United States bench players play big role even if they don't get on the field
SEATTLE -- By now you might have heard how unusual it is for a U.S. national team coach, or any national team coach, for that matter, to use the same lineup in three consecutive matches. Bob Bradley never did it during his four years at the helm. Neither did Bruce Arena, Steve Sampson, Bora Milutinovic or Bob Gansler, the men who led the Americans at the six World Cups before Brazil 2014.
In fact, before current boss Jurgen Klinsmann trotted out the same starting 11 for the Yanks' three group stage games at the Copa America Centenario, the last time a U.S. team remained unchanged for three straight matches was at the inaugural global showpiece in Uruguay in 1930.
Turnover is a fact of life in the international game. Outside of tournament play, national squads are rarely together for more than two matches. Form, injuries, club commitments, suspensions, coaching plans and formation changes all play a role in this lack of continuity.
There's no doubt that Klinsmann's use of the same starters through the first round helped the U.S. find its feet after a Copa-opening loss to Colombia. But it also has resulted in a top-heavy distribution of minutes; heading into Thursday's quarterfinal match against Ecuador, more than a quarter of the Americans 23-man squad have yet to play at all.
When a team is confined in close quarters for six weeks, however, the role the reserves play becomes every bit as important to its fortunes.
"A tournament is decided by the chemistry of a group, not necessarily by the best team," Klinsmann said before the Americans trained on Tuesday at Seattle University. "It's how a group grows together, how they support each other, how they stay in a good mood for a longer period of time, how they sense problems, how they solve problems."
Camaraderie has long been one of the American team's core strengths. It's one of the reasons -- perhaps the main one -- why the U.S. has punched above its weight against more talented foes for more than two decades.
Don't believe it? All anyone has to do is get on YouTube and search for video of Jermaine Jones' equalizer against Portugal at the last World Cup. Check out how when Klinsmann's reaction is shown, third-string goalkeeper Nick Rimando -- the lone player with virtually no chance of playing a minute in the biggest event of his career -- absolutely loses his mind on the bench behind the coach when Jones' strike settled into the side netting.
On the rare occasions when that togetherness wasn't there, like at the 1998 World Cup in France -- where the U.S. was eliminated after two games -- the results have been disastrous.
"Everybody wants to start, but there's only 11 spots," Kyle Beckerman, a starter in 2014 who has been limited to only two brief substitute appearances at the Copa so far, told ESPN FC on Tuesday.
"It's not going to go perfect for everyone. How do you react to that? Can you be a positive when things aren't going your way? Jurgen is huge on making sure everybody's important to this team, wanting the guys on the bench to have energy so the guys on the field can feel it, and being supportive any way we can."
It's not always an easy balance, though. While reserves have to be cheerleaders, they also have to prepare as if they are going to play and be ready at a moment's notice.
That was the case when DeAndre Yedlin, the starter at right-back, took two quick yellow cards in the second half of Saturday's win against Paraguay and backup Michael Orozco suddenly found himself on the field defending against a desperate foe.
"Obviously it's hard going into a game that is very intense without getting a warm-up," Orozco said.
The second string will have to be prepared against Ecuador and possibly beyond. Seven Americans are carrying yellow cards into Thursday's tilt. If any of them pick up another in helping the hosts advance, more changes will be necessary for the semis. Before the tourney started, Klinsmann noted that the lineup that starts a competition is rarely the one that finishes it. The coach has to believe that anyone on his roster can step in if called upon.
"The spirit of the bench is there," Klinsmann said. "Everybody feels appreciated in his own role right now, and this is what could make a tournament very successful."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.