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Meet some medical pros working to keep our Republic FC players match-ready.
PLAYED IN ALMOST EVERY CORNER OF THE WORLD by every class of citizen, soccer is known as “the people’s sport.” Its community-minded nature is one reason professional soccer has found such a happy home in Sacramento, a city of people from all walks of life who show up for the stuff they care about. And Sacramento cares about soccer.
When the Sacramento Republic Football Club was founded in 2012, everything from the team name to the design of the team crest was decided with input from thousands of fan votes. The inaugural season’s home opener was played in 2014 in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 20,000 fans—nearly doubling the previous United Soccer League pro record for ticket sales. The Republic FC would finish the 2014 season as the USL champions, having sold out all but one home game and breaking a few other ticket-sale records along the way. In 2015, the team made it to the USL championships, and in 2016 it won the USL Western Conference. The crowds keep coming back.
It’s not just a community of fans that rallies around the team, though. A community of medical professionals quietly works behind the scenes, some donating their time to ensure that the players of the FC are match-ready week in and week out. All members of the medical team except athletic trainer John Duncan, MA, ATC, maintain careers in private practices or clinics throughout Sacramento, treating your co-worker’s carpal tunnel or your neighbor’s sciatica on the days they’re not working with the pro soccer players. “Every coach will preach team unity,” says Duncan, “and it’s really no different for our medical team.”
Meet three of the team’s medical pros.
Jesse Saenz, DC, CCSP – HEAD OF SPORTS SCIENCE
Jesse Saenz, DC, CCSP HEAD OF SPORTS SCIENCE
For chiropractor Jesse Saenz, a Sacramento native and lifelong soccer enthusiast, working with the players of Republic FC is a “dream come true.” After being mentored by the LA Galaxy and U.S. Men’s National Team chiropractor, Saenz was hired by Republic FC’s first head coach, Predrag “Preki” Radosavljevic, in October 2013 before either the front office or the player rosters were anywhere close to complete. “I’d been treating athletes for years, but soccer was always my passion,” says the former collegiate rugby player. (“I was just better at rugby,” he explains.)
Saenz’s primary focus is injury prevention, and he takes a holistic approach. After a comprehensive preseason baseline assessment of each player’s strength and range of motion, Saenz works with the rest of the medical team to design individualized training protocols based on a scientific principle called periodization, developed by a Dutch professional soccer coach named Raymond Verheijen. The medical team determines exactly how much load each player should be able to endure in their training sessions, allowing them to train as close to their limit as possible without overexerting and subsequently injuring themselves. “The hardest thing in sports science is pushing athletes to improve without pushing them so hard they break,” says Saenz.
In addition to determining maximum load limits for each player, the preseason assessments shine light on any weaknesses, asymmetries or abnormalities that may be precursors to injuries. “I’m gathering data,” Saenz says of the baseline assessments. “I’m looking at movement restrictions, or anything I see that I can work on.”
Saenz works on players in two primary ways: regular chiropractic adjustments and soft-tissue treatment. He has each player come in for adjustments once or twice a week; the main goal is simply to maintain normal alignment and range of motion. “Players know that even if they don’t have any issues, they get seen at least every week,” says Saenz.
He also treats soft tissue, including tendons, ligaments and fascia, using Active Release Technique—or as Saenz describes it, “about as close to magic as I can do.” ART helps break down scar tissue and treat old injuries that didn’t heal properly.
“Jesse does far more than what a typical chiropractor would do,” Duncan says.
Saenz splits his time about 50/50 between working with Republic FC and treating nonprofessional athletes at Epic Chiropractic in the Arden area. He works for the team at a below-market rate as an official sponsor. “Working with the team is a result of my love for soccer and what the team is doing here,” he says. “I’m from here; this is my home. It’s such a massive thing for Sacramento. It’s not just a soccer team. It brings people together.”
Coleman Phillips, CMT – MASSAGE THERAPIST
Coleman Phillips, CMT MASSAGE THERAPIST
After an internship with Real Salt Lake in massage school, a massage therapist position at Ojai Valley Inn & Spa—a five-star resort in Southern California—and a stint working with the Sacramento Kings during the 2014–2015 season, Coleman Phillips knew he wanted to work with the Republic FC as soon as he heard the team was being formed. “I just walked into the office and asked who I needed to talk to,” he remembers.
