Kyle Beckerman stepped in and played well in Michael Bradley's absence on Tuesday night. (Jay LaPrete/AP)
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The U.S. national team that will fly to Brazil for next summer's World Cup will consist of 23 players. That limit is unfortunate, because it took a lot more than 23 to earn the trip.
Clarence Goodson may not make it. The San Jose Earthquakes defender was an alternate on the current qualifying roster. He played in Tuesday's clincher here at Crew Stadium only because of Matt Besler's suspension. Mikkel Diskerud may not make it. He's one of several players vying for minutes in a crowded and talented midfield. The same could be said for Alejandro Bedoya.
Yet all three played an integral role in lifting the U.S. to another 2-0 win over Mexico and a seventh consecutive World Cup berth. Their ability to step in seamlessly and contribute in such a challenging, high-profile game is testament to coach Jurgen Klinsmann's patient, long-term effort to generate unprecedented depth at every position. That effort has resulted in an environment that is both cutthroat and motivational. It also has resulted in a churn in the player pool that can impact even its most celebrated and accomplished members.
Former captain Carlos Bocanegra now is on the outside looking in. Landon Donovan, the national team's all-time leading scorer, received next to no benefit of the doubt after a four-month sabbatical.
In using 47 players this year, 39 of whom have started at least one match, Klinsmann has developed myriad lineup options and a group that can rebound from setbacks and absences. Michael Bradley was injured in Costa Rica last Friday. Three starters were suspended for the Mexico match Tuesday. And the U.S. barely missed a beat as the likes of Goodson, Bedoya and Kyle Beckerman were ready and able to step in.
"I think the best teams in the world operate that way," said Donovan, who had a goal and an assist on Tuesday. It was only his second appearance in eight World Cup qualifiers this year. "It's good for us and from game to game you have to perform or you might not play the next game. It makes it more competitive. It makes the team deeper and you've seen now over the last few months, probably 35-40 different guys have contributed. And that's great."
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Donovan's path back to the starting lineup -- which started with his exclusion from the June qualifying roster -- is the most visible example of Klinsmann's philosophy. He believes players improve by being forced to repeatedly earn, and then keep, their places.
"He had to understand that he's not getting anything for granted. He has to work his way back. He has to fight his way back and that's what he did," Klinsmann said of Donovan following Tuesday's win. "He understands the message clearly that nobody has a spot guaranteed. It's all down to performance."
Eddie Johnson, who tallied the opener on Tuesday, hadn't played for the U.S. in two years when he rejoined the team last fall. He started against Mexico because of Jozy Altidore's suspension and scored for the fourth time in his past six internationals. Beckerman is firmly behind Bradley and Jermaine Jones on the central midfield depth chart yet he was excellent on Tuesday, playing a key role in grinding the Mexicans into submission in the second half.
Diskerud performed well at this summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup, which didn't feature the majority of Klinsmann's first-choice roster. Tuesday marked the Norwegian-American's first appearance in the Hexagonal. In the 78th minute, he put the match out of reach with a gorgeous run and cross that Donovan finished at the left post.
Bedoya, whose tireless work on the right flank was key for the U.S., was another Gold Cup alumnus who made the most of an 'A' team opportunity.
"I think the Gold Cup really helped us a long way because there wasn't a lot of the guys (in that tournament) who were in here (with the first team)," Beckerman said. "There's a lot of gelling that's going along in a big group instead of a small group."
Said defender Omar Gonzalez, who played with Besler on Friday and then Goodson on Tuesday: "I think that Jurgen has put together quite a deep roster for us and whoever's turn it is to step in, they have the quality, they have the confidence from the players, from the coaches, and there's really no drop off. I think Clarence tonight did a great job ... coming in midway through camp and putting everything else aside about not being called up first. He really did his job and I really commend him."
Goodson made only his second appearance in the Hex on Tuesday night. He and Gonzalez were under an enormous amount of pressure during the first half, but the pair held its nerve as the Mexicans poured forward in search of the go-ahead goal.
Gradually, they imposed their will and weren't troubled much in the second half.
"It's just part of being a professional. Jurgen told me to be ready and I did my best to be ready," Goodson said. "When he called I knew there was a chance I would play (against Mexico), so it was a matter of wrapping my head around it as soon as possible and I think I did a good job."
Klinsmann's mixing and matching and the myriad lineups and combinations he tested likely impacted team chemistry during his first year-plus in charge and delayed the group-wide gelling that Beckerman referenced. But over time, as players became accustomed to their manager's methods and thirst for competition, and as they gained more experience playing with a variety of teammates, the level of comfort increased. Beckerman and Jones, for example, hadn't started together in more than a year. But by the time the second half rolled around on Tuesday, they had it all figured out.
In the end, when Klinsmann picks his World Cup roster, not to mention his starting 11 for that first game in Brazil, he'll have the options he wanted. His final decision will be tougher, but that's by design.
"For the group, yeah, having one of your leaders [Bradley] not there and going down in Costa Rica two minutes before kick off and then the yellow cards that you all saw ... It's important that you see a group sticking together and be there for each other and that's what they've done," the manager said.
Diskerud couldn't contain his joy following the game. He spoke through a wide smile. Despite his lack of qualifying minutes, he felt like he had as much right to celebrate as any of his teammates. The competition created a bond.
"I'm just really happy to be part of this group," he said. "We don't really think that way, like what position and who's going to take his place. We're just part of a team that made the World Cup right now. That's what I love about soccer. It's a team feeling. It's not individual. And it's the best feeling I've ever had."