The USL PRO season starts Saturday for the Charleston Battery with a match against one of their rivals, the Charlotte Eagles, at Blackbaud Stadium. Fans last saw the Battery in three competitive matches against teams from Major League Soccer in the Carolina Challenge Cup. The squad that took the field in those matches has changed in the last few weeks – not so much in personnel as in fitness.

I discussed the team’s preseason conditioning program with Stephen Armstrong, who is playing his sixth season with the team and also serving as assistant coach. He told me that the veteran players know what is needed in the preseason to get their bodies ready. The younger players often don’t recognize that it’s a job. “They often don’t realize how much physical preparation goes into it,” Armstrong points out.

The early part of preseason focuses on identifying the levels of fitness for all the players as they come into camp. Armstrong sees that many players come in healthy after having three or four months to recover, while some players come in overweight or recovering from an injury. “You can tell quickly who needs extra work,” he notes. The first days and even weeks then emphasize running and conditioning to bring the player’s fitness levels to what is needed for matches.

Often conditioning sessions are endured as a team twice a day during the preseason, and yes, they can be grueling. He describes a drill the Battery uses called the “Man United drill.” This is supposedly a drill used by the likes of David Beckham and others to both identify poor conditioning and rapidly improve it. Players run the length of the field and back continually without breaks. Each player has to finish each two-length lap in less than one minute with goals of 24 seconds down and 36 seconds back. Armstrong observes that some players can make 8 laps, while others can do 20. “It builds endurance while maintaining speed.”

When head coach Mike Anheuser sees the players starting to fatigue after several hard days of practice and conditioning, the team engages in a yoga session. These yoga sessions, which usually occur about once a week, are designed to stimulate flexibility but still give players a break from the field.

Over the course of the preseason and especially in the final third of it, the focus switches to fine tuning the squad. Players work more on technical skills and scrimmages as the coach hones the 11-man starting roster. Preseason scrimmages, like the one Tuesday night against the Puerto Rico Islanders, help to that end.

Despite what many fans think, players do not take these scrimmages lightly. “No one wants to lose, so guys still go all out. Coach does a good job of preventing injuries by limiting our minutes. But the big benefit of these scrimmages is that the young guys get to develop a feel for the pace of the game. Plus coaches can evaluate players and determine where their skills best fit into the overall scheme and adjust the formations accordingly,” Armstrong says.

The game Saturday is the home opener before a long regular season, but Battery fans should recognize that it is the culmination of a tremendous amount of work by our players and coaches.