He got busy right away researching and seeking mentorship about the specific massage therapy needs of soccer players. “I was working with the Kings at that time,” he says, “and basketball players are a lot bigger and more muscular than soccer players, who tend to be a lot leaner. It’s a whole different body type.”
Phillips, who continues to treat private clients at his East Sac office in addition to attending Republic FC practices and matches, researched everything he could find about the practices of massage therapists in the Premier League and began to work closely with the rest of the medical team to ensure they were all united around a common mission. “My main goal is injury prevention,” he says. “This isn’t a relaxation thing like it might be with a private client. We’re taking care of them and their livelihood.”
Another difference between private massage clients and Republic FC players: the amount of time he has to treat them.
“If a player has a shoulder injury, it takes me about 10 to 15 minutes. I have to get them up and moving with as much range of motion as possible as quickly as possible, versus in my office I have more time.”
Phillips learned 22 massage modalities in his formal training, and he has since added an additional six to eight techniques to provide the most effective and efficient massage treatment for the players. “I don’t have to give instructions to Coleman,” says Duncan. “When a certain injury shows up, I can just delegate it to the right person on our medical team and they’ll know what to do. We all kind of anticipate each other in that way.”
He continues: “Hamstring injuries were terrible our first year. But we only had four hamstring injuries in the second year. The whole medical team really joins forces to identify issues and fix them. The players understand what we’re doing and they appreciate it. That’s a really rewarding part of this work.”
Katy Norton, DPT – PHYSICAL THERAPIST
Katy Norton, DPT PHYSICAL THERAPIST
In soccer, it’s inevitable that somebody’s going to get hurt. That’s where physical therapist Katy Norton comes in. A longtime soccer player herself, Norton remembers learning that Sacramento was getting a professional soccer team. “I was just so excited and I wanted to be at every game,” she recalls. “And now I am at every game... on the field!”
Prior to her work with Republic FC, Norton worked primarily with baseball players at Results Physical Therapy, the clinic where she continues to work alongside Luke Rayfield, who serves as the team’s strength and condition coach. When Results signed on as an official sponsor of the team, Norton was first in line to become the dedicated team physical therapist. When the team is in season, she spends two days a week on the field with the players. “At the beginning, there was a disconnect because they’d play and compete on the field, but they’d have to come into the clinic to get treated,” she says. The medical team agreed that having Norton present on the field not only gave her a better opportunity to assess the players’ injuries, but it also helped build rapport.
“You just know your player,” she says. “I know when someone is just complaining and I can actually push them to work a bit harder, versus when they actually need rest. Some guys will try to get more time off than they need. Some will never tell you if they’re hurt. It’s my job to know their limitations.”
Emrah Klimenta, a star defender who earned a contract with Republic FC following open tryouts in 2014, has worked with Norton extensively since tearing his left ACL in July 2016. “I started rehab two days after surgery, and Katy was hands-on every day,” he says of the first weeks following his injury. “I was held accountable,” he says, noting that the rehab has been “a lot tougher” than when he tore his other ACL in 2010—when he was between teams and received physical therapy as a privately insured patient through Kaiser. “(This time) went by a lot quicker, though, and I gained my confidence a lot quicker.”
Norton is optimistic about Klimenta’s recovery, bolstered by his timeline through the required rest, agility and active phases of rehabilitation. One of her favorite tools for getting Republic FC players match-ready as quickly as possible after an injury is the AlterG anti-gravity treadmill, which allows patients to return to cardio training before their injury would typically allow. Klimenta recalls walking on the AlterG after a few months of his knee rehabilitation. “She told me to start jogging but I wasn’t sure I was ready. ‘Are you sure?’ I asked. ‘Yes, I’m sure,’ she said, and I’m not going to argue with her!” Klimenta didn’t expect to be jogging for another three to four weeks, crediting Norton for customizing his physical therapy to optimize his outcome.
Norton’s work with her Republic FC patients has shaped her work with her clinic patients. “We get a lot more soccer players at Results now,” she says. “We’ll have 8- and 10-year-old kids who are recovering from the same injuries as the players. They see Emrah working hard. They see what it takes. I think it’s really unique for people in the community—kids, even—to get to experience that.”