Plugged-in players: maximizing MLS talent
Toronto FC and other MLS teams are using the Adidas Micoach Elite System, which transfers data from players as they perform so coaches and support staff can analyze it. The players wear data cells which transmits the information wirelessly to a pitchside data collector. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Neil Davidson
ORLANDO, Fla. - Whether it's using free weights or hooking his players up to a computer, Nick Milonas looks to bring the best out of Toronto FC's talent.
The MLS club's strength and conditioning coach works with the players on their fitness, supervises those returning from injury and collaborates with the on-field staff. He also helps with nutrition and education, "making sure guys are developing good habits in the (training) facility and outside of the facility."
It's all about maximizing opportunities for players to express their skills, be it a training session or game.
"My job is to support Toronto FC any way I can," Milonas said during a recent interview at training camp.
The 28-year-old Milonas is entering his third season with Toronto FC. He is actually an employee of Athletes Performance, founded in 1999 to service professional and elite athletes, but seconded to Toronto FC.
Athletes Performances has similar arrangements with the Los Angeles Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City.
Originally from Kingston, Ont., Milonas was finishing his physical and health education degree, with a minor in psychology, at Queen's when he got to intern with Athletes Performance in Los Angeles.
He was hired on and any teaching/physiotherapy career plans went by the board when he started to work with the Galaxy, Chivas USA and the U.S. men's and women's teams out of the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. That led to a stint in Europe with the AS Monaco soccer team in 2008-09.
"A phenomenal experience," he said.
Asked about life in Monaco, Milonas beamed.
"Amazing," he said with a laugh. "It is a playland for the rich. Anything you think of or dream of, cars to whatever."
He returned to Los Angeles and, in 2010, hooked up with Toronto FC, with Juergen Klinsmann helping connect the two. Klinsmann, now the U.S. men's coach but then a consultant, was brought in to review TFC.
An advocate of Athletes Performance, Klinsmann used the company to survey the Toronto franchise. Milonas got the ensuing gig, settling in with the existing support staff.
The team includes head athletic therapist Carmelo Lobue, assistant athletic therapist Shawn Jeffers, massage therapist and acupuncturist Marcelo Casal and team physical Dr. Ira Smith.
"That's the best part about this job is that we all think alike and we're all on the same page," said Milonas, who played attacking midfielder at Queen's. "The more people you can have on that mindset is going to rub off on the players."
The chance to return closer to home was a bonus.
Working with pro soccer players give Milonas a chance to work with highly tuned athletes.
"In essence you're looking to develop lean powerful athletes that can endure 95 minutes," he said. "So it is unique in its way. You're looking for fast, explosive, agile, but at the same time combining that horsepower in essence to a large engine, to be able to withstand those high demands over a long period of time."
The average pro runs nine to 12 kilometres a game. Milonas will use technology at BMO Field, via the Prozone soccer software program, to break down and analyze those numbers further.
The goal is to understand better what the players do and how to prepare them better to do it.
Milonas and other MLS teams also use the Adidas Micoach Elite System. A small data cell fits into a special "base layer" undershirt in a protective pocket on the back between the shoulder blades. Electrodes and sensors woven into the fabric of the shirt, the cell wirelessly transmits more than 200 data records per second from each player to a central computer.
That info — which includes distance covered, heart rate, power output, acceleration — can then be reviewed real-time on an iPad to see how players react physically to the workload.
"Basically at the end of the session we can analyze what they're doing," said Jeffers. By comparing players, they can determine who's working harder and who's fitter.
"In essence, the Micoach can determine how efficient an athlete is," said Milonas.
At a recent practice, all 22 roster players wore the data cells. At the end of the session, Milonas and Jeffers popped the data cells out of the shirts and stores them in custom-designed slots in the system data collector which looks like a music amplifier. The data is then turned into training reports for the players and coaches.
There is no way it can be cheated, Jeffers says.
MLS teams will use it for some games this season and every game next season.
"It's a system that will never take the place of a coach or staff member but it allows us to provide more information to the coaches to see how players are progressing and help the overall productivity of the team," said Milonas.
The team relies on old-fashioned sweat as well as technology. A well-appointed gym at the team's $21-million training centre in northern Toronto, complete with 12-metre rehabilitation pool, is key to Milonas' work.
Players are put under the microscope, including having their body fat tested. Excess weight makes for inefficiency.
While everyone is different, the average player body fat would be seven to eight and a half per cent. That compares to 12, 15 per cent or above for Joe Public.
Some players are deemed too lean and are told to increase weight to avoid becoming susceptible to injury.
For Milonas, nutrition and strength and conditioning all come together if players are to optimize performance.
Frei is a walking hard-body advertisement for Milonas' crew. The Swiss-born goalie could be a cover boy for Men's Health magazine after working his way back from a nasty leg and ankle injury in training last March.
"That's a credit to Stef and the rest of the staff," said Milonas.
He clearly takes great pride in success stories like Frei.
"It's been a phenomenal journey to se an individual come back from a severe injury as he had," Milonas said.
"It's one of those things that people forget, that it's not easy to be part of it (a team) one day, and then be gone and away for it the next. And be away for it for a while."
Frei is back, although he had to undergo nasal surgery this week to fix a nose battered in the opening pre-season game.
Milonas and a nutritionist will work with Corey Wray, TFC's manager of team operations, on team meals on the road.
Back at the training centre, a chef looks after breakfast and lunch for the players.
A nutritionist held seminars during training camp last week to help educate the players about eating habits.
Milonas looks as lean as one of his players, but says the occasional slice of pizza does pass his lips.
It's all about moderation, he says.
"We have a rule 80-20 — 80 per cent of the time, you make the right decision; 20 per cent of the time you allow yourself to have something that you may not have all the time."
"We're not looking to get players on diets," he added. "We're looking to instill proper nutritional habits, for the rest of their career and life."
While some players are hungry for Milonas' knowledge, others aren't so keen.
"If every player is satisfied with what I'm doing and I don't have one grumpy person, I don't know if I'm doing my job the way I should be."
The bottom line, however, is they all play this sport at this level because they have a passion for it, he says.
"You understand where they're coming from and you try to educate as much as you can and give them tools to help support their game that they love."
Milonas, for one, loves his job.
"Absolutely. It's great. It can be chaotic certain areas but it's fantastic. To be outside, training with phenomenal athletes and to be involved in a sport that I grew up playing. Then you couple that with the people you work with and the staff that we have, it's a phenomenal experience. every day, it doesn't feel like a job. It's just fun."
"It's something you're truly passionate about. You want to see these players succeed at this level, you want to try to support them as much as possible, to help them reach their goals."
In the off-season, Milonas and the sports medicine staff worked with players like Frei on site as they rehabbed injuries. Other players were given customized off-season conditioning programs.
The club used an online approach that was compatible with player smartphones. The players were given tasks and then would log in what was done, information that was transmitted to the club.
Team president and GM Kevin Payne criticized some players for the shape in which they reported back to camp, acknowledging the club probably needed to do a better job of monitoring from its end. Coach Ryan Nelsen and assistant coach Fran O'Leary declined to wade into that debate, saying they were satisfied with the effort they had seen.
Milonas declined comment.