On March 12, Head Coach Jim Curtin and his Philadelphia Union squad were hard at work preparing for their 2020 home opener against the San Jose Earthquakes at Subaru Park. Unfortunately for the Union, they wouldn’t get the chance to play in front of their fans that weekend, as that day began the suspension of MLS play.
“It was kind of eerie; I got a message and got pulled off the field and got told the news,” Curtin said in a recent Zoom video call with Season Ticket Holders.
The suspension, while not initially expected to last long, is now expected to go into the summer (the latest target date is June 8). For Curtin and his staff, that means finding new ways to keep players healthy.
“It is a very serious thing, and the wheels start spinning in the mind of a coach, ‘how do we have ourselves prepared for when things restart?’” Curtin said.
With the suspension of the season, the Union’s Performance Department had to figure out ways for their athletes to stay as fit as possible for their eventual return to play
For Curtin, maintaining fitness is especially important, as he knows that his team’s physical capabilities will be what sets them apart from other teams when the season returns.
“As a coach, I stress, ‘Listen, everybody, when we do come back and start playing again, we won’t be sharp with the ball. But the one thing we can control right now is how in shape we are,’” he said.
Before the team could even begin assigning workouts for the players, they needed to be sure that players had what they needed to stay in shape, according to Performance Director Garrison Draper.
“Essentially, the gym at the annex has been rented out,” Draper told Brotherly Game in a recent phone interview. “Almost every piece of equipment has gone. Almost every guy got a decent amount of equipment.”
With their new equipment, players are now able to participate in the training sent to them by the training staff.
“What we do is every morning in our team communication, the players get a workout. It’s their workout for the day and it’s sort of like a hodgepodge of different activities,” Draper said.
The training staff also makes a point to connect with players to be sure that they are able to complete their workouts.
“Our goal as a performance department is to have three contacts per player per week,” Draper said. “It’s either a text message, it’s a phone call, it’s a FaceTime and some kind of interaction with the guy where he can say like, ‘Hey, I’m having an issue.’”
Outside of the workout itself, the change in a player’s daily routine can prove to be a challenge. With many players raising families, finding the time to continue their regimen can be a challenge.
“I think there’s a lot of guys that have really had to change their lifestyles but still trying to fit it into their role, which is a professional athlete,” said Draper, who has an eight-month old son he is parenting while juggling work responsibilities. “Their job is 24/7.”
Draper and his team are also making sure that the players continue to eat healthy and maintain fitness through food as well.
“So right now with our team at Drexel… they’re going around and actually communicating with a lot of different companies that do pre-prepared meals,” Draper said. “So we’re just offering those up as options that players can utilize.”
Draper and the fitness team, which includes assistant coach for performance Dave McKay and physical therapist Brad Papson, are also challenging the players using friendly competition as motivation.
“Over the last two or three weeks, we’ve been including little challenges, where, like a guy can call out a teammate, say, ‘Hey, I did 15 pushups in a row, you’ve got 16,’” Draper said. “Now the numbers are a little bit higher because they’re professional athletes, but that’s the general idea.”
“Actually for this week… we’re gonna do what’s called the ‘what’s it your cooking challenge?’ where you show what you ate for dinner or order for dinner,” he continued.
The intense workouts and food monitoring aren’t the only things that players have to keep up with. Players are still required to participate in film meetings to prepare for any upcoming matches.
“I’ll go through with the group, we’ll have it broken down into defender specific, we’ll have our midfielders, and then our forwards, and we’ll walk through the strengths and weaknesses of an opponent,” Curtin said.
The team also studies games from last year to find areas to improve upon for this season.
“When teams came into our stadium and we were having a lot of success last season, they started to sit a lot deeper,” Curtin said. “We’ve been very good in the transition game, we scored a ton of goals last year that were exciting end to end, but when a team sits with ten guys behind the ball, it’s hard to break them down, and how do we find new ways to do that.”
Draper believes that the Union’s current routine is similar to their offseason and preseason routines.
“We’re just programming like this would be an offseason period. And sort of the rumors that we’re hearing and we’re gonna get a little bit of a build up time,” he said. “So now we’re just preparing them for preseason.”
Curtin is also making sure that he keeps his mind sharp for coaching by communicating with other coaches from other MLS teams and from the Philadelphia Union Academy.
“You’re always trying to find little things to improve at as a team, and you’re also connecting with academy staff, you’re connecting with other coaches in the league to stay sharp, to stay up to date, just pick their brains and see what they’re doing,” he said.
Despite the consistent contact and communication from the training staff, Curtin and his team are ready to take the field as soon as they can.
“The second we get the green light from the commissioner, they’ll all be back,” he said.