CARSON, Calif. -- It's 10:24 a.m. on a sticky Thursday, and the Los Angeles Sol are moving forward in their quest for a championship.
Los Angeles, the best team in Women's Professional Soccer, won the regular-season title and received an automatic invitation to the WPS championship game. While four other teams battled it out in a playoff for the other spot, the Sol had 13 days to prepare for the final game.
While waiting for their opponent, the Sol hit the practice field at Home Depot Center and put in two solid hours of work each day. They allowed Active.com access to one practice, to show how a professional soccer team preparing for a championship game puts in the work.
"When the playoffs are around, it's a whole different season," goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc said. "Nothing you did in the past matters. Win or go home.
"The intensity has definitely stepped up. Our practices are our semifinals."
The first thing you notice is how well the players enjoy each other's company, and that's not as easy as it sounds. The Sol packs more star power than any squad in WPS, employing players from six different national teams--the United States, Brazil, Japan, China, Canada and France.
Yet the squad jokes and laughs like they grew up in the same neighborhood. Before practice officially gets going, the team takes elastic bands from the sideline, huddles around in a circle and stretches out. They then grab a quick swig of water before the work begins.
At this point, the team divides into two--the 20 or so position players occupy the middle of the field, while the three goalkeepers get together in the corner with assistant coach Neil Powell.
The goalkeepers do several footwork drills with cones, designed to improve their agility and warm them up. After shuffling through several cones, the coach will unleash a shot for the keepers to save.
"It's a lot of getting those muscles going, those fast-twitch muscles," LeBlanc said, "then putting that into a drill where you react to the ball."
Meanwhile, the rest of the players are hard at work with ball touches at midfield. They are doing a complicated drill where players set up at six different cones that form a large circle. A player one-touches a ball to a nearby teammate, weaves around her, receives another pass and taps it to the first person in the line they're heading toward. At one point, four balls are in play without many hiccups, as players swerve around and keep the organized chaos going.
The players are encouraged to receive and distribute in one touch, though two touches are acceptable if it means a clean collection and a crisp pass.
The emphasis of the drill seems basic, considering this is a group of world-class professionals. But even at that level, keeping the technical skills sharp is a big priority--long after they've established an extraordinary foundation.