Professional soccer players can perform amazing feats, whether lacing a pinpoint pass 60 yards, trapping a ball with a delicate touch or blasting a shot at incredible speed. They are also incredible physical specimens, capable of running for 90 minutes or more, sprinting full field in the dying stages of a match or elevating above opponents to win a header.
This piece is about these second types of achievements.
We called up Major League Soccer's trainers, heads of performance, strength coaches and more to hear tales of the most impressive physical achievement they've seen. From Alphonso Davies literally speeding to a Wayne Rooney game-winning effort, these are the MLS feats of strength.
Sometimes a player needs to run as fast as he can, and MLS has its share of players with world-class sprinting ability. Think well above 20 miles per hour.
Full-back Alphonso Davies could get up to 10.5 meters per second in game play. That's 23.5 miles per hour. I still haven't seen that in any other athletes. He could get to that speed at any point in the game.
In training, we'd [test him to see how fast he could run] and 10.5 meters per second was pretty close to his max speed. It was pretty cool to see him get to that speed in a match. He also has an aerobic capacity that was incredible. Because it was so well developed, he can recover quickly and make high-intensity runs over and over again. -- Jon Poli, Vancouver Whitecaps head of physical preparation
That speed of 23.5 mph puts Davies in the elitist of elite company, ahead of Paris Saint-Germain speedster Kylian Mbappe (22.4 mph), Manchester City's Kyle Walker (21.9 mph) and Liverpool's Mohamed Salah (21.8 mph). Davies is fast enough to make another player look like he's barely moving.
another Alphonso Davies speed appreciation video 💨 pic.twitter.com/LedgtkOWYl— Stu Holden (@stuholden) February 9, 2020
To me, what's occurred on the field is always the best display of any athletic feat. Winger Johnny Russell clocked a speed with a ball that was near 10 meters per second (22.4 mph). The moment that sticks out to me most was Oct. 6, 2018. We were in the playoff hunt. Zlatan Ibrahimovic had scored on a penalty early in the match. Johnny got the ball about 50 yards from the goal. He goes full speed. Most guys have to slow down to beat an opponent, but he's just slicing through everybody. He cruised past five LA Galaxy defenders, scored, and tied the game. That was special. -- Joey Harty, Sporting Kansas City director of sports performance and science
One key to winning a match is wearing the opponent down physically. Run, man, run.
For lack of a better term, we were just a blue-collar team. We knew who we were. We knew our identity and we embraced it by 2016 [when the team finished second in the Western Conference and reached the conference finals]. In the first week of preseason, midfielder Dillon Powers ran 64,329 meters. That's 39.9 miles. Week 2, he put in 79,798 meters. That's 49.6 miles. He'd do at least a half a mile more than other guys on a team run. And he wasn't just jogging. That was all what we'd call level-two effort where lactic acid [which causes muscle fatigue] was building up. It wasn't all-out effort, but he was working. It's like when you chug a beer but only a can of beer and not one of those big German boots. -- Miguel Motolongo, Colorado Rapids performance analyst and strength coach (2015-18)
Midfielder Brenden Aaronson is a guy who doesn't pass the eye test. He's not the poster child with the beach muscles (although he has put on five to seven pounds of muscle in the past two years). But the numbers don't lie. He does so much running for a guy you think of as an attack-minded player. In our game against LAFC earlier this season, he covered 13.744 kilometers (8.55 miles). That's the highest number for anyone in the league. Those are Bundesliga numbers. LAFC's midfielder Eduard Atuesta, who covers more ground than just about anyone, hit 12.546 kilometers in that game. Brenden covered 1.2 more kilometers than he did. If anything, sometimes he runs too much.
When he does get open in those pockets, we've worked on getting him to stay still because he turns so quick and is so dangerous when he receives the ball. We're coaching him to not constantly be running out of areas where he's open. Just stay put. -- Jim Curtin and Garrison Draper, Philadelphia Union head coach and director of performance
During this quarantine period, we've done a challenge where the guys go out and run two miles as fast as they can. Midfielder Jan Gregus ran 10:50, which is a little over five minutes a mile. We didn't really believe it, but he sent us a screenshot of the GPS and it was like, "Oh, yeah, you really did." He's impressive. The thing about Jan is that he's not going to run the fastest or the farthest during games, but he's able to run at high speed for long periods of time. When we're considering signing a player, we always reach out to clubs where they played before to ask about personality, attitude and work ethic. When we emailed FC Copenhagen about Jan, they responded with one line: "He is a machine." -- Josh McAllister, Minnesota United director of strength and conditioning
Soccer isn't a game fans associate with extreme strength, but at least one MLSer can lift.
