The indelible image of the USA Men’s National Team World Cup is Landon Donovan running for the corner flag in South Africa after scoring the winning goal against Algeria which sent the USA on in the round of 16.
As Donovan slipped into the corner flag he was met there by USA midfielder Stu Holden, who ran from the touchline during the build-up and came in belly-first at the same time as Donovan. Holden and Donovan embraced before being followed by the rest of Team USA.
The pair at the bottom of the pile told a bigger story about this American team.
Holden played just four minutes in total in South Africa. Previously a starter for the United States, the midfielder was in a race against time to prepare for the World Cup after breaking his leg in a friendly against Holland in March. He became healthy enough to enter the team, but not healthy enough to return to his starting job.
And yet, Holden’s place on the American team was crucial.
“Bob Bradley wouldn’t have taken me on if he didn’t feel I could have contributed on the field,” Holden said. Athleticism. “But he also knew that even though I wasn’t 100 per cent – he told me that and I felt it personally – that anything I could bring off the pitch was also an important part of helping the group to get together. Be a “glue guy”.
Putting together a roster isn’t a perfect science, but putting together a squad for a World Cup most definitely involves finding the right chemistry in the squad. Sometimes that means identifying key personalities to include in the dressing room, even if those players aren’t going to play meaningful minutes and even if, on paper, there are better players to pick.
Data from the last five World Cups show why. On average, teams used 18 or 19 players from their 23-man rosters during the tournament. Given two reserve goalkeepers, this usually means that there are two or three outfield players per team who never see the pitch.
In Chris Evans’ new book How to win a world cupBelgian coach Roberto Martínez explained how important team chemistry is when naming a team.
“What I learned in my first camp was that I couldn’t choose my best 23 players, that would never make the best team,” Martínez said. “It was about selecting the best 23 individuals to form the best team for Belgium. When you say the best team, it means in all aspects of the role of playing for your national team, not just playing a game or two in the space of 10 days. It means maybe living together for 50 days in a major tournament. It means a player who is the main player of his club comes to the national team and if you can’t give him the same role, it will be very difficult for him to act according to the needs of the team…. That was the initial shock I had when I went to the national team because I expected to always choose the top 23 players at each specific moment. I realized very quickly that this would not provide the stability, cohesion and team discipline to face adversity.
The dynamic around player usage will no doubt change in Qatar, with expanded rosters (26 players, up from 23) and more substitutions allowed per match (five, up from three). But that doesn’t necessarily change the mindset of coaches about building a team.
After announcing the American roster last week, coach Gregg Berhalter called right-back DeAndre Yedlin the “glue guy” in the squad. In a video posted by US Soccer on its YouTube page in which Berhalter informed Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldán that he was on the team, Berhalter noted some of the types of off-field positives the player 27 year old brings. Roldan was with the United States in their 14 World Cup qualifiers, but only played 75 minutes through them.
“We know what kind of team player you are and we know what kind of attitude you bring every day,” Berhalter said. “And that’s going to be invaluable to the team…your mentality is contagious.”
For his part, England manager Gareth Southgate has included Everton defender Conor Coady on the World Cup roster. Coady was part of the squad that qualified for the Euro 2020 finals, but he didn’t play a minute in those games. Southgate, however, saw Coady as a huge contributor to the team away from the pitch. Southgate’s assistant, Steve Holland, called Coady a “player of the tournament” at the Euro despite its role.
“On the training ground, he gives everything,” Holland said. “In the dressing room before the game, he talks like he’s a captain, despite not being on the pitch. It’s incredibly difficult to do.
The value of “glue type” can be felt in multiple ways during a tournament, according to several players who have competed in World Cups. Holden remembers making up songs about every player on the 2010 roster with center back Jay DeMerit and handing out lyrics on the team bus for the team to sing along to. They called it “Studio 214” after their hotel room number. USA goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who featured on two World Cup rosters but never made an appearance as Tim Howard’s substitute, noted that those fringe players also had an important role to play on the pitch.
The day after games, for example, players who have not played or have played limited minutes participate in a full training session while those who have played regenerate. These comprehensive workouts aren’t the most fun.
“You jump on the bus and you think nobody wants to be here,” Holden said. “Nobody wants to participate in this training session because you want to have played the day before.”
But in those sessions, it’s crucial to have players who can reset the outlook and mindset of their teammates, Guzan said. It’s essential, he said, to have players on the roster who can step back and see the bigger picture.
“In this practice you need everyone to be sharp, you need everyone to be on top,” Guzan said. “Because in a few days you have another game. And those guys might not be impatient, maybe they’re still thinking about the game that just happened where they didn’t play. And so you’re kind of trying to hold the group together and just trying to keep the spirits up…and maintaining the trust within the group.
It’s not always easy to find that perspective.
Holden, who is known for his positive energy and optimism, has been slow to get there. In a friendly match between the United States and Australia before the 2010 World Cup, he was one of two players who did not enter the field. Holden knew he had been in a race against time just to make the roster, but he still saw himself as a starter or playing a key role in the World Cup. Not entering the field for this friendly match was shocking. On the bus home from the game, Holden simmered in anger and didn’t speak to anyone. He wanted his coaches to see that he was upset about not playing.
When they returned to the facility, Holden joined a few teammates in a hot tub. There, finally, he let go of his anger and disappointment and began to act like his normal dynamic self.
“I had finally lost that and I kind of came back and I was joking again and (US captain Carlos Bocanegra) was like, ‘We were going to give you about 30 more minutes before we tell you it’s not about everything about us as individuals,” Holden recalled telling Bocanegra. “At this point, it’s about the team. And we were happy that you kind of had to internalize that yourself and having that competitiveness and understanding that you should be pissed off, but you shouldn’t let that spill over into the whole group either.We’re four days away from our first World Cup game and we need everyone together.
“And it was kind of a good learning moment for me. I was happy to have got there myself, but also to have teammates who were ready and about to hold me accountable. We all kind of understood and built, and I think that showed in the games, a team that had confidence, character, and unity, and that no matter when we were down, we always found a way. And I think that was a big theme throughout our team.
Speaking to reporters in September, Berhalter said his team was “measuring” the impact of “sticky guys” on the roster, or how team chemistry affects player performance and usage rates more deep on the list. Berhalter expected the United States to use “a good number” of the 26 players he is bringing to the tournament due to increased substitutions. Also relevant: his own experiences as a player in the 2002 World Cup, where the United States qualified for the quarter-finals, and the 2006 tournament, where the United States failed to exit of a group with only one point in three games.
“When the going gets tough, (who) are the guys that put in the consistent effort, the guys that are the most team-oriented, because that’s really important,” Berhalter said. “In my experience, the difference between us in 2002 and 2006 was that we were a much closer team in 2002, and I think that’s why we had a good performance. So I think that’s really important in terms of the number of players you use throughout the tournament.
The idea – team chemistry and camaraderie – will no doubt be a theme at World Cup camps over the next two weeks around the tournament. It sounds like a cliché, but for Guzan it’s a fact. The grind of a World Cup is real, and while the teams won’t have gone through the typical pre-tournament camps together, there will be a layer of how the group can stay together as the tournament takes place.
“Not everyone has to be best friends, but there has to be that camaraderie, that bond,” he said. “Because when you cross that white line, you need a sense of brotherhood. When you go to those (World Cup) games, it’s huge.
(Top photo: Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)