How does a 5v5 drill make the Portland Timbers fitter and perform better? Athletic performance specialists EXOS shows the way

Utilizing systems, data, and expertise, Darcy Norman & EXOS get the Timbers fit for 2014

In the final dying moments of a match, when the game is on the line, it often comes down to how much a player has left in the tank that can determine the final outcome. It’s not just the skill required in that moment, but also the mental and physical capacity available to execute the final pass, the clutch save, or the finishing touch.

For the Portland Timbers, part of the reasoning for their new partnership with EXOS (formerly Athletes Performance) was to draw upon the fitness organization’s wealth of knowledge with sports athletic performance to help push the club to further success.

As the Timbers preseason opened in January, EXOS’ performance expert Darcy Norman came to Portland and later traveled with the team to Tucson to begin to set up an athletic performance system that supports the overall team culture. Working closely with head coach Caleb Porter and his staff, Norman led the team through various drills—often of grueling length and with Norman himself participating—as the team quickly dove into the intense process of preparing for the 2014 season. Norman brings a wealth of expertise having worked with pro cyclists before spending two years at Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga with Jurgen Klinsmann.

“I jumped at the chance to be able to work with the staff and have the opportunity,” said Norman following a training session last week in Tucson. “We’ve been working to get the team and the rest of the staff on an integrated same page from evaluations to rehab, working with Nik Wald—the head athletic trainer—and getting all those systems in place so that there is that common thread through everything.”

Though Norman is only spending the preseason with the team before leaving to work with the German National Team’s preparation for the 2014 World Cup, he’s helping set down the foundation for EXOS’ involvement and the arrival of fellow fitness coach Nick Milonas who will take over the day-to-day fitness preparation and performance analysis for Portland.

“The whole goal is to get the players back on to the pitch playing so that Caleb has a full roster to pick from for every game,” explains Norman.

To do that, Norman and EXOS draw on a deep well of knowledge that includes 15 years of experience in pushing all levels of athletes to new heights. The company has trained many of the top champions in sport, including six number one National Football League draft picks, the United States and German National Soccer Teams, Olympic medalists, Everton FC in the Premier League, the last three MLS Cup winners, and countless champions in baseball, tennis, golf, basketball and hockey. In addition to elite sports performance training and applied research, they have also delivered leading-edge human performance solutions for businesses, tactical programs to maximize physical assets for the military and global education programs for industry professionals.

EXOS’ key is building systems. In the case of Klinsmann, who now coaches the U.S. Men’s National Team, EXOS first worked with him when he helmed the German National Team seven years ago to create seamless organization of rehab protocols, return to play protocols, to performance maximization. It was a mixture of bringing new ideas from a variety of sources into an established football orthodoxy. For example, the team utilized exercises that had never been seen in European soccer before, which were incorporated into a complete system to maximize the team's performance. Much was made at the time of the revolutions that Klinsmann put in place with Germany—particularly in the realm of fitness—and the results helped bear that out with the team finishing third in the 2006 World Cup.

With Klinsmann continuing to work with EXOS as he moved from the national team to Bayern Munich, Norman came into the picture to help set up new systems with the Bundesliga side. Up to this point Norman had only primarily worked with pro cyclists, he had no soccer background, and ended up at one of the biggest soccer clubs in the world. But for Klinsmann, Norman’s lack of soccer experience didn’t matter. What did, was his knowledge of fitness.

“Jurgen, at the end of the day, really felt that your fitness is a big part of the athlete's game because that really sets the base for what you’re able to execute in the skill of the sport consistently,” said Norman. “If you don’t have any fitness, you’re limited to how many times you can perform that skill and how you’re able to repeat it on a big level. The broader your fitness, strength and power, and explosiveness is, then you’re able to repeat those actions over and over again and do it with a very high quality.”

With the Timbers, the process of setting up a system of measuring and maximizing that fitness in the most efficient way is very similar. According to Norman though, building a system out of a game that looks inherently chaotic on the field is a challenge. This is where the importance of data comes in. Whether it’s from adidas’ micoach player tracking system, ProZone, or elsewhere, Norman can begin to divine a method and a pattern from the data.

“We can control the patterns,” said Norman. “The chaos that you think is there, actually has a pattern.”

Once you know that pattern, you can devise drills to maximize it. Take for example a 5v5 drill set up in 3-5 minute segments. The game itself can be used to improve passing, ball awareness, playing skill and the like, but it can also build on overall fitness as well.

“With a little bit of data, if you give me the dimensions of the field, and what the rules are of the game, I can begin to tell you within about 10%, about how far a guy’s going to run,” explained Norman. “Then you can also use the skill of the sport as a means of gaining fitness without having to do a bunch of extra fitness runs  . . . Because the players are motivated for the ball.

“Next week, we play that same series of games, we can then compare that data to see whether, ‘Hey, are we getting better within the skill of the sport?’”

Though Norman’s time with Portland may be short, his depth of EXOS expertise carries over into Milonas’ arrival who himself brings experience with AS Monaco FC in Ligue 1 as well as Toronto FC. In the interim, Norman continued to lead drills, run the same sprints, and work the same tiring exercises to get the team ready for the season. His participation and mutual suffering in the preparation is not only a badge of pride, but also aids in motivating players through a process that most fans don’t see: the hard training work.

“I think that for me, it’s always been part of what I do with the players. It’s always better if you don’t have to suffer alone in training," said Norman. "I feel suffering together brings people closer together. I’ll suffer with them and puke and do whatever it is. I mean, I’m obviously years ahead of these guys in age, so I can only keep up to some degree, but I think it helps if I practice what I preach to them and it makes the cheering from the sidelines that much more meaningful. They appreciate it a little more.”