After 34 games in the regular MLS season, NYCFC qualified for the MLS Playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons in 2021, winning the Eastern Conference Championship and the MLS Cup for the first time in the Club’s history.
Not considered one of the favourites at the beginning of the season, the team exceeded expectations but for those within the Club, it was always the ambition.
Fans and pundits have been asking how NYCFC achieved their success this year and what gave them the vital edge to not only improve on performances in previous campaigns but also to outplay their opponents?
As Performance Solutions Partners, we spoke to Dr Jeremy Bettle, Performance Director at NYCFC to understand how changes implemented by his team off the pitch have been instrumental in delivering results on the field.
At NYCFC, nutrition is considered a critical component of team performance, enabling the players to execute the fundamentals of training from a higher work rate and increased concentration to improved performance in games.
Since working with Science in Sport this season, the team has both individualised fueling strategies for high-minute players and overhauled its day-to-day food-first philosophy.
Jeremy and his team firstly looked at ways to increase the accessibility of carbohydrates through food and supplementation for the players while identifying ways to simplify the application of the Club’s nutrition strategy, which meant removing barriers for players to allow them to elevate their nutritional intake.
Fueling correctly meant that the Club’s players were able to execute their game at a higher level for longer throughout the season, culminating in their MLS Eastern Conference Semi-Final penalty shoot-out victory against New England Revolution, resulting in them earning their place in the final and going on to win the MLS Cup.
Studies with high-minute players at the start of the campaign exposed that in some cases, individuals were under fueling by up to 50%, which the Club’s performance team were quick to address.
To put this into context, statistics from the Semi-Final game versus New England Revolution showed that five players each covered over 14km alone. Under fueling would have been detrimental to both individual player and team performance.
Collaborating with Professor James Morton, Director of Science in Sport Performance Solutions and Dr Dana Lis, the Company’s US Performance Nutritionist, NYCFC collaborated to devise a plan on how to fuel players sufficiently, starting with individualised strategies, followed by general principles that were then rolled out across the team.
In line with the Club’s food-first philosophy, changes centred around a change in menu design to make carbohydrates more accessible via natural food sources. Menu adaptations included leaning into player preferences, such as providing pancakes at breakfast that contained sufficient carbohydrates to top up energy stores, to the inclusion of protein within risotto served after training to support recovery. Here the team used applied nutrition to give the players food options that they enjoy to further remove barriers to fueling.
Taste was also a key consideration, while simplified formats were chosen to ensure consumption, as demonstrated with the introduction of smoothies rich in nutrients and high in antioxidants through the inclusion of dark berries and ready-made electrolyte drinks became standard practise.
Consuming enough carbohydrates through food alone is difficult, which is when NYCFC turned to supplementation via Science in Sport’s Beta Fuel range, REGO Rapid Recovery and the bespoke Performance Solutions Lab product, S3.
MATCH DAY -1
From their own studies, Jake Roswell, First Team Performance Coach, and Luke Cooper, Head of Sports Science, identified the need to address carbohydrate loading to increase player carbohydrate intake pre-game.
This started out with changing player habits, linking back to the menu adaptations, introducing SiS Beta Fuel 80 – a high-concentration dual-source carbohydrate drink during mealtimes – right down to switching the player’s protein source to SiS REGO Rapid Recovery, under guidance from the SiS team.
While REGO Rapid Recovery contains 20 grams of protein making it a great recovery solution, it also provides 22 grams of carbohydrates, in the form of maltodextrin, which the performance team used within smoothies to help top up muscle glycogen stores pre-game.
In combination with the match day nutrition strategy outlined below, these changes meant players were going into games adequately fueled.
A higher carbohydrate breakfast on game day was the first change implemented, with SiS Beta Fuel Chews used to top-up carbohydrate levels in a format that is both easy to track, with each individual chew containing seven grams of carbohydrate and scientifically proven to be easy to digest.
For the game itself, the introduction of S3 meant players were given a high carbohydrate drink – S3 contains 80g of single source carbohydrate from maltodextrin – in an easy to consume format, taken before and during games to pre-load and top up carbohydrate levels to keep players energised and focused.
Collaborating with SiS, the performance team were able to simplify this even further by giving the drink to players in a way that clearly outlined how much fluid should be drank and when during game day, further removing barriers to fueling.
FUELING THE SEMI FINAL VICTORY VS NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION
Fueling for 90 minutes is one thing but an additional 30 minutes of extra-time provided a rare and significant challenge for NYCFC to overcome as they faced New England Revolution in the MLS Eastern Conference Semi-Final.
Carbohydrates and fluids were important in ensuring players didn’t become under fueled and dehydrated, which would’ve hampered their physical and mental performance.
Jeremy explains that additional S3 drinks were prepared by the performance team at half time in anticipation of what was to come, with the drink consumed by the players at regular intervals during breaks in play to give them the final push needed to compete for 120 minutes.
Given that NYCFC completed the game with just ten men, and came out victorious following a penalty shoot-out, it was nothing short of remarkable. The team’s result was undoubtedly underpinned by the successful implementation of the nutrition strategy by the performance team.
NYCFC’s Eastern Conference Championship Title was greeted with elation and celebrations from players and staff, but in the immediate aftermath of the game, focus swiftly turned to recovery ahead of the MLS Cup Final.
Again, the performance team reverted to its season-long strategy. Firstly, protein smoothies were given to players immediately after the game containing REGO Cherry Juice, which is packed full of antioxidants to reduce muscle soreness and SiS Whey Protein to repair players’ muscles. Essential when facing back-to-back fixtures at the end of a 37-game campaign.
The MLS Cup winners intend to increase their focus on nutrition in 2022. With plans to further collaborate with SiS to help educate and inform players about the role of nutrition in supporting optimal performance, empowering them to take individual responsibility for effectively managing their own energy, hydration and recovery nutrition strategies.