Defender Nedum Onuoha deadlifted 535 pounds at 0.6 meters per second. (Deadlifting is a powerlifting move that requires lifting a weight-loaded bar off the ground and primarily works the upper legs.) That's obviously extreme weight -- we're at a point where we can't load the bar anymore without the weight falling on the floor, essentially -- but it's the speed that he lifted it that is truly insane. If you're lifting for maximal strength, the speed you're lifting it at is generally between 0.3 and 0.4 meters per second. It's nontraditional for a soccer player to be that strong and that explosive, able to do 535 for multiple reps at that speed and not be failing from a technique standpoint. He's a guy who warms up deadlifting 315 pounds. The majority of our squad don't lift 315.
When other guys are finishing up their top weight is when he comes in and starts doing some warm-up sets. It's almost like he lets them load the bar up so he doesn't have to load it up himself. -- Matt Howley, Real Salt Lake head of sports science
The beep test
The beep test is a variety of fitness tests that involve running back and forth over short distances, covering the space in increasingly shorter periods of time. The most popular variation for soccer trainers is called the Yo-Yo Intermittent Recovery Test Level 2. Participants must run 20 meters before hearing the beep, then run back 20 meters before the second beep, then jog 10 meters in 10 seconds before repeating the process. The beeps get closer and closer together, requiring a player to run faster and faster as the test progresses. Doing well requires elite speed and stamina.
I've never worked with an athlete with an aerobic system as robust as midfielder Russell Teibert. He destroys everyone on the yo-yo test. Nobody has ever come close to what he can attain on that. We usually tell him to stop because he's gone far enough. We usually stop him around level 24. We expect all our athletes to be over 22. To go from 22 to 24 is insanely hard. That's 16 more down and back sprints over 20 meters. -- Jon Poli, Vancouver Whitecaps
In 1999, Sigi Schmid held a U20 national team camp. He brought me in to help with the speed, agility and conditioning testing. Landon Donovan was 16 or 17 years old at that point. The whole team starts out on the Yo-Yo Intermittent Level 2, and little by little, guys start dropping out. Eventually, he's the last guy going. He does one by himself, and does another. He's the youngest guy, and he looks over at me, kind of like, "Do I have to keep going?" I just stopped him. He passed. He passed with flying colors. It was one of those moments of, "Holy cow, this kid is fit and fast." -- Jim Liston, Toronto FC director of sports science
When I was with the LA Galaxy in 1999, we signed midfielder Simon Elliott after preseason. He did the beep test, and he did 1200 meters, which is 30 runs down and back. To that point, that was the best Galaxy score that I'd seen. The next year, we draft Sasha Victorine and Peter Vagenas, two kids from UCLA. One of them did 1240 meters and one of them did 1280 meters. That was incredible, 31 and 32 lengths. They were in the first group for testing. Simon's in the second group. He glares over at them and starts. He gets to 10, to 20, to 30. He's out there by himself. He looks over at me and says, "How many more?" I told him three. He looks forward, spits into the wind, and then does three more. It was a moment of "whatever you tell me, I'm doing it." -- Jim Liston, Toronto FC
That veteran winning mentality
Fitness is one thing; desire is another. For some trainers, the physical statement came from a veteran who maybe wasn't the fastest or the strongest but wanted to win the most and did everything he could to do so.
The most incredible physical thing I've seen was Wayne Rooney's assist against Orlando City SC last season. I was on the bench about 15 yards from the play. Everyone thought we were out of the game. Wayne tracked back 40 yards on a sprint, tackles, wins the ball, sprints another 20 yards forward with the ball, and then hits a 40-yard diagonal ball to Luciano Acosta's head. I think everyone was pretty surprised when that happened, to see his dedication to sprint, to win the ball, to get it before it went out of bounds, and then the accuracy of the pass. He kind of had a carte blanche so he wasn't tested that much. I'm not sure how he would have compared testing-wise to some of the younger players. You took him for who he was. Most of that is mentality in terms of him wanting to still be in the game and win that ball. -- Brian Goodstein, D.C. United head athletic trainer
You hear about the sheer mental toughness of Chris Wondolowski, and I've seen it during the eight seasons I've been with the team. His mental drive to perform is something that you won't see. It's totally different than anyone I've seen. I can count the number of days he's been in the training room on two hands. If he does come in, he just wants to know what he can do to get on the field right now. If there's not much we can do, he'll suck it up and go out there and play. He won the Golden Boot at the 2013 Gold Cup on a broken right big toe. He suffered it in practice with us before the tournament, we molded a little cast around it, and he just played. He didn't miss a game. He wasn't going to let a simple thing like a broken toe make him miss the national team. We told him that he might not be able to run all that well, but his response was that he wasn't that fast anyway. -- Derek Lawrance, San Jose Earthquakes director of health and performance