COLUMBUS, Ohio – Getting through the first six games of World Cup qualifying has taken a village for the United States.
Rotation isn't just a focus of baseball teams this fall. It's a key for U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter.
Twenty-nine players have started, five more than the American total during the 10 matches of the 2018 qualifying hexagonal. A total of 33 have appeared in matches, three more than last time.
“One of the things that I’m more proud of as a group is that we talk about needing a team effort, and we show it by our lineup selections,” Berhalter said after Wednesday night’s come-from-behind 2-1 win over Costa Rica. “We’re not afraid to play anyone in camp, to start anyone in camp.”
No one has started all six games. Midfielder Tyler Adams, defender Miles Robinson and goalkeeper Matt Turner are the only ones to start as many as five.
Central defenders revolved like a roulette wheel, with the central pairing switching every match and morphing into a trio during a messy first half at Honduras.
Tim Weah, 21, was making his second start on the wing when his shot led to the second goal against the Ticos. Sergiño Dest, 20, was making his fourth at outside back when he scored the opener.
Marcelo Balboa, a defender at three World Cups and a member of the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame, said the compacted schedule caused by the pandemic was even a bigger factor than youth.
“You're going to have some rotations in the lineup and it’s tough to get any kind of rhythm going just because of all the consistency,” said Balboa, now a TUDN broadcaster. “I think it’ll be different when we see Mexico/Jamaica next round, which is more like what we’re used to playing, two games with three days off.”
Mexico, which plays the U.S. next at Cincinnati on Nov. 12, has had a much smaller and more conventional rotation, with 23 players getting starts. César Montes and Néstor Araujo have started in central defense in five of six matches — though Araujo is suspended for the match at the U.S. after getting a pair of yellow cards in Wednesday's win at El Salvador.
El Tri leads North and Central America and the Caribbean with 14 points, followed by the U.S. (11), Canada (10), Panama (eight), Costa Rica (six), Jamaica and El Salvador (five each) and Honduras (three). The top three teams qualify, and No. 4 goes to a playoff.
Berhalter was criticized for changing seven starters last weekend in Panama, and the Americans lacked hustle and connectivity during a 1-0 loss in which they failed to manage a single shot in target. He changed nine against Costa Rica.
He switched six last month for the second match against Canada, five at Honduras and seven last week against Jamaica.
Coaches Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena used 30 players, including 24 starters, for the 2018 cycle’s final round (the substitute limit has since been raised from three to five). Klinsmann kept 10 of 11 starters from the opening loss to Mexico out of the 4-0 defeat at Costa Rica four days later, inserting goalkeeper Brad Guzan for injured Tim Howard. Arena kept the same lineup for the final two games, including the infamous 2-1 defeat at Trinidad that eliminated the Americans.
Only seven players from the previous cycle have appeared this time: star attacker Christian Pulisic, along with defenders John Brooks, Tim Ream and DeAndre Yedlin, and midfielders Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola and Sebastian Lletget. The U.S. keeps setting records for youngest starting lineup in qualifiers, the latest 22 years, 229 days against the Ticos.
“That’s basically unheard of in international football,” Berhalter said. “If you go look at the Germanys, the Frances, the Brazils, they’re basically playing 28-year-old, 29-year-old teams. So for us to be navigating through this CONCACAF qualifying, which is a bear, a monster, with this group and the amount of poise they showed on the field today, particularly going down a goal and then the second half being up a goal and managing the game really well ... they’re growing, they’re growing as a team.”
Chris Richards, a 21-year-old defender who became a regular in the Bundesliga last season, started in his qualifying debut. Gianluca Busio, a 19-year-old midfielder who became a regular in Serie A just last month, made his qualifying debut in the second half along with Matthew Hoppe, a 20-year-old forward who broke through in the Bundesliga last season and has made one start this season in La Liga.
There have been 25 qualifying debuts and Joe Scally, an 18-year-old defender who is two months into a Bundesliga career, could join the group perhaps as soon as next month.
“The guys aren’t here to be passengers,” Berhalter said. “We make that loud and clear.”
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