It is clear that Pulisic will play for the USA against the Netherlands while Berhalter will face familiar foes
Louis van Gaal says he can’t remember the last time he faced Greg Berhalter in a competitive match.
Berhalter, whose US team will play the Netherlands in the World Cup last 16 on Saturday, doesn’t believe him for a second.
The date was May 4, 1997. Berhalter was a 23-year-old freshman defender for the Sparta Rotterdam side that beat Van Gaal’s Ajax – who had played in the Champions League semi-finals just 11 days earlier. – Thanks to the winner in the 88th minute.
“I think he remembers,” Berhalter said Friday with a smile. “Being competitive, he has to remember that match.”
Twenty-five years later, the American coach will once again take on the role of underdog when the Americans take on Dutch favorites who have yet to taste defeat in the 18 games since Van Gaal took over after last year’s European Championship, conceding just 14 times. This extension. If they break the odds against the Orange, the Americans will make it to the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time since 2002, when Berhalter’s left foot nearly sent the USA to the semi-finals at Germany’s expense.
The biggest game of his three-and-a-half-year tenure against the Netherlands carried additional meaning for Berhalter, who became the first player to play for and manage a US team in the World Cup finals. After leaving the University of North Carolina after his junior season, he cut his teeth with a number of Dutch clubs early in his decade-and-a-half football career in Europe, signing with Zwolle in 1994, then with Sparta in 1996 and Cambuur Leeuwarden in 1998.
Not surprisingly, Dutch football deeply influenced his coaching philosophy.
“I learned a lot in the Netherlands,” Berhalter said. “Almost like, what are the concepts you did not taken from Dutch football? It was an amazing experience to be there.
“After every training session you have a discussion with your players about it. After every game you get to talk to people about the game. People love to discuss football and you really learn a lot.
“I went to Holland just after graduating from university, completely unprepared for football at a professional level. If I hadn’t been in Holland, I don’t think I would have had that background that really helped shape my ideas.”
Berhalter described how his experience in the Netherlands was an awakening to nuances in the game that were not part of his development back home.
“Just about spacing and the positioning game, third man, triangles,” he said. “There was a striker, an old striker I played with when I first got there. His name was Remco Boyer. He was yelling at me to give him the ball that was spinning a lot. He wanted balls that came right in his face and I had to hit them with the laces. And I wasn’t good enough.” In hitting with the laces, so I had to practice, and practice, and practice until I could play the ball he wanted.
“If you throw a ball at someone and put it on the wrong foot, they start yelling at you. How fragile play passes are. There were so many details I was missing that I learned in Holland.”
Berhalter is not the only figure in the US camp with deep ties to the Netherlands. American soccer sports director Ernie Stewart, who captained the national team in the famous win over Portugal and launched her career in the 2002 World Cup, was born in the southern Dutch town of Vejle.
Meanwhile, right-back Serginho Dest, the son of a Dutch mother and an American father of Surinamese roots, grew up in Almere and thrived in Ajax’s vaunted youth academy. When he was deciding whether to represent the United States or the Netherlands at international level, it was Berhalter’s contact with the Dest defender that helped tip the balance.
“With his move to the professional level, there has been some interest from the Dutch side and from our side,” Berhalter said. “And it was mainly about getting in touch with him, talking to him about what we thought his role could be for us, what the plans are for this group over the next eight years, and then introducing him to his teammates and getting him into our environment.”
“It will be a very interesting game,” said the 22-year-old Dest, “playing against the country I was born in. I know almost everyone there.”
The most pressing question in the American camp ahead of Saturday’s game was about the fitness of Christian Pulisic, who suffered a bruised pelvis while scoring the winning goal in Tuesday’s game against Iran that sealed the Americans’ lead to a knockout. For the fifth time since 1994.
A day after the Chelsea winger said he was taking it day to day with the injury before a training session at the team’s home base in Al Rayyan but “I’m doing everything I can to be able to be on the field on Saturday”, Berhalter offered a slightly more optimistic assessment.
“We’ll see him on the training field today,” said the manager. “What I think looks very good, so we have to see him today on the field to get confirmation of that.”
American football was later confirmed Pulisic was cleared to play against the Dutch.
Berhalter was less optimistic about the availability of Norwich City striker Josh Sargent, who was off with a right ankle injury in the 77th minute of the Iran match.
“He’s another player that we’ll test in training, to see where he is,” Berhalter said. “…he’s going to test. At this point, it’s time. If you can push through it, you do.”
The United States have done little to allay long-standing concerns about their goal-scoring ability during their time in Qatar, scoring just two goals in three matches so far. But they are the only team to make it through the group stage without conceding open play – and Berhalter is confident that the cohesive team play that has seen the Americans get this far will be enough to fill an undeniable gap in individual skill.
“It’s hard,” he said. “[The Dutch] talent. I can see them playing with two strikers, one behind the striker. It could be any combination of who they play, but they have some real talent with Memphis Depay and [Cody] Gakpo and if [Steven] Bergwijn plays.
“But for us it’s about the group. The four defenders have done a great job. The goalkeeper has done a great job. It’s about defending the team, working as a unit, moving collectively. And when we do that, we put the opposition in difficult situations where they can’t get into spaces.” that they want to get to. And I think that’s what we’ve excelled at in this tournament so far.”
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