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LAFC wishlist: Don't cut corners on matters like player nutrition

The era of teams skipping out on providing players food needs to be over for good.

Union and Chivas: Spotty record on player nutrition.
Union and Chivas: Spotty record on player nutrition.
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

You're a professional athlete, going to training sessions nearly every morning, and your team provides you with healthy food for breakfast and lunch while you're preparing for the week, right?

Not always, at least in MLS. Kurt Larson had an interesting article in the Toronto Sun on Thursday that mostly focused on the ongoing Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations between the MLS Players Union and the league, but included a pretty fascinating tidbit from new Toronto FC defender Eriq Zavaleta.

From the article:

Eriq Zavaleta provided proof that a plethora of problems still persist in Major League Soccer.

After spending much of last season playing out west with Chivas USA - a now-defunct franchise that did things on the cheap - Zavaleta was raving this week about everything Toronto FC has to offer.

You know, like, uh ... meals.

"There are top-class meals, breakfast in the mornings - top to bottom, a good organization produces a good MLS team," the 22-year-old centre back said, adding that "being picked up at the facility, meeting people, being transported and getting your work visas" has been huge in his transition to TFC.

So Zavaleta didn't come right out and say "Chivas USA wouldn't give us breakfast," but that's clearly the implication from Larson's piece. And given the drastic cost-cutting measures for the 2013 and 2014 seasons, it's little surprise that this was the case. Add to that Eric Avila's video series last year, which included off-the-cuff remarks on which player was required to buy donuts for the group, something I found odd but I couldn't really tell if he was being serious or not.

Still, if true, players were responsible for bringing food in the morning? And that food was donuts? I mean, who doesn't love a donut from time to time, but nutritionally it sounds like the worst possible item to feed a team of professional soccer players, whether before or after training.

And lest you think CUSA's demise means MLS players having to worry about food at the training facility is over, another recent interview, with Amobi Okugo, now with Orlando City FC after an offseason trade from the Philadelphia Union, shines more light on teams cutting corners, at least in the recent past.

From the interview with Philly Soccer Page in December:

PSP: Now that you've spent a little time down in Orlando, what have you seen that leads you to believe they can come into the league on the front foot?

AO: Being an expansion side, Orlando has exceeded all expectations, and I think that is a testament to their model. Their model is "Defy expectations." Fortunately for them, they've been a USL side before so they kind of got a warmup.

They've already got a state of the art training facility. They provide breakfast and lunch before and after practice, which is essential for a professional athlete to be able to eat right before a workout, or immediately after to get the right nutrients in your body. They've just made everything easy for me so far, whether is was helping me find a place, helping me find a school to continue my education that is a very big part of what I want. They're just doing things the right way, so far. I think the staff, the organization starting with the coaches, the administrators - they're really working hard to cater to the players needs.

PSP: How does that compare to what you experienced in Philadelphia, specifically with respect to how the Union practiced and trained?

AO: Philly took a little while. Orlando had the ability to be a USL side before they got into MLS. In Philly, it was straight MLS, so with the training facility, it wasn't until this year that we got the training fields. But we always made a good effort of dealing with what we had and I actually think that helped us on the field, always dealing with adversity, dealing with what we had. We had to practice at a park, we practiced at the stadium, we practiced at the youth fields.

I think that once Coach Hack was head coach, I think he slowly started to change the culture with providing us with food after practices, for example. We changed our whole turf room into a gym - that's a credit to Kevin Miller, as well, who did a lot to help turn that around, to help cater to the players. Kevin Miller and the rest of the physical staff, they don't get enough credit.

...

PSP: It sounds like you were three years in and many of those training elements still had not been implemented. When did the Union's nutrition program, for example, actually start?

AO: Under Coach Peter we had it like once a week, but that was just through our sponsorship or up in the club suites where we get food. Kevin Miller was always very dedicated to helping us and he even brought in [recovery] shakes from home.

And then Coach Hack, he came in and from the first day, he always made sure he talked to BC [Brian Carroll] and a couple of the older guys and asked, "What is it going to take to change the culture, change the dynamic of the Union?" And some of the guys addressed it and Coach Hack did a lot of things to help change that around, from food after practice, slowly but surely, it was three times a week to every day after practice we would get food and it makes a big difference to the players in Philly. If you could ask guys the difference from the first year to now, myself, Sheanon [Williams], Seba [Sebastien Le Toux], they will tell you the same thing.

So this is clearly something that varies widely around the league.

I understand logistically why MLS doesn't mandate nutrition benchmarks for teams, because the expectation is that teams will be fully professional, and it's an arena in which different clubs will go in very different directions and can be a way to get minor competitive advantages without drastically altering big picture matters like the salary cap.

But for teams themselves, providing players with healthy foods while they are at work should be a minimum expectation, one that clearly some teams aren't doing or have dragged their feet over.

So for LAFC, a club that has staked out a verbal commitment to really being successful in MLS, let's see player nutrition taken seriously from day one. We're in the 21st century - let's not trust a bunch of young men to know exactly how to eat right to get the most out of their bodies. Make sure they are learning from the time they join the club, and are actually given the food onsite to maximize their abilities.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!