DOHA, Qatar – Eight years ago, Jurgen Klinsmann famously said it was impossible for his men’s national team to win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Lee said it in a lengthy interview to The New York Times a few months before the tournament, then doubled down on it at a press conference in São Paulo before the USMNT opener. Klinsmann felt it was important to be forthright, but many American fans—and some Klinsmann players—were upset by what appeared to be a defeatist attitude.
On Saturday, in an exclusive interview with ESPN two days before his US team opened the World Cup, coach Greg Berhalter considered the same question. Pause for a moment, then smile.
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He said, “What I believe is that on our best day we can beat anyone in the world. Anyone.”
This is the mentality that Berhalter has instilled in his young team, leading them to embrace the idea that the only way they will make history is if they believe they can. To help develop this way of thinking, Berhalter recently organized a team meeting in which Eric Thomas, a popular motivational speaker with a fascinating personal story of rising from homelessness, spoke with the players about the amazing power of faith.
And while the famous sneakerhead, Berhalter, said he had yet to choose which shoes to wear in the USMNT’s first game against Wales, he didn’t hesitate when asked how many pairs he’d brought with him to Qatar: seven, one for each possible match through to the final.
“Look, it’s a great honor to play in the World Cup, but we don’t want to be the only participants,” Berhalter said. “We want to perform.”
To be clear: Berhalter does not expect the United States to be a champion. It simply focuses on the idea that success rarely comes without conviction. This was something Berhalter first learned as an international player and is now working to inculcate as a manager.
After all, this is – in a sense – the biggest stage Berhalter has ever been on as a coach. He took the job four years ago, tasked with restoring the United States to respectability after the disastrous failure of the 2018 playoffs. At least he did, overseeing a generational overhaul of the American team that included recruiting such star-level dual nationals as Yunus Musa and Timothy Weah, and raising the bar for talented prodigies. Such as Christian Pulisic, Gio Reina, Weston McKinney, Tyler Adams and Brendan Aronson.
Berhalter, however, wants more. His preparations for these next three matches intensified over the past week, as he and his coaching staff pushed each other to try and think of every possible scenario they might face during a group stage match.
If this sounds comprehensive, that’s because it is; Known for his inclination towards data and analytics, Berhalter is determined to be ready for whatever direction the game may take.
What would the United States do if they had a target? down target? down two? even a man? man falls? How will they handle it if one of their players is injured? What if the opposite star goes down early? Berhalter wants to have a plan for all of them. Which scenario interests him the most? The one he hadn’t thought of beforehand.
ESPN’s Hercules Gomez considers Gregg Berhalter options if Sergino Dest is not fit for the USMNT’s opening match against Wales.
“We have the time now, we’ve had the time for the past two months,” he said. “When you’re on the field and in the sideline and the crowd is loud and there are moments of pressure – if you’re not ready, I think it hurts the decision-making.”
Berhalter knows there will be challenges. There are players missing from first choice due to injury. There are extreme temperatures, very late starting times and three Group B opponents (England, Wales and Iran) with great assets and experience. There are no quick matches, and no matches in which the United States is a huge favourite.
But there is also persistence. There will be thousands of American fans supporting the team in Qatar. There will be millions more watching and hoping to return to the United States. There will be this youthful mix of precociousness and pluckiness that can sometimes, yes, sometimes lead to silly performances but can also turn into charm.
Berhalter’s job is to lead. Inspires. To put his players in a position to find their best when it matters most. The trip starts on Monday. And unlike his predecessor, Berhalter doesn’t yet know where it will end up.
“We think the first step is to get out of the group,” he said. “And the second step, in the knockout matches, we play the best game we can and see how far we can go.”