Gregg Berhalter USMNT sidelines

ORLANDO, Fla. – “Give the devil his due.”

The term is said to originate from William Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” written more than 400 years ago about the Hundred Years’ War. For those unfamiliar, it’s evolved into shorthand for showing a necessary respect for even the most despised figure.

It’s a concept worth considering for even Gregg Berhalter’s most ardent critics, of which there is no small number, now that the coach has steered the youngest US men’s national team in history right to the doorstep of 2022 World Cup qualification. And the area in which he may deserve the most credit is the management and cultivation of a deep player pool that has enabled the program to weather the peaks and valleys of Concacaf qualifying.

Only two starters in the Octagonal-opening 0-0 draw at El Salvador almost seven months ago were in the XI for Sunday’s 5-1 rout of Panama. In fact, only four of those 11 starters in September were even on this month’s roster. Conversely, key contributors against Panama like Jesus Ferreira, Paul Arriola, Shaq Moore and Luca de la Torre watched the beginning of the Ocho from home.

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That’s what happens on the way to a World Cup, where injuries, suspensions, gains and drops in individual form, and other complications can render the concept of an “ideal XI” nothing more than, well, an idea, a hypothetical exercise. This cycle’s intensely compact three-match windows have only further exacerbated that – and destabilizing chaos can roll in at any moment, like the stomach bug that Berhalter said afflicted 20 members of the traveling party in Mexico last week.

“We really had to call on our depth in this window, and it being the last window, an impactful window where qualifying takes place, it was something where guys needed to step up,” the coach said after the big win at Exploria Stadium. “We talked early on about the ‘next man up’ mentality. We have complete faith in anyone who's called in. We don't call people players in unless we trust them and we think they can they can perform at a good level.

“The national team is difficult, because you don't always have the guys that are in the best form or the guys that are most fit, because there's injuries that happen. So I'm really pleased with guys like Luca stepping up, Gianluca Busio, Jordan Morris is involved now, a number of guys. But it makes a difference when you can call on these guys to perform.”

“‘Next man up’ mentality” has become one of Berhalter’s central talking points. According to U.S. Soccer, 29 players have made their first WCQ appearance on the road to Qatar, which ties the record set in the 1998 cycle. In all, more than three dozen players have seen the field, second-most in program history behind the 43 utilized on the road to South Africa 2010, which involved 18 qualifying matches compared to 14 total this time around.

“We're so fortunate that we have such a deep team with so many different qualities in the team,” said Tyler Adams last Monday. “It's really, really exciting because a lot of guys can get different opportunities and we have so many different ways of breaking down opponents or structuring ourselves to be successful against opponents.”

Weston McKennie
Through injury and suspension, Weston McKennie will only play in half (7) of the USMNT's Octagonal matches.

As US players have filtered into big European clubs – most prominently, UEFA Champions League participants – with increasing frequency, it’s become common for pundits and supporters to frame the USMNT as far and away the most talent-rich side in the region, and thus a shoe-in for qualification, so long as Berhalter doesn’t fumble it away. But data gathered by MLSsoccer.com’s Jonathan Sigal shows how many of those top players have been available for only a fraction of the Octagonal.

Dortmund midfielder Gio Reyna has played just 14% of the total minutes in the Ocho to date. Barcelona fullback Sergino Dest has taken part in 36% of those minutes; for Manchester City goalkeeper Zack Steffen it's just over 38%, Lille winger Tim Weah 45%. Even Chelsea attacker Christian Pulisic and Juventus midfielder Weston McKennie, this team's spiritual leaders and tone-setters, have only respectively played 45% and 53% of the time. At one point Salzburg attacker Brenden Aaronson had appeared in every game, but a knee injury ruled him out on the eve of the current window.

Of the 11 Europe-based USMNTers (Bayern Munich defender Chris Richards on loan at Hoffenheim) whose clubs took part in this season’s Champions League, only the foundational Adams (83.5%) has logged more than 60% of the United States’ Octagonal campaign. (Some of these numbers reflect the coach’s discretion: Wolfsburg’s John Brooks was dropped after some uneven moments in September and has since plummeted down the depth chart.)

