TUKWILA — Can we talk about all the running in soccer?
One of the cool things about watching the sport is the omission of commercial breaks … err, timeouts. That, however, means that when the Sounders host FC Dallas on Wednesday night, for at least 45 minutes per half, a majority of the players will be in constant motion.
Running up and down the approximate 120-yard length of the field.
Running over and back the approximate 75-yard width of most fields.
Running without a designated water break — unless the temperature reaches 82 degrees or higher, according to MLS rules. And even then, it’s only for three minutes about 30 minutes into a half.
I tried to stay on the elliptical for 45 minutes to mimic what the Sounders do and gave up at the 30-minute mark because no one was asking me to do it — why would I put myself through such torture?
“The running, of all the things in soccer, is the thing I don’t love doing,” said Sounders midfielder Harry Shipp, who has scored five goals this season, his sixth year in MLS. “It’s like a necessary evil for any sport.”
On the running scale of evil, soccer is wicked. Data science company STATS, which utilizes tracking devices, determined that, on average, professional soccer players run the most of all team sports at 7-9 miles per match depending on position and not including goalkeepers.
NFL running backs average 1.25 miles a game, per STATS, while all of the fast breaks in the NBA amount to about 2 miles per game for some players.
“There are statistics (that show soccer) players actually have the ball at their feet for two minutes out of 90,” said Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer, who played professionally for 15 years. “You’re running the majority of the time without touching the ball. … I wasn’t the fastest, I wasn’t the tallest, I wasn’t the strongest, but I could run up and down the field for long periods of time and that was my gift. That was one of the things I used in my limited arsenal of talents to have a pro career.”
Shipp, like his coach, discovered he had endurance in running as a youth growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. He outlasted teammates when playing football or basketball and fell in love with soccer, ignoring the fact that fancy footwork and making plays first involved a lot of running to get the ball.
With the Sounders, Shipp is working on improving variations to his pace. Through lifting and drills, he’s looking for an explosiveness to create three to four steps at a higher speed.
“After every game and practice, we’re looking at stats,” said Shipp of tools the club has used since 2010 to calculate a player’s body recovery progress, stress levels and GPS distances. “We have three levels of running — a base level, a medium speed and then a sprinting level of speed. Trying to get more distance in those top two levels is something that I try to work on every day. But I have absolutely no desire to run a marathon or anything like that. I don’t get a runner’s high or endorphins from running.”
Teammate Brad Smith is the opposite of Shipp. Well, the left back also doesn’t like distance running, but as a youth in Australia, Smith was a regular medal winner in sprints for his track teams.
Smith’s talent was fully displayed in the Sounders’ win against the Los Angeles Galaxy earlier this month. He was substituted into the match in the 81st minute and darted up field to get an assist to midfielder Cristian Roldan for the winning goal in the 89th minute.
“Running is my type of game,” Smith said. “Me and Jordan (Morris) have hit 10 meters per second, which is fast. We don’t intend to do that, but it’s fun to come back and look at the numbers. Timing up runs, that’s me.”
Average distances and bursts of speed seen in games can’t be simulated in training because the exertion would increase the risk of injury and burnout. Match-day minutes are necessary in order to gain experience, so players go where they’ll get playing time. And unlike basketball or football, soccer coaches have phased out using sprints or running laps as warm-ups or discipline, so the extensive running is really only noticeable on game day.
But when the game starts, players are constantly running.
“You don’t have to like it, but you get used to it,” Schmetzer said.