DOHA, Qatar. Eight years ago, Jürgen Klinsmann once said that his US men’s team could not win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. He told me this in an extended interview with The New York Times Magazine a few months before the tournament and then doubled it down at a press conference in Sao Paulo just before the USMNT opened. Klinsmann felt it was important to be direct, but many American fans and some of Klinsmann’s own players were bothered by what seemed to them a defeatist attitude.
In an exclusive interview with Sportzshala on Saturday, two days before his US team opens the World Cup, head coach Gregg Berhalter addressed the same question. He paused, just for a moment, then smiled.
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“What I really believe in,” he said, “is that on our best day, we can beat anyone in the world. Anyone.”
This is the mentality that Berhalter has ingrained in his young team, encouraging them to embrace the idea that the only way to make history is to believe they can. To encourage this mindset, Berhalter recently hosted a team meeting where Eric Thomas, a popular motivational speaker with a great personal story about his rise from homelessness, spoke to players about the incredible power of faith.
And while Berhalter, the famous sneakerhead, said he hasn’t yet decided which sneakers he’ll wear for the USMNT opener against Wales, he didn’t hesitate to ask how many pairs he’d take with him to Qatar: seven, one for every possible game through to the final.
“Look, it’s an honor to play in the World Cup, but we don’t want to just be participants,” Berhalter said. “We want to perform.”
To be clear: Berhalter does not predict that the US will become champions. He simply focuses on the idea that success rarely comes without conviction. Berhalter first learned this as an international player and is now working to instill it as a manager.
After all, this is – by some distance – the biggest stage that Berhalter has been a coach on. He took office four years ago, tasked with restoring US respectability after the disastrous failure of the 2018 qualifying cycle. At a minimum, he did this by overseeing a generational change on the US team that included recruiting dual-citizen star players like Yunus Musa and Timothy Weah and raising talented prodigies like Christian Pulisic, Gio Reina, Weston McKenny. Tyler Adams and Brenden Aaronson.
However, Berhalter wants more. The intensity of his preparation for the next three games has increased over the past week as he and his coaching staff have pushed each other to try and consider every potential scenario they might face during one of their group stage matches.
If that sounds exhaustive, it’s because it is; Berhalter is known for his penchant for data and analytics, and he is determined to prepare for any direction the game may take.
What will the US do if they miss the target? Down goal? Down two? The male? Down man? How will they react if one of their players gets injured? What if the opposite star sets first? Berhalter wants to have a plan for all of them. The scenario that worries him the most? The one he hadn’t thought of before.
“We have time now, we have had time for the last couple of months,” he said. “When you’re on the field and at the touchline and the crowd is making noise and there are moments of pressure – if you’re not ready, I think it interferes with decision making.”
Berhalter knows there will be problems. There are no first choice players due to injuries. There are extreme temperatures and very late start times, as well as three opponents from Group B (England, Wales, Iran) with a lot of experience and experience. There are no trifles, there are no matches in which the USA are significant favorites.
But there is also determination. Thousands of US fans will support the team in Qatar. Millions more will watch and hope in the United States. There will be that youthful mixture of precocity and courage that can sometimes lead to naive notions, but can also turn into magic.
Berhalter’s job is to lead. To inspire. Put your players in a position where they can perform at their best when it matters most. The journey starts on Monday. And unlike his predecessor, Berhalter does not yet know how it will all end.
“We think the first step is to leave the group,” he said. “And the second step, in knockout games, is to play our best game and see how far we can go.”