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USMNT Finds World Cup Qualifying Success Despite Its 'Ideal' XI Remaining Theoretical

Not having all of its high-profile individual stars readily available hasn't slowed the U.S., which will need another next-man-up effort in Jamaica.

KINGSTON, Jamaica — Bruce Arena’s second tenure as U.S. men’s national team coach obviously didn’t end well, but that didn’t detract from the value of the counsel he offered Gregg Berhalter when the latter took over the rebuilding program in late 2018. Arena had managed multiple generations of internationals through three World Cup cycles. He understood the peculiarities of the gig.

“He was like, ‘Gregg, you’re not going to have these players available all the time. Something always comes up.’ And I think it’s better that we can accept that and then build the team based on that, and have the collective buy-in that guys know that they can contribute,” Berhalter said here in the Jamaican capital on Monday afternoon. “Their job isn’t to be a passenger.”

There are next to no passengers on this U.S. squad, which enters Tuesday night’s World Cup qualifier against the Reggae Boyz in first place in Concacaf’s Octagonal, the eight-nation gauntlet that’ll send the top three finishers directly to next year’s World Cup. Berhalter shared Arena’s perspective from the start and endeavored to construct a deep and diverse player pool. The pandemic also contributed, setting up a scenario where travel restrictions forced the coaches to work separately with players based in the U.S. and Europe, goalkeeper Zack Steffen explained Monday (he’ll make his third straight qualifying start against Jamaica after sitting through the first five).

USMNT's starting XI vs. Mexico

Berhalter then set the stage for qualifying by fielding two almost entirely different teams in this summer’s successful Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup tournaments. And once the Octagonal started, he’s been able to respond to injuries, scheduling challenges and coronavirus issues—not to mention his own missteps in Honduras and Panama—with dexterity.

The starting XI on Tuesday evening at Independence Park will be the eighth different U.S. lineup across the eight qualifiers. Berhalter has already used 34 players during the Octagonal, starting 29 of them at least once. And he’s given 26 men their World Cup qualifying debut (the record of 29 was achieved during the 1998 cycle). It has been a true team effort.

As a result, there still isn’t an established or ideal American XI. Some faces naturally are more famous than others and there clearly are some preferred first-choice players. But some of them are almost always unavailable, and so many combinations and options have emerged in recent months that the U.S. barely skips a beat in their absence. This team has been drilled and conditioned to expect the unexpected, and to adapt to fluctuating lineups and responsibilities.

“I think it’s theory vs. reality,” Berhalter said of the prospect of an ideal lineup.

The U.S. kicked off against Mexico on Friday without the three men who arguably are the program’s most creatively skillful. Gio Reyna (hamstring) and Sergiño Dest (back) were absent with injuries and Christian Pulisic was on the bench, not yet ready to go 90 minutes as he recovers from a badly sprained ankle. No matter. The Americans were in control when Pulisic entered in the 69th, and he scored the go-ahead goal five minutes later.

Following the 2–0 win in Cincinnati, winger Tim Weah, who provided the game-winning assist, called Pulisic “our star player.” There are good reasons for that designation. But it says something about the development and depth of the U.S. that it’s in first place halfway through the Octagonal, and its star has started just two of seven games.

“Within the group, with ourselves, we don’t really see ourselves as stars,” Weah explained Monday. “We don’t really see another player ahead of us, because we all love each other. We’re all brothers. There’s really no ego in the team. But obviously you have the supporters—they know who their main guys are and all that stuff. And I feel like every player on this team is going to get to that point. But every player has their own time.”

Tim Weah dribbles for the USA vs. Mexico

Weah, who won the Ligue 1 title with Lille last season, is an embodiment of the nature of national team impermanence and the importance of having players who can quickly step in and step up. The 21-year-old played almost no part in Berhalter’s early tenure thanks to a devastating hamstring injury, and after appearing in the Nations League final win over Mexico, Weah missed out on the September qualifying window. He then made the team last month and was preparing to begin the home game against Costa Rica on the bench when Paul Arriola was hurt warming up. Weah was thrust into the XI on five minutes’ notice and wound up creating the Tico own goal that tilted the match toward the U.S. That then helped Weah earn the starting nod against Mexico, against whom he enjoyed a man-of-the-match performance.

