This story was originally published on New England Soccer Journal. Hartford Athletic supporters can apply the code HA25 at checkout for 25% off either a year-long digital or all-access subscription. Launched in March 2013, New England Soccer Journal covers youth soccer up to the professional ranks across the entire region. Click here for more info and to subscribe.
Editor's Note: This article was written prior to the postponement of the start of the 2020 Season.
Last season with Hartford Athletic, Mac Steeves (Needham, Mass.) noticed how certain teammates seemed to never get injured or sick.
How did guys like midfielder Nicky Downs (Lakeville, Conn.) and forward Jose Angulo do it? The answer, at least in part, was a vegetarian diet.
For a forward who was limited to two goals in 15 appearances due to several muscular injuries, Steeves didn’t need much convincing. He’d modify his diet completely, all to get his body right for the 2020 USL Championship season.
“The first month was tough and I honestly thought it kinda sucked,” Steeves told New England Soccer Journal after re-signing with Harford last week. “I’ve always had chicken in my diet, things like that. So it was finding the right balance of what I like, what I can whip up quickly or eat out.
“Since two months into it, I noticed I’d go on a treadmill run and run three miles. Normally, I’d be exhausted and sore the next day. Now, I wake up after that and am ready to go, still have all the energy. I don’t know if it’s completely because of going vegetarian, but it doesn’t hurt.”
The change arrives as Steeves’ injury history grows, with a gash on his Achilles tendon, plus strains to his calf, groin and quad all occurring in 2019. In 2018, while playing with MLS club Houston Dynamo, Steeves underwent bilateral hip surgery. He also missed almost his entire 2016 season at Providence College after having bilateral sports hernia surgery.
Each injury gets tougher to deal with, Steeves said, and takes a toll, as it would for anybody. So, he’s open to new approaches.
“I’m just trying anything I can to avoid any injuries moving forward,” Steeves, 25, said. “I want to be on the field, not watching from afar or the sidelines.”
For breakfast, Steeves often has oatmeal with bananas and berries. Protein shakes have become a bigger part of his diet, and lunch and dinner tend to include rice, beans and vegetables. One of his go-tos lately? Eggplant parmesan.
This proactive approach hasn’t been limited to diet, though. Steeves has looked into yoga and pilates to increase his flexibility and range of motion. Muscle pliability, which New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady pushed into the mainstream, has been another area of focus.
Steeves has even considered taking up martial arts, noting that Zlatan Ibrahimovic has a black belt in taekwondo. They’re similarly nimble for big-framed strikers, with Steeves measuring 6-foot-4 and Ibrahimovic at 6-foot-5.
“If I can move my body in certain ways, then it reduces the risk of pulling something by overextending,” Steeves said. “If I can avoid those little things, it’ll make a difference with staying on the field and staying healthy. It’s mostly flexibility work, strengthening the tissue and learning to contort my body more.”
These changes could propel Steeves to his first fully-healthy season in years. Conversely, he’s wondered how long his professional career will last should the injuries mount up.
“I still have the desire to play, I want to be out there and get back to my old level,” Steeves said. “ … Now, if I get injured, it’s not because of anything I could have been doing differently. It’s me doing literally everything possible to hold myself accountable.”
That hope is also rooted in Steeves’ résumé ahead of his third professional season. He was named the 2012 Gatorade Player of the Year in Massachusetts after leading Needham High School to a state championship as a senior, plus played extensively for the Boston Bolts. At Providence, he’s second all-time in goals (35) and points (82), and was a central figure on the 2014 College Cup team that sparked the Friars’ current run under head coach Craig Stewart.
After impressing at Providence, Steeves was drafted by Houston in 2018, but only appeared in three matches as a substitute and two more with Rio Grande Valley FC Toros, their USL affiliate. Despite some injuries with Hartford, he scored the first home goal in club history and tallied in their final match of 2019, a friendly against Jamaican side Portmore United FC.
Naturally, Steeves still holds aspirations of making an MLS return, but has also adjusted his goals.
“Short-term, I want to be an impact player on this team, I want to help Hartford get on the map more,” Steeves said. “I’d love for us to be a team in the top half of the table instead of the bottom half.
“Long-term I’d love to be a guy who’s scoring double digits in the USL and maybe get a shot in MLS again. Is that last part possible? Maybe. If it’s not, then I’m happy being a guy who’s banging in goals at the USL level. It’s not something that’ll make or break how I view success. Whatever ends up happening, I’ll be able to live with it.”
To achieve that, Steeves will have to impress new head coach Radhi Jaidi, who’s come over from Southampton FC’s U-23 team. The second-year club will convene for preseason this week, as will Downs (Yale/Hotchkiss/Black Rock FC) and Northeastern product Harry Swartz (Needham, Mass.), another Boston Bolts alum. They’ll need serious improvements from last year’s 8-21-5 record and second-to-last place finish in the Eastern Conference.
This new era could bode well for Steeves, with his diet and exercise changes providing a solid base.
“I’ve had a full offseason being completely healthy, no injuries,” Steeves said. “I truly feel I’ve put myself in a position where I can be an impact player for this club.”