USA 2022 WCQ: Minutes for UEFA Champions League players
Player
Minutes played (%)
Games played/missed*
Tyler Adams (M, Leipzig)
977 (83.50%)
12/1
Brenden Aaronson (M, Salzburg)
659 (56.32%)
11/2
Weston McKennie (M, Juventus)
624 (53.33%)
7/6
Christian Pulisic (F, Chelsea)
533 (45.45%)
9/4
Tim Weah (F, Lille)
527 (45.04%)
8/5
Zack Steffen (GK, Manchester City)
450 (38.46%)
5/8
Sergino Dest (D, Barcelona)
424 (36.24%)
6/7
Gio Reyna (M, Dortmund)
164 (14.02%)
3/10
Jordan Pefok (F, Young Boys)
139 (11.88%)
3/10
John Brooks (D, Wolfsburg)
135 (11.54%)
2/11
* through 13 of 14 Concacaf Octagonal matchdays

“When you think about Weston, he's probably one of the best midfielders in our region, right? I mean, you could make that argument,” said Berhalter before Thursday’s 0-0 draw at Mexico. “When you think about Sergino Dest, probably the best right back in our region; Brenden Aaronson, a top winger in our region; Chris Richards, big potential as a center back; Matt Turner, those guys that are missing.

“But really, when you look at it, we knew this was going to be the case. And I said it to you a long time before, you don't have all your guys, and it's how you respond when you don't have your guys that's important. And that’s what we have to do this window,” Berhalter continued. “It's not about looking back. It's about staying in the present, focusing on who's here, who's in camp, who's ready to play, and go out and compete. Because one thing I'll tell you is that these guys can compete. Everyone we have on this roster right now, all 26 of them can compete.”

Tyler Adams USMNT
Tyler Adams is the USMNT's minutes played leader, with Antonee Robinson in a close second.
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Certainly, there have been blips and bumps along the way.

Berhalter’s bid to dig out a point with a rotated lineup during the October visit to Panama City fell flat, leading to a grisly 1-0 loss. An experimental lineup and formation at Honduras in the opening window put the Yanks on course for a similar setback, until some halftime adjustments helped prompt a dramatic comeback from 1-0 down to 4-1 winners in San Pedro Sula.

“It's a grind,” said Arriola last week. “Every game presents different challenges, the different atmospheres. The World Cup is on the line and that intensifies the atmosphere, every single game.

“At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is winning.”

USA 2022 WCQ: Top minutes for MLS players
Player
Minutes played (%)
Games played/missed*
Miles Robinson (D, Atlanta)
874 (74.70%)
10/3
Walker Zimmerman (D, Nashville)
723 (61.79%)
9/4
Matt Turner (GK, New England)
720 (61.54%)
8/5
Kellyn Acosta (M, LAFC)
581 (49.66%)
12/1
DeAndre Yedlin (D, Miami)
441 (37.69%)
8/5
Sebastian Lletget (M, New England)
229 (19.57%)
4/9
Paul Arriola (F, Dallas)
206 (17.61%)
5/8
Jesus Ferreira (F, Dallas)
196 (16.75%)
5/8
Gyasi Zardes (F, Columbus)
179 (15.30%)
5/8
Jordan Morris (F, Seattle)
128 (10.94%)
5/8
_* through 13 of 14 Concacaf Octagonal matchdays

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After the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic handicapped the preparations of the USMNT and national teams around the world, Berhalter had to make efficient use of his 2021 and late-2020 schedule. Calling in a litany of names and fielding two mostly distinct squads across Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup, he and his staff tried to balance the priorities of building chemistry, stoking competition, exposing as many players to his game model as possible and winning games.

It seems to have worked. He’s spoken more than once of his conversations with his predecessors Bruce Arena and Jurgen Klinsmann, and points to one of those as the source of a cardinal truth that has guided this process.

“The biggest thing that I've learned – and Bruce hammered this home with me – is you're never going to have your best team,” said Berhalter. “You're always going to be missing players. And as soon as I came to terms with that, we were just much more peaceful about it. We're much more intentional about the ‘next man up’ mentality, because that's literally what it is.”

Now, pending Wednesday's result in Costa Rica (9:05 pm ET | Paramount+, CBS Sports Network, Universo, Peacock), that approach has a deep, youth-filled squad on the precipice of a World Cup return.