“I feel like each player is going to have their time and it’s just about taking your opportunities and getting there,” Weah said in Kingston.

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More of the same will be needed Tuesday at The Office, Jamaica’s home stadium that lies near the foot of the lush mountains that surround the city. Two vital pieces of the U.S. spine will be missing, as both midfielder Weston McKennie and center back Miles Robinson will serve suspensions. Robinson, 24, became a defensive linchpin during the Gold Cup and has started six of seven qualifiers, missing only the 1-0 loss at Panama. He’ll be relieved by either Chris Richards or Mark McKenzie, who have only 13 senior caps combined (although each has at least one Octagonal start).

McKennie, 23, will be replaced by Kellyn Acosta, Gianluca Busio or Sebastian Lletget, Berhalter said Monday. The dynamic and robust midfield trio of McKennie, Tyler Adams and Yunus Musah was starting to look like the American ideal. The U.S. is 3-0-0 in qualifiers when they start together. But the only inevitable is change, and Berhalter will have to adjust again on Tuesday.

Unfamiliar faces, new partnerships and flimsier chemistry can be obvious hurdles. But the U.S. has prepared for this. Berhalter and his staff go over individual tendencies, assignments and responsibilities with players during conversations that take place outside international windows, and the staff has instituted a culture in which everyone on the team expects and embraces the churn. If you’re called in, there’s a very good chance you’ll play. So be ready.

USMNT center back Walker Zimmerman vs. Mexico

Walker Zimmerman, who will play alongside Richards or McKenzie on Friday, has experienced that roller coaster as well. The Nashville SC center back was a Gold Cup starter, then missed the knockout rounds with an injury. He was omitted from the September qualifiers, but was brought in for the October games only after Tim Ream withdrew. Zimmerman was no afterthought, however, as he immediately started against Jamaica and Panama and then again last week against Mexico.

“For the majority of the group, we’ve had a lot of experience under Gregg and this coaching staff and we do a lot of work kind of behind the scenes going through tactics, going through formations, watching position-specific video, getting on the same page with other teammates that maybe you haven’t played with as much in a game,” Zimmerman explained.

“There’s a lot of trainings. There’s a lot of sessions where we do get to mix and match. We play next to each other. We learn different tendencies,” he continued. “I think that’s kind of helped us prepare and then ultimately, the mindset of everyone saying ‘Hey, this is my chance. I’m getting called on. I’ll be ready to go,’ has been really good from the group. Whether you’re starting, coming in as a sub, everyone’s had a big impact on the games.”

That mindset is about confidence, and it’s also enhanced by a team culture in which no one is supposed to feel overlooked or marginalized. All must stay engaged and stay alert. Berhalter not only listened to Arena—he listened to himself and how he felt as a player when his name wasn’t called. Everyone should know where he stands.

“I’ve been there. It’s never nice to get a phone call saying you’re not a part of a camp. You think, ‘O.K., I’m out. I’m done,’” the former defender said. "What I try to do is communicate to the guys that that’s not the case. Things can change very quickly. ‘We consider you part of the group and for this particular window we chose another person.’

“For the players, I think the important thing is communicating and then you gain some understanding of why we made the decision,” Berhalter added.

And so a sense of belonging and camaraderie is built. Players compete for time and position but don’t root against each other. All feel included and capable, so no rigid hierarchy develops (it helps when even the older players are still in their 20s, Zimmerman said). Even the captaincy is shared among members of a council elected by the players. The profile of several U.S. players has grown substantially, but that doesn’t change the reality within the team. Consider the fact that Pulisic, Reyna, Adams, McKennie and Dest have never spent a single match minute on the field together. The ideal XI is only theory. International soccer is so often about instability, unpredictability and flux, and the U.S. has figured out how to weaponize it.

“Their job is to help this group be successful,” Berhalter said of his players. “It’s not about captain or not captain or No. 1 goalie or No. 2 goalie. It’s not about that. It’s about the team being successful, and that’s what we’re focused on and that’s what every guy is focused on. There’s not a big ego in this team. There’s not guys who command a ton of attention. The guys just do their jobs.”

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