DOHA, Qatar. On Monday, U.S. men’s team coach Gregg Berhalter was asked to become an economist, customs agent, military policy expert and UN ambassador, among other things.
On Tuesday, he finally became what he most wanted: the manager who took his team to the World Cup playoffs.
After the US beat Iran 1-0 at Al-Tumama Stadium, Berhalter embraced his coaching staff in a group bear hug in the technical area, their arms tightly wrapped around each other’s shoulders as they bounced up and down. He then ran onto the field to enjoy the celebration with his players and the raucous contingent of American fans outside the net.
Four years after taking over the messy program, Berhalter led the US to what, by some distance, was the biggest victory of his career.
“For the first time in 92 years, we had two shutouts at the World Championship,” Berhalter later said with a flushed face. “So the boys are doing something right.”
It was a wonderful 24 hours for Berhalter, the type of incredible juxtaposition that can only exist in international football, and only in a match like the one the US had against Iran, a country whose history is both in itself and with the United States. states, deep, complex and confusing.
This story fueled the buildup. The U.S. Football Federation played a big part in the pre-game embarrassment as it – unbeknownst to Berhalter or his players – posted images on social media that featured the Iranian flag without the Islamic Republic logo in an attempt to show their support. for women in Iran who are fighting for the most basic human rights.
As well-intentioned as it was, it nevertheless caused a firestorm, and Berhalter had to manage it. At his press conference on Monday, Iranian journalists bombarded him with sharp questions, asking him to explain why inflation might be driving his team’s popularity back home or to justify the various visa requirements the United States has for Iranians who might want to travel there. There was a question about US warships in the region.
It was odd by any measure, but Berhalter—to his credit—handled it deftly. He apologized for any offense the social media posts might have caused, expressing support for those fighting for a better life. He also did his best to focus on football again. In many ways, this match was a doomsday for Berhalter and his players at the end of a four-year resurgence, and Berhalter needed to do his best to make sure his players were ready for it.
In short, they were. In the circles of those who closely follow the US team, punishing Berhalter is a kind of cottage business – such is the life of an international manager, really – but one thing is certain: Berhalter won the Gold Cup and the League of Nations. He has beaten Mexico three times (including in World Cup qualifiers). He oversaw a complete overhaul of young and talented international players, made difficult and in some cases overwhelming decisions about who to invite to Qatar and now led the team to the round of 16 of the World Cup.
He is perfect? He is not. His tactics or substitution schemes can still be criticized, but forward Joshua Sargent was recalled and played well against Iran, as did defenseman Cameron Carter-Vickers (who replaced Walker Zimmerman). Tim Ream, who arrived surprisingly late in the roster shortly before the World Cup, was also a solid defensive player. As tense as it was, the US was able to bounce back late.
Moreover, Berhalter motivated his players by pushing them to the moment. Berhalter recalled earlier this week watching the US lose to Iran in the infamous 1998 World Cup match, and stressed that what set him apart was the inconsistency of emotional levels on the pitch. The Iranians really wanted the game, Berhalter said, and it was clear the Americans didn’t feel the same way.
On Tuesday it was not a problem. Not even close. There was fire, for sure. But also the confidence that the moment was not too great.
“The team was calm,” Rome said. “No one was breathing heavily and there was no panic in their eyes.”
It also helped that the tactics were in place. Christian Pulisic’s goal was the result of a sequence that Rome said Berhalter and the coaches emphasized in their scouting—pulling the game far to the side to open the back post for Pulisic’s attack. The goal was, Rome said, “perfect, perfect, perfect” except for Pulisic’s collision with the Iranian goalkeeper, which sent Pulisic to the hospital mid-game for an abdominal scan.
If Pulisic is unable to play against the Netherlands on Saturday (or is limited), it will be another blow for Berhalter. He has options – Giovanni Reina hasn’t played much so far, and Brenden Aaronsohn is a bright replacement – but either way, motivation for the band will once again be crucial.
This is what Berhalter wants. He never shied away from the stakes of his mission. He repeated over and over again that the goal of this team is to change the perception of American football around the world. Playing against England helped that. Likewise on Tuesday.
Now comes another opportunity. One more chance. Berhalter will withstand arrows; all coaches do this. He will take the criticism. All he cares about is getting his players to see what he sees, to learn what he knows: that this team can do anything. On Tuesday, after hugs, screams and a video call to the hospital so Pulisic could join in on the fun, Berhalter came to another, more traditional press conference and reflected on what he enjoyed the most about the night.
“We believed in ourselves,” he said. “We believed in what we were doing.”