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Real Salt Lake training staff again being put to the test

Published April 11, 2014 8:44 pm

A year after being named MLS training staff of the year, Tyson Pace and Kevin Christen are swamped. A dozen of their players have missed games due to injury.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Sandy • Everything slows down in those moments. When something goes wrong — when a bone shatters or tendons explode — the seconds leading up to assessing each situation are vital. The hands on the clock seem to tick with less frequency when Tyson Pace and Kevin Christen are forced to take care of a suddenly injured player, a friend they've tracked for years.

But believe it or not, those are the easy moments for Real Salt Lake's training staff.

It's everything that follows that taxes and demands around-the-clock availability and eagle-eyed care. One year after winning Major League Soccer's Training Staff of the Year Award, guiding the club through 19 total surgeries in 2013, Pace and Christen again have their plates stacked high.

"Our job is totally different than what most people imagine it being," said Pace, who enters his fourth full season as head athletic trainer with RSL. "You work seven days a week, are available by phone for any emergency, are taking care of pro athletes aging from 16 to 35. Either fortunately or unfortunately for us, we're decent at our job."

They certainly have to be.

A year after starters young and old battled through various injuries, a similar script is being written in 2014 — and Pace and Christen are swamped. Through the first five weeks of the season, RSL has had as many as 12 players miss games due to various injuries. Some are battling back from offseason surgery, strengthening their bodies to again take the rigors of the grind that is an MLS season, while others have picked up the garden-variety hamstring strain or sprained ankle.

Dealing with early-season injuries isn't unique to soccer, especially young players, Christen said. The RSL trainers have studied statistics over the year showing that younger players don't typically undergo the necessary steps they need to take in order to avoid various leg injuries. With that, has come loads of names popping up on the injury report every week.

"You shake your head," Christen said. "Part of it is trying to figure out why? Is there a way we can get better? At some point, you're just fighting the fight and hoping for the best. We would have definitely hoped for a much better start to the season."

Yet, RSL remains one of two undefeated teams in MLS entering the sixth week of the season. It has weathered an arduous early-season go with difficult road matches to earn points at L.A., San Jose and Kansas City. It has done so with a rotating cast of players healthy, who have either returned from an injury or has taken the place of a starter gone down.

Behind that process are Pace and Christen, along with strength and conditioning coach Dan Barlow, who meet at Rio Tinto Stadium every day at 8 a.m. to map out the conditioning drills for the injured players. They determine who does what each day to figure out how to best progress their specific injury.

"The hardest part of being a professional athlete is when you're injured," said RSL defender Tony Beltran, who's aiming to return from an ankle injury. "When you all of a sudden stop doing something that you're used to doing every day, the mental toll that it takes on you is so significant."

Enter Pace and Christen. They've been working together with RSL since 2011 and have immersed themselves into the inner circles of the pro athlete. They've studied different cultures, backgrounds and ways of engaging injured players to look forward toward finding fitness and being cleared to play.

"We look at all the small wins on a day-to-day basis, and try not to look at the big picture," Pace said. "The biggest thing is we communicate with them and be honest — if an athlete doesn't share with us what their goals are, we're not going to be able to help them get there."

That kind of brute honesty develops through the years, and is accompanied with respect. Players are comfortable enough that they'll call Pace or Christen at 7 a.m. when their child's fever spikes or rehabbing an injury in a hotel room on the road at 11 p.m.

"They don't ever say no," said RSL GM Garth Lagerwey. "It's such a grind, but you just have to have a positive worldview a little bit. Just kind of keep going."

With more responsibility than most could ever presume.

When Carlos Salcedo needed emergency gall bladder surgery following a 3-0 win at FC Dallas last July, Pace received the 2 a.m. phone call from the young defender, packed up a bag and rushed to the hospital and stayed there for three days while Salcedo recovered. He had to call Salcedo's father in Mexico for emergency authorization information for the insurance company.

"You're representing so many people at one time," Pace said. "It can be confusing, but we get it done and if the guys get out on the field and they play well, that's all that matters."

The injuries are slowing and several players are returning to training fully, but the knocks keep coming. Following being called up by the U.S. men's national team for a friendly against Mexico, goalkeeper Nick Rimando and Beltran returned with injuries that forced them to miss the trip to face Sporting Kansas City.

And the marathon MLS season has at least six months to go.

"For us, it's trying to keep it in perspective," Christen said. "Players are always going to get injured and knowing that and trying to take the weight off our own shoulders is the only way we can go on without hitting a wall. We know we can't prevent everything."


Twitter: @chriskamrani —

Real Salt Lake at Philadelphia Union

P At PPL Park, Chester, Pa.

Kickoff • Saturday, 2 p.m.

TV • Ch. 4

Radio • 700 AM

Records • RSL 2-0-3; Philadelphia 1-1-3

Last meeting • RSL 2, Philadelphia 2 (July 4, 2013)

About RSL • RSL heads East for the second week in a row as it prepares for its fourth road match in six games to open the 2014 season. … RSL will be without starting keeper Nick Rimando, who continues to rehab a knee injury suffered while with the U.S. national team on April 2. … Backup goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, coming off a nine-save performance to preserve a 0-0 draw at Sporting KC, will more than likely replace Rimando. … The last time these two teams met was July 4, 2013, when Javier Morales scored a 97th-minute penalty kick to salvage a 2-2 draw at Rio Tinto Stadium. … RSL coach Jeff Cassar ruled out Rimando, Robbie Findley and Joao Plata for the match against the Union, adding other injured players battling back are "on the fence" for Saturday. … RSL is 0-0-3 all-time at PPL Park and is unbeaten all-time against the Union going 2-0-4. … Midfielder Luis Gil is doubtful with a hamstring injury.

About Philadelphia • The Union are coming off a 2-2 draw with the Chicago Fire last week. … Keeper Zac MacMath stopped a penalty in stoppage time when Chicago forward Mike Magee was given a chance to win it for the Fire. … Philadelphia's big offseason acquisition was U.S. midfielder Maurice Edu, on a year-long loan from English Premier League's Stoke City FC. … Edu has one goal and one assist through the first five weeks of the season. … The Union traded 2013 leading scorer Jack McInerney to the Montreal Impact last week in exchange for forward Andrew Wenger. … MacMath grew up in the Clearwater, Fla., area with RSL goalkeeper Jeff Attinella and the two played on the same club team. … Leo Fernandes leads the team in goals scored this season with two. … The Union have never defeated Real Salt Lake since coming into MLS in 2010.






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