The emotions and toil of preseason

Jane Gershovich

During two-a-days, the season feels so close and yet so far off. Players battle soreness, mental fatigue and the uncertainty incumbent in a fresh start. At times, they may wonder just why they do this for a living — until something rekindles a love for the game that never really left.

After training on Tuesday, Seattle Sounders FC will depart for Casa Grande, Ariz., for its first taste of double sessions in the 2013 preseason. To this point, the workload has been manageable, with one session from Monday to Saturday, a day off Sunday, and one session today and tomorrow.

Head coach Sigi Schmid doesn't believe in pushing too hard, too quickly when it comes to preseason work volume. That's when a lot of injuries occur because, no matter how hard players train on their own in the off-season, it can never duplicate the demands of preseason.

Now that the Sounders players have their legs under them, training camp turns from less of a gradual reintroduction into the stereotypically hellish grind that you would expect at the professional level.

Although every player in Sounders camp has been through preseason at various levels, the process at the professional level is unlike any other. Every first touch must be better, every pass must be crisper, every run must be sharper than at the youth and college levels.

"You just have to be mentally prepared for that, play off your first touch and you don't want to disappoint the better players when you're playing with Ozzie (Alonso) or Steve (Zakuani) or one of those guys who play very quick," midfielder Andy Rose said after winning the beep test on Friday. "So you just want to be on that pace, really. And that's what preseason's all about: getting that fitness back, getting that touch back."

As Rose said, the mental toll is almost as anguishing as the physical soreness. Getting in a nap between sessions, eating right and getting enough sleep at night become all players' minds are consumed with during two-a-days.

"Rest and eat healthy," defender Marc Burch said. "I have a good breakfast every day, and when you get time to put your feet up, you've got to put your feet up. You can't be messing around, running about the hotel. You've got to get your feet up, got to rest, just so you can put in the work every practice."

In a way, double sessions represent an evolutionary digression to focusing on the most basic human needs: that next meal, the next opportunity to find shelter and rest.

With two sessions a day, each player's offseason mentality is magnified and put on display for all to see just how seriously they took training on their own.

"I do a lot of strength training in the offseason. I like to build muscle as much as I can because you know you're going to burn it off as soon as you get here; it's work, work, work," Burch said. "It's important to get a decent amount of fitness in, but (also) to build your strength because throughout the season, it's tough to get some heavy lifts in."

The training room and the ice bath whirlpools also take on an added significance with the pounding a body takes from running, jumping and kicking for four hours a day.

"I was just talking to somebody the other day about kind of saving my time in the ice bath for Casa Grande, where we are going two-a-days," veteran defender Zach Scott said. "I don't want my body to get used to that right now. I'll save it for 80-degree weather and hard fields."

Most players have a love-hate relationship with the cold tub. They love the feeling of not being sore anymore, but they hate the sheer frigidity of plunging the lower half of their bodies into a 50-degree swirl of water and ice.

Players develop their own coping mechanisms as their careers progress, whether it's portioning out time in the ice bath for maximum effectiveness or running so much in the build-up to preseason that nothing in training can compare to it.

Preseason is a time when the pecking order of rookies, veterans and in-betweeners is established for the season ahead. While players can grow into their roles as the nine-month journey progresses, they will never be far from the spot they were in during two-a-days.

"As a veteran guy, you can definitely help the young guys realize ... when it's important to really push yourself," Scott said.

Second-year pro Rose added, "It's nice to sort of get in their ear and let them know just to be calm, work hard, enjoy yourself. That was the main thing for me; I had some great role models last year, some guys who kind of took me under their wing. So it's nice to try and be that guy, but at the same time, it's only been a year, so I don't want to get ahead of myself."

Double days are also a time when a team's unity and chemistry are founded. Pushing toward a common goal never prompts team bonding as it does at a time when that common goal is simply survival.

Looking around the locker room before the second session on the third day in a row of two-a-days, it's obvious that you're not the only one suffering; you're not the only one feeling the knocks. If those around you are willing to put themselves through it, you tell yourself that you too must soldier on.

One final emotion that comes out of times like this, strangely, is excitement. The feeling of anticipation is palpable, as players prepare their bodies and teams prepare themselves tactically for another push toward trophies that any team in the country could conceivably win at this point.

It's not just excitement on an individual level. It's excitement about the idea of putting yourself out on the field to battle with your teammates — your brothers — against a common enemy.

"If I'm not excited about coming into a new year, it's probably time to hang them up," 32-year-old Scott said on the cusp of his 11th professional season. "It's an opportunity to kind of just start over, turn a page. Everything that happened last year is in the past, and (there is) a lot of optimism going into each preseason. All the trophies are out there to win — all the team accolades, all the person accolades are there to get."

Rally the troops — once more, into the brink.

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