching staff has no clue in order to play well in heat you need to practice in heat!

From [link no longer exists],

“Totally,” Klinsmann said. “This is an amazing experience. [Being at Stanford] Ask the players. For me as a coach, I think I’ve never had a better setup than this. I understand European teams coming over here, like Juventus here during preseason, two training fields, the locker room they kind of decorated for us. Going to eat lunch with the students, it’s all top quality. The climate in California, you can’t beat. It’s been terrific, top, top so far.

Yes, California is amazing. But the fact Klinsmann is orgasming over his experience at Stanford makes me think he primarily wanted to be there because of his affinity for California. The dude lives in Huntington Beach and regularly flies helicopters around SoCal. For those who don’t know Huntington Beach, it’s exactly what you think of when you hear “How’s the swell bro?” Where surfing for hours and having some beer is considered a productive day. I’m sure for Klinsmann going to some humid, hot as hell location, wasn’t something he felt like doing. Living in San Diego, I can emphatically say the California coast has a way of doing that to you.

“But we played pretty well in the Manaus game?”

That’s not my point. My point is there is a clear indication of poor preparation for our team. The Manaus game is the first example. You know where England did a training camp? Florida. That place in the United States of America, where there are tons of colleges with tons of facilities, where it’s hot as hell, humid as hell, it’s basically swampland and plastic surgery. That might have been a nice way to prepare for Brazil, no?

Klinsmann could have even stayed in California. The state has plenty of hot locations with facilities. It’s half desert after all.

I mentioned the Kinesio tape earlier. Why are we using crap remedies for our players?

I read Klinsmann loved having his players do pilates, which, barring someone making an extremely specific argument, is pointless for athletic preparation. It’s often counterproductive. One reason: everyone stretches their hamstrings wrong.

Before training camp, Klinsmann said,

“because a lot of our guys do not have the same foundation as our opponents have, we have to be clear about that. [Our opponents] are coming from 10-11-month seasons. Some of them [will] play in Champions League final, they play until the very end, they have X amount of games in their legs. Their foundation is different than ours.

So we have to catch up. That’s the work we have to do now over the next three weeks before we start our tournament. Hopefully we catch up and even add a little bit more on top of it. That’s what starts today.”

I’m not sure he recognizes the irony in his words. Are you going to do much catching up in three weeks when you’re trying to catch up to 10/11 month seasons? Let’s be clear: Three weeks before a major event, there is no catching up. You are fine tuning at this point. For the elite athletes who know what they’re doing, 10-14 days is where the taper starts. As one of the guys from Westside Barbell (an elite powerlifting gym) said:

“There’s nothing a lifter can do to get stronger in the last three weeks before a contest; but there are a lot of things that they can do to get weaker.”

At three weeks out you have maybe 7-10 harder training days in you, that’s it. And that’s pushing it. Even if you trained balls out for three weeks, how much can happen in three weeks? Not much.

So when I read things like this, things like the U.S. was doing “four a day” training sessions in their pre World Cup camp, that the U.S. didn’t go to Florida to train until their final friendly match, meaning their end of camp was, if anything, more strenuous rather than less, I cringe. Which brings us back to our hamstring issues.

As I went over, there is basically no rational way to say these guys were fatigued from playing in such an intense environment and that’s why they got hurt. However, it is extremely rational to say these guys were way overworked coming into group play. That they were likely worked to death at Stanford when trying to “play catch up,” but were never adequately recovered for the games that actually mattered.

About a week before the tournament started (bolding mine),

“On a Saturday night, following the final tune-up game against Nigeria here, the players admitted that fatigue had set in — but they deemed it productive. “Tired, man,” said striker Jozy Altidore, whose brace had felled the African champions 2-1. “Tired. Tired legs – in a good way. We worked really, really hard in Stanford to be fit, to be strong. Jurgen stressed that since we started camp. Now, obviously, you’re going to see tired legs out there like you did today but the team worked through it and I think it’s only going to help us and we’re going to peak at the right moment.”

Because, amazingly, what’s still often too prevalent when trying to get athletes into shape is the obsession with “conditioning.” Which basically means run the athlete into the fucking ground. I don’t mean sprinting. We are talking gassers, suicides, laps…all these running drills where you never actually do what most athletes do: Sprint or jog.

Watch a soccer player. Don’t watch the game, but follow a player. They are either jogging very slowly, or all out sprinting.

