Japanese soccer player Kazuyoshi Miura just signed a one-year contract to continue playing for Japanese side Yokohama FC. He’s almost 53. He kicked off his professional soccer career in February 1986, when Reto Ziegler, the oldest current FC Dallas player, was one month old.
What is the secret of longevity in professional sports? Can the current crop of young players on the FC Dallas roster play four or, even — Gasp! — five decades like Miura?
The MLS had a few senior citizens last season. Tim Howard, 40, Nick Rimando, almost 40, and DaMarcus Beasley, 37, all retired after the season. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 37, moved back to Europe and has already scored a goal for AC Milan. This season the oldest player in the MLS may be closer to 35.
For FC Dallas, Ziegler turns 34 on Jan. 16. He’s in the last year of his contract but still seems to be playing at a high level. One look at his offseason training program on his Instagram feed and it appears that he wants to continue to play at that level. Can he play here in Dallas for another three years?
The poster boy these days for the elderly still playing at a high level is New England Patriots’ quarterback, Tom Brady. At 42, Brady threw 24 touchdowns and led his team to a 12-4 record this season. He also has six Super Bowl rings.
What does it take? There is no magic bullet, but some of the current athletic anomalies might give us a few clues.
- Genetics — Muscle fibers, fast metabolisms, and oxygen-rich blood levels all matter. Genetics could also determine how quickly an athlete bounces back from injury or perhaps is less prone to get injured at all. There’s probably enough names to fill a Los Angeles phone book with woulda’s and coulda’s that would be in any major sports Halls of Fame if not for career-ending injuries. Good genes are a must.
- Luck — Not everyone finds the elusive four-leaf clover. If an athlete wants to stay at the top level for a long time, luck will have its say. A player gets lucky to play on the same team, instead of bouncing around to a different squad each year. Luck comes into play on whether a player gets hurt. Some players get lucky on getting selected at all. Brady was the 199th pick in the 2000 draft. Did he get lucky? To some degree, yes.
- Position — Overall, defensive soccer players seem to play the longest, especially goalkeepers. Two of them retired last season (Howard and Rimando). It makes sense that less running at break-neck speed for 90 minutes could extend a career.
- Exercise — Most of the MLS players are working hard this offseason. Soccer is a grueling game over ong season. They have to stay in shape. But what types of exercises are most effective for staying in shape to play for years?
Brady again is the gold standard. In the offseason, Brady travels to the Bahamas to work out with his longtime trainer Alex Guerrero. There Brady starts his day with a massage. He works with resistance bands, never weights. He wants to focus on speed and agility instead of bulking up. After his workout, another massage. Then in the afternoons, he works on brain training — looking at flashcards to keep sharp mentally. Exercising the brain is often overlooked.
- Diet — This one should be a no-brainer. An 18-year old player may be able to eat pizza and cheeseburgers every meal and be fine. But that won’t last. Players today eat strict diets. Some eat meat, some don’t. Some eat all paleo, some eat vegan. Brady is mostly plant-based with some fish thrown in for protein. Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero is a vegan. Former Patriots tight end, Rob Gronkowski, said switching to a mostly plant-based diet definitely extended his career. All the big dogs seem to skip the Big Mac.
- Mindset — Before 1954, people believed running a sub-four-minute mile was impossible. It was deemed dangerous to the human body. For decades the record stood at 4:01. Then Roger Bannister ran a mile in 3:59. Over the next year, 24 other people ran under four minutes. What was the difference? They thought they could. Brady still plays in the NFL because he believes he can. Kazuyoshi Miura also believes he can help his team win. A positive mindset can make all the difference in the world.
- Keeping it Fun — As with anything, playing sports still has to be fun. People who want to play late in their careers must enjoy lacing up their boots for another offseason, another game, another practice.
Will Reto Ziegler play professional soccer for five, six or eight more years? Maybe. He appears to be working like he’s going to.
Will some of these younger kids — Jesus Ferriera, Paxton Pomykal, Brandon Servania, etc. — play for 15 to 20 more years? Possibly.
Nobody knows for sure, but people are finding ways to live longer, more productive lives in general, so why not. The tools — exercise, diet, mindset — are available. Maybe these guys will be playing during the 2039 season and beyond. And maybe some of us fans will be there to watch.
What do you think? Can soccer players play competitive soccer into their late 30s and beyond? What will it take? Who would you like to see around for another three or four years?