At the World Cup, ‘glue guys’ can have a big impact without playing a minute

The indelible image of the U.S. men’s World Cup is Landon Donovan racing to the corner flag in South Africa after scoring the game-winning goal against Algeria to send the U.S. into the knockout stages.

As Donovan slid toward the corner flag, he was greeted by U.S. quarterback Stu Holden, who raced from the sideline during practice and was first at the same time as Donovan. Holden and Donovan hug each other before being dogged by the rest of Team USA.

The pair at the bottom of the pile told a bigger story about Team USA.

Holden played a total of four minutes in South Africa. The midfielder, a former starter for the United States, was in a race against time for the World Cup after breaking his leg in a friendly against Holland in March. He got healthy enough to make the team, but not enough to return to his original job.

Still, Holden’s place on Team USA was crucial.

“Bob Bradley wouldn’t have hired me if he didn’t think I could contribute on the field,” Holden said. Athletic. “But he told me that even when I wasn’t 100 percent, and I personally felt it — he also knew that whatever he could get off the field was an important part of helping the group come together. To be the ‘glue guy’.”

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Building a roster isn’t a perfect science, but putting a team together for the World Cup is all about finding the right chemistry in that group. Sometimes that means identifying key players to bring into the locker room, even if those players aren’t going to play significant minutes, even if, on paper, there are better players to choose from.

Data from the last five World Cups shows why. Over the course of the tournament, teams used an average of 18 or 19 players out of a 23-man squad. Counting two reserve goalkeepers means that there are two to three outfield players per team.

In Chris Evans’ new book How to win the World CupBelgium coach Roberto Martinez has revealed how important team chemistry is when naming a team.

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“In the first camp, I learned that I couldn’t pick my best 23 players, that it would never be the best team,” Martinez said. “It was about choosing the best 23 people to form the best Belgian team. When I say the best team, it means playing for the national team in all aspects, not playing one or two matches in 10 days. This means living together for 50 days at a major tournament. What this means is that the main player of your team comes to the national team and if you cannot play the same role for him, it will be very difficult for him to perform according to the needs of the team. … That was my first shock when I got to the national team, because I always thought that the best 23 players would be selected at any given moment. I realized very quickly that this does not lead to stability, unity and team discipline to overcome difficulties.”

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The dynamic of player usage will certainly change in Qatar, with an expanded squad (26 players from 23) and more substitutions per game (three to five, five). But it doesn’t have to change the way coaches think about team building.

After the U.S. roster was announced last week, coach Gregg Berhalter referred to right back DeAndre Yedlin as the team’s “glue guy.” In a video on US Soccer’s YouTube page where Berhalter announced Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan’s inclusion on the team, Berhalter noted the 27-year-old’s positives off the field. Roldan was with the USA in 14 World Cup qualifiers, but only played 75 minutes.

“We know what kind of team player you are and we know what kind of attitude you have every day,” Berhalter said. “It will be valuable to the team … your mentality is contagious.”

(Eddie Keogh/FA via Getty Images)

For his part, England manager Gareth Southgate included Everton defender Conor Coady in his World Cup list. Coady was part of the Euro 2020 finals squad but did not play a single minute in those games. However, Southgate believes Coady has made a huge contribution to the team away from the pitch. Southgate’s assistant Steve Holland Coady was named “Player of the Tournament”. Despite its role in the Euro.

“On the practice field, he gives it his all,” Holland said. “In the dressing room before the game, he talks like a captain even though he hasn’t been on the field. It’s really hard to do that.”

As many players at the World Cup say, the value of the “glue guy” can be experienced in many ways during the tournament. Holden recalled making a song about each player with center fielder Jay DeMerit in 2010, giving the lyrics to the team bus and having the team sing it. They named it “Studio 214” after their hotel number. USA goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who has been in two World Cup squads but never sponsored Tim Howard, stressed the importance of getting these fringe players on the field.

The day after the game, for example, players who did not play or played limited minutes participate in full training, while players who played are recuperating. These full courses are not the most fun.

“You don’t want to get on the bus and have nobody here,” Holden said. “No one wants to go to practice because you want to play the day before.”

But Guzan said it’s crucial to have players in those sessions who can change the team’s perspective and mindset. He said it’s important to have players on the roster who can take a step back and see the big picture.

“Everybody needs to be sharp in that practice, you need to be on top of everything,” Guzan said. “Because in a few days you have another game. And maybe those guys aren’t looking forward to it, maybe they’re just thinking about the last game where they didn’t play. So you’re trying to keep the group together, you’re trying to keep the morale up, you’re trying to keep the confidence within the group.”

Finding that perspective isn’t always easy.

Known for his positive energy and optimism, Holden took some time to get there. He was one of two players left out of the 2010 World Cup friendly between the United States and Australia. Holden knew he was in a race against time just to make the roster, but he envisioned himself as a starter or a key player in the World Series. It was disappointing to miss that friendly. On the bus ride home after the game, Holden was angry and didn’t talk to anyone. He wanted his coach to see that he was upset about not playing.

When they got back to their apartment, Holden took a hot bath with some of his teammates. There, he finally let go of his anger and began acting like his usual floaty self.

“Finally, I threw it away and played around and around and around and around and around and around, and I told (US captain Carlos Bocanegra) ‘We’re going to give you about 30 minutes before I said, ‘It’s nothing.’ “We’re individuals,” Holden recalled Bocanegra saying. “‘At the moment it’s all about the team. We’re glad you’ve got to take it in, be competitive and understand that you have to be angry, but you can’t let that get to the group. We’re four days into our first World Cup and we need everyone together. “.

“And it was a great learning moment for me. I was happy to be there by myself, but I was happy to have a team that was willing to hold me accountable. We all got along and built and showed confidence, character and a cohesive team in the game, and we never lost.” I think when we were down, we always found a way. I think that was a big theme throughout our team.”

In a September interview with reporters, Berhalter said his staff is “gauging” the impact the “glue guys” have on the roster, or how team chemistry affects the performance and usage levels of players deep on the roster. Berhalter hoped to use “a good number” of the 26 players the United States brought to the tournament with more substitutions. Also relevant: At the 2002 World Cup, where the U.S. reached the quarterfinals, the U.S. failed to make it out of the group stage with just one point from three games in the 2006 tournament.

“When it gets tough, (who) are the guys who put in the hard work, the guys who do the least because that’s what really counts,” Berhalter said. “In my experience, the difference between us in 2002 and 2006 is that in 2002 we were a closer team and I think that’s why we played well. So I think it’s really important how many players are used throughout the tournament.”

The idea of ​​team chemistry and camaraderie is sure to be a continuing theme during the World Cup over the next two weeks. It sounds clichéd, but for Guzan, it’s rooted in fact. The intense competition at the World Cup is very real, and while the teams may not have gone through the usual pre-tournament camps together, there will be layers to how well the team can fit together as the tournament progresses.

“Everyone doesn’t have to be best friends, but there has to be a friendship and a bond,” she said. “Because when you go and cross that white line, you need a sense of brotherhood. It’s huge when you go to these (World Cups).”

(Top photo: Sports Illustrated via Simon Bruti/Getty Images)


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