It’s Wednesday morning and the team is going through the paces, working a drill to build up out of the back. Fire defender Arne Friedrich has just played a ball to right back Jalil Anibaba and immediately hits the turf.
He’s not injured, rather he’s begun doing a furious set of 30 crunches on the field in the interim time while the ball continues to move forward.
Less than a minute later he’s back up on his feet, receiving a square pass from Austin Berry before launching a more ambitious ball to Gonzalo Segares on the left. As soon as the Costa Rican international receives it, Friedrich is back on the ground, this time on his stomach, doing some sort of reverse crunch.
WATCH: Friedrich scores first Fire goal (8/12/2012)
The exercise continues throughout the 20-minute drill. This is normal.
“I don’t like sitting still,” said the two-time German World Cup veteran. “If we have even a short break, I like to stay active. It’s nothing special but I try to use the time wisely to keep my body in rhythm.”
Perhaps the hard work is some small part of the reason Friedrich has been so successful during his first season in Major League Soccer.
Signed by the Fire back in April, Friedrich’s acquisition was met hesitantly as the veteran defender had been hampered with two back injuries in the previous 12 months. Fair or not, the stigma of an older, accomplished player coming to MLS towards the end of their career and not taking the league seriously still exists.
Though he took a few weeks to gain fitness, his timing was impeccable, stepping into the role of “veteran on the backline” when Cory Gibbs was sidelined in April due to meniscus reconstruction.
Neither the injuries that plagued him or the reputation of other players before him were an issue for the 33-year-old center back according to teammate Jalil Anibaba.
“We were all excited,” said the second-year Fire defender. “Any time you bring a player of that caliber, it helps the entire team. Since day one his attitude has been all about the team. He uses his pedigree to help everyone else and his play speaks for itself.”
Having partnered with Anibaba through the end of April, the German international began his pairing with rookie Austin Berry in a 2-1 victory over Chivas USA on May 4. In that game, Berry conceded a questionable penalty to Alejandro Moreno but bounced back minutes later to equalize with his first MLS goal.
Since then, the pair has become one of the top center back partnerships in MLS, with the Fire earning an 11-2-2 record when the two start a game together. Just twice has the team given up more than one goal in this instance, coincidentally in both losses.
“Arne’s made my transition to being a pro much easier,” Berry said earlier this year. “Training with him every day, playing with him, learning to communicate, I’ve taken so much from his example and I feel confident standing next to him whenever we’re on the field together.
With Berry often mentioned lately as a front-runner for MLS Rookie of the Year, if he wins the award some credit should go to Friedrich. In that same breath, you could make a strong case for the veteran of 82 caps for Germany becoming the third Fire player after Lubos Kubik (1998) and Carlos Bocanegra (2002, 2003) to take Defender of the Year honors.
Awards aside, Friedrich’s focus remains always on the next game ahead, in this case, an all-important match Friday night at Sporting KC (LIVE 7:30pm CT on NBC Sports Network). The implications are clear: a Fire win would push the team into first in the East with a chance to clinch its first postseason berth since 2009 depending on results in Houston and Columbus the following day.
“We have nothing to lose,” said Friedrich. “We are in second position, two points down and have one game on Kansas City. Our biggest goal is to go to the playoffs, so if there’s pressure, we don’t know about it. Sporting are a good team and it’s a hard thing to beat them at home so even if we tie, we still feel we have a good chance to finish on top of the East. We’re going there with a lot of confidence knowing Friday night is a good exercise for something bigger.”