Over the course of the 2018 season for Real Salt Lake, many factors added to the team’s success on the field. While the many hours of work on the practice field and in the film room are at the forefront, there were other contributors behind the scenes that also played key roles.
Among them were the efforts of the Physical Performance and Sports Science duo of Henry Ruggiero and Matt Howley. Throughout the year, the team gathers data on workload – from distance traveled during training to heart rate to sprint speed and everything in between. With Newtons of force, kilometers per hour, beats per minute and other metrics dotting a spreadsheet, Ruggiero and Howley translate the output to provide training recommendations to the players and coaches, giving them a blueprint for success on any given week.
“Throughout the week it’s constant communication between what we need to establish from practice technically and tactically,” Ruggiero said. “Then is that physically going to prepare our guys for the game and where they need to be at that time of year?”
Every day at training, RSL players are fitted with GPS trackers and heart rate monitors. The data is collected in real time on a field-side computer, where Howley monitors the overall workload of the group and the individual metrics of each player.
In addition, the players undergo regular testing to measure strength and fitness.
If a player is overdoing it, they rein him in to avoid risk of injury. If a player’s output is beneath his normal standard, it can be an indicator of injury or that they need extra work. Finding that balance is paramount in the work of the department.
“From the data we collect, it shows where players are at from a physical status standpoint. So we try to collect as much information as we can to understand exactly where they’re at – whether they are in a good state to perform or whether they may need more recovery,” Howley said. “We try to understand where every player is at and put them in the best place to succeed. Then we modify what they do to conform to their physical status.”
Both Ruggiero and Howley came to RSL prior to the 2017 season, honing their crafts at the college level before coming to MLS – Ruggiero at the University of Washington and Howley at Notre Dame. There they both worked with multiple sports, working to the needs of a variety of athletes with a multitude of goals, but all with the common target of performing at their maximum at each competition and reaching a peak at the end of their given season.
With that expertise on their resumes, they work in tandem to do the same at RSL with players from a wide array of backgrounds, ages and fitness levels.
While their work is evident on gamedays, their expertise was needed most in managing the workload during short turnarounds. In the regular season and MLS Cup Playoffs, RSL had nine different instances of playing a match with four or fewer days rest. Three of those were the third match in a three-game week.
Overall, RSL posted a 9-4-2 record in the 15 matches during those stretches, with a 5-3-1 record in the matches coming on short rest. Again, there are many factors to that success, but keeping the players fit and ready to endure those busy weeks is high among them.
It also goes far beyond the week of those rigorous schedules. Typically, the training load increases three weeks out to prepare the players for the gauntlet the players will be running in multi-game weeks. Then tapering the workload for some players and extending it for others as the schedule and minutes played indicate.
“It’s making sure that we are working at a high enough workload that we can maintain some fitness, but we’re not pushing players over the edge and they’ll be able to handle the jump in intensity when they have three games in seven days,” Ruggiero said.
While the data is always a strong indicator of a player’s needs, there are other interpersonal factors that also can’t be ignored. It is in those moments that the Physical Performance and Sports Science departments are able to separate themselves from the data and focus on the individual needs of each person behind the player.
“There is a lot more feel to it than people realize. It’s got to be more collaborative with the players. There’s no one-size-fits-all piece of it. People forget the human side of it and how long our season can actually be,” Ruggiero said. “That’s one of the things from the outside that seems black and white, but from the inside there is a gray area and a human aspect to understanding what the coaches need and what the players need and how we can best assist in those. At the end of the day, we are support staff that is here to give the players and the coaches whatever they can to succeed.”