Two weeks in to Fire preseason, a roster has begun to take shape, bad touches and off-target strikes have gotten better and the overall fitness level of the club is higher at this point in time than it has been in recent years. A lot of credit for the latter goes to new Soccer Fitness Specialist Alvaro Briones.
A long-time friend of Fire head coach Carlos de los Cobos, the two first worked with each other while both were with Mexican club Monterrey from 1989-91 -- de los Cobos as a player, Briones in a similar role to the one he holds today. The two began a coaching partnership with a short stint at Club America, but their recent history has them together - throughout every move de los Cobos has made, Briones has gone with him.
"After so many years working together, our relationship is excellent," said Briones. "He is very professional and our work is based on constant communication. The way we've built our partnership together, we've become a very strong pair and teams have embraced that."
Recalling the days when he used to teach fitness theory at Universidad Catolica in his native Chile, "el Profesor" brings as much animation as fitness knowledge to the training pitch. The result has been receptive players taking more enjoyment in tireless workouts.
"El Profe is a trip," said veteran Fire midfielder Logan Pause. "He's extremely knowledgeable when it comes to conditioning for a season and he's been adding great atmosphere to our training sessions. Overall, he's just been a great addition to the club."
With over forty years of fitness work, Briones' resume is a heavy one. Since 1970 he's worked with players from 15 different clubs across Chile, Mexico, El Salvador and the United States. Most recently he worked with de los Cobos in helping the Salvadoran national team regain respect through CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying.
Though the idea of a fitness specialist in soccer now seems elementary, when Briones started, it wasn't the norm. Now different philosophies among players towards fitness and training keep Briones busy.
"It's never easy to enter a new team and bring in new ideas," said Briones. "You always encounter the conflict with the club's expectations of your work and justification for what you're doing. With that, the onus is always on me to prove to them that there is a reason they brought me in and so it's important to have the courage to develop good chemistry within the team and be consistent in my own work."
Winning players over when making them do sprints isn't easy, but Briones has found a way to get the players in line with what he wants them to do, all while carrying a great attitude.
"I have two philosophies when I come into a new group," Briones remarked. "First, I propose a fitness plan that will eventually benefit the player for his career and second I try to become a psychological mentor. I say that because soccer is not always about the fitness aspect, players also need psychological support and I try to provide that."
Lacking fluency in English, Briones relies heavily on hand motions, humor and Assistant Equipment Manager Allan Araujo for interpretations and instructions. Despite the language barrier, his good humor comes through to all the players.
"He's always cracking jokes during training," said veteran goalkeeper Jon Busch. "Profe's good because he knows when to be serious and when taking a light-hearted approach is appropriate. He also has a strong respect for the players and that translates in any language."
As the season inches closer, the challenge of pushing conditioning levels up is academic for Briones, learning English is a bit more difficult, but a challenge that he welcomes whole-heartedly.
"Everything that is new is difficult, but I think I'm capable of overcoming the language barrier. I take it as just another challenge in my life which I know I can beat. Of course what matters most is not what I say, but how I transmit my philosophy to the team and we're doing well so far."
Jeff Crandall is a contributor to MLSnet.com.