The thing with sprinting is you need to actually train sprinting. This is why so many American Football players pull hamstrings at the beginning of training camp every year. They do all this “conditioning” work which doesn’t simulate how they actually play. I witnessed this first hand in college where my teammates and I ran around a basketball court doing conditioning drill after conditioning drill for over an hour multiple times per week. We would do gassers lasting 50-60 seconds for each run. Apparently it still hasn’t dawned on enough people that the average play for a football game is about 4 seconds. Most players will move a total of ~5 minutes in a 60 minute game.

So what happens when a football guy who’s been running like he’s a mid distance track athlete starts to sprint? Like in training camp? He pulls up. Because he hasn’t done any sprint work.

What happens when the USMNT players have to sprint faster than hell chasing for a ball, when they’ve been run into the ground for weeks on end, where you can’t ever do any sprint work if you’re that fatigued, where sprinting when chronically fatigued is a good way to get injured, where it seems you were just in general ill prepared (poor hamstring stretching, poor recovery modalities, poor temperature preparation, etc.)? You get the most common non-contact injury: a hamstring strain. And you get a bunch of them.

Extra section: Does this at least partially explain why America struggles so much at soccer (futbol)?

As I alluded to with my experience with the U.S. olympic team’s chiropractor, this type of inadequate preparation doesn’t only extend to soccer. It’s rampant in American sports. Just look at the statistics on youth injuries. Particularly in sports like baseball.

The difference with soccer compared to say the olympics is we can’t get by on sheer numbers with soccer. We can’t throw out the guys who happen to still be standing (aren’t injured) and win on the international level. In American Football, baseball, basketball, or whatever, we can throw out our second, third, or fourth best players and still win. We can’t do that in soccer because our first, second, third, who knows how many, best players are in other sports already. Meanwhile, for many other countries their best athletes are in soccer.

One of the only ways I see this paradigm changing is if / when the mother’s of America say, “No son, you are not playing football. You can play soccer.” To where the best athletes here start trickling into soccer. Because the preparation aspect has proven it has not and will not change, so we need the extra bodies to provide a greater margin of error on the international scene.

And American Football is the sport they’re most likely to leave due to what’s going on right now. (Yes, soccer guys get concussions every now and then. Yes, soccer is more violent than people give it credit for. But American Football is on another planet.) Plus, football and futbol are both fall sports in the states.

“Why does America not lure more of its great athletes to soccer?”

As a final tangent, this is an obvious question to ask in my mind.

I sat down to watch the Ghana game, which was on a Monday afternoon here in the states. I sat down at 3pm and before 5pm I was walking out of the bar to get back to work. “I love how quick soccer games are. So straight and to the point.”

It dawned on me this may be why the sport doesn’t get the notoriety here that it does in other countries: There’s nowhere near as many commercials. There’s not as much room for advertisements, for networks to make money, for products to pimp themselves.

In the World Cup games there have been 15 minute halftimes where commercials are thrown in. That’s it. In an American baseball game there are commercials twice per inning. That’s 18 breaks right there. There are commercials whenever a pitching change is made. That brings us up to about 23 breaks. There are commercials for replay, extra time for the 7th inning stretch, baseball games never – ever – end.

In basketball and football there are actual “TV timeouts.” The games stop just for commercial breaks!

Networks don’t give soccer the same level of coverage because it doesn’t generate the same level of profit. (Hockey is similar.) Unfortunately, the media has power. When all you see on TV is basketball and football, as a kid you get more enamored with those sports than soccer, which you have to go scouring the channels for, if it’s even there.

Is the Super Bowl the most watched event each year because of how entertaining the game is, or is it because of the commercials? For the Portugal – USA game, I could have gone to any city in America, sat in a bar, and saw the mosh pit I saw break out in Los Angeles. That’s how into this World Cup people were. You cannot say that about any NFL game, ever.

-World Cup game => ~100 minutes of playing with a 15 minute halftime for a 115 minute telecast, where I’d say about 10 minutes of halftime is advertisements.

-Super Bowl => 60 minutes of playing, but the telecast is usually ~four hours. No, not every stoppage includes an ad, but we’re talking at least an hour devoted to commercials. Six times that of soccer.

I don’t buy the whole Americans simply don’t like soccer, it’s boring, it’s not violent enough, etc. I only watched a handful of games. I saw a broken nose, a goalie punch someone in the face, a broken back, multiple people kicked in the face, potential for riots, one goalie walk up to a penalty kicker and talk shit, A GUY GET BITTEN, and I swear one of the bars I went to was at risk for burning to the ground. The game is plenty entertaining enough…I’m not sure it’s profitable enough.

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