“If they can't outplay you on the field, they sure as hell can outlast you.”
Much has been written about the ferocious winning mentality and relentless physicality of the US women’s national team over the course of their reign as four-time World Cup champions and four-time Olympic gold medal winners. While it’s a multilayered phenomenon comprising history, culture, psychology, resources, cutting-edge performance technology and more, the above phrase from journalist Steph Yang sums up the big picture quite succinctly.
Their male counterparts might be borrowing a few pages from that saga as they wade deeper into their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign this week.
Even as US men’s national team players and staff feel firsthand the wear and tear from a cycle of three huge matches in seven days punctuated by thousands of miles of air travel across oceans and continents, there’s a growing recognition that Concacaf’s repeatedly-delayed and intensely-compacted road to Qatar 2022 presents them with key advantages over smaller nations with less depth.
“Certainly it is tough on the body. The amount of travel that we have to do is tough. But in the end, we're still at an advantage,” said USMNT midfielder Cristian Roldan on Tuesday. “We have a deep enough squad to rotate guys, to get guys on the field without a drop-off in quality. And that’s the most important thing for us, that’s the attitude we have.
“We have to embrace the challenge, we have to embrace the travel conditions, the short rest, and get on with it. The important thing for us is to get results. And if we embrace the tough environments and accept that it’s going to be tough, we’ll be all right. We’ll be just fine.”
If the words of the Seattle Sounders star give you the impression that aesthetics and philosophy – leading topics of the Gregg Berhalter era and many before it – have taken a back seat to output and outcomes, you’re on the right track.
“That first half [in last month’s 4-1 comeback win at Honduras] was a little bit of a wake-up call for us, and what we needed to do,” said midfield linchpin Tyler Adams on Monday. “We had to battle more, we had to compete harder and we just had to ultimately just leave it all out there on the field.
“That's what the US has been so good at, in the DNA of the USA forever now. So in that second half, yeah, we definitely turned things around. But at halftime, we talked to each other as a group, came together collectively and just told ourselves, let's dig deep. There's another gear that we can find and get into and yeah, obviously we responded well.”
The USMNT sound determined to quickly absorb and apply the lessons of their first qualifying window, and chief among them is this young, deep player pool’s capacity to grind down opponents like they did at Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula, so often a soul-sapping venue for visitors.
“Well, I think part of the exhaustion was us wearing them down, Honduras,” rejoined Berhalter when a journalist brought up that result in Wednesday’s press conference ahead of the showdown with Jamaica in Austin. “I don’t think it's just a product of them being tired. It was part of the strategy to absorb a little; we knew they were going to expend a lot of energy pressing, a lot of energy on counterattacks. So we knew that would have a cumulative effect on them.”
After a dismal first half in which Los Catrachos dominated a US side arrayed in a clunky, experimental-looking 3-4-3 shape and took an early 1-0 lead that easily could’ve stretched to two or three, Berhalter simplified the tactics and made a flurry of substitutions, eventually using all five allotted in the COVID-19 era.
Those changes transformed the game, subs Antonee Robinson, Brenden Aaronson, Sebastian Lletget and DeAndre Yedlin contributing goals or assists as the tiring Hondurans struggled to cope down the stretch. The USMNT would use 21 different starters across those first three qualifiers, and 22 players in all, nearly their entire roster.
That’s fueling optimism that the injury-imposed absences of attacking livewires Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna can be overcome without excess difficulty this month, as the likes of Paul Arriola, Matthew Hoppe, Weston McKennie, Shaq Moore, Yunus Musah, Chris Richards, Zack Steffen and Gyasi Zardes have returned to the fold following absences of various sorts.
“Missing players like Gio and Christian, that obviously affects the team. They're creative players, they're dynamic players,” said Adams, who along with Miles Robinson and Matt Turner logged every single minute of the September window. “But when you look at the squad and the depth of the squad, we've always had that ‘next man up’ mentality, and to see faces like this coming in where guys are playing week in and week out for their clubs and doing really well, it's great to see.”
The presence of more – and younger – legs certainly helps spread the physiological burden. The program’s many years of heavy investments in performance scientists, data tracking, nutrition and various other advanced technologies also constitute a valuable weapon in the arsenal.
“The fact that you play three games in seven days, it can be tough on your body,” said Miles Robinson on Wednesday. “But we've got a great staff, sports science staff, we’ve got a great medical team to get us all right, get us all mentally and physically ready for the game. … I always felt like I was physically ready when the time came.”
If he and his teammates can summon even a vague facsimile of the USWNT’s tenacious staying power at the top of the women’s game, the Octagonal odyssey could quickly become a good deal less daunting.