Gregg Berhalter and USMNT midfielder Yunus Musah enjoy the win over Iran. (Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
Congratulations, America, you have become a soccer, or as they say in some far-off lands, a football nation.
It goes beyond the U.S. men’s national team defeating Iran to reach the knockout round of the World Cup in Qatar.
Actually, the transformation happened well before this tournament, with all of messages on social media about USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter, most of it negative with the marker #BerhalterOut.
While the fan reaction isn’t as intense as in say, Mexico and England (God bless anyone who takes those jobs), because there are factions that will never be satisfied, but coaching an American national team has become a job that will be second guessed.
Heck, any national soccer coach will be second guessed from here until the end of time, if supporters in a country actually cares.
Some of the outrage:
He doesn’t know what he’s doing.
Where is Reyna?
He favors MLS players.
He subs at the wrong times.
How could he start (please put in any name)?
How could he not start (ibid, see above)?
And how he could have left (please see above) off the team?
He’s playing the wrong system. Or formation.
And on and on and on it goes.
Yeah, I get it.
Berhalter is not perfect, but you’ve got to give him his due. He got the USA into the Round of 16, which is no mean feat.
He might not have pushed all the right buttons all the time, but Berhalter has has done enough to keep the team alive in the competition. He has unified the team, getting the players to not only play together but to get along off the field. As cliché as it might sound, team chemistry is ultra-important.
The players also have bought into his system and bought into Berhalter.
A national team coach’s job isn’t to pick the best players, but to pick the best team to win. Even with three extra roster slots at Qatar 2022, there also will be difficult decisions to be made at the highest level.
His lineups have been pretty much spot on.
The team has come out strong in each of its three group-stage matches and have experienced rather dicey second halves, especially the 10 minutes of stoppage time against Iran, which seemed to last forever.
One thing we have to remember – there’s another team on the other side of the pitch that is trying to win the game as well. If they’re facing a deficit or a defeat, they will push as hard as they could. Some call it momentum, others say it’s desperation.
You can’t expect a team to control the ball for the entire match, especially the USA, although the team has showed encouraging signs that it can do that for huge stretches.
The USA is undefeated in Qatar at 1-0-2. The Americans have allowed only one goal in their opening three matches, the first time they have accomplished that feat.
Yes, they have scored but twice, but I would like to think any educated soccer fan would realize how difficult it is to score in the sport at the highest levels, let alone the World Cup. Besides, we knew what the USA entering the tournament. I am not convinced Ricardo Pepi, who was left off the squad, would have made a major difference.
And about goal-scorers at the World Cup, if a team can get two or three goals from a striker or a midfielder in the meager number of games he will play (three, four, five games or more), that is considered pretty decent production.
I am old enough to remember back to the 1998 World Cup, in which there seemingly was dissention brewing around just about every corner of a three (losses) and out experience.
As for Gio Reyna not getting an opportunity to play – he’s made one cameo appearance in three matches – there may be more to his injury and fitness. It’s one thing for the player to say he’s 100 percent and ready to go. It’s another for the team trainer and doctors to give the go-ahead.
We don’t know what is transpiring behind the scenes; how fit Reyna is. He might not be able to go more than 20-30 minutes. Who knows?
If he is not fully fit, do you think Berhalter will tell the soccer universe? He wants to keep things close to the vest and not give the opposition any sort of advantage.
If I was Louis van Gaal, the Netherlands manager, I would do the same thing with my team. Don’t give any information to the enemy that will help them, outside of a player being sidelined for the rest of the tournament.
There are no injury reports at the World Cup (heck, some MLS teams don’t tell the truth about their players in injury reports).
I have been watching, following and writing about World Cups since 1978 (and written four books about the subject), so I would like to think I know a little about the competition.
In the long run, teams will be judged on how far they go in a competition, not necessarily on how pretty they might be. You don’t see asterisks in the standings about a team playing well and losing.
That is the ultimate international soccer report card. No grading on a curve. Either you win, you lose, or you find a way in penalty kicks.
So here we are, a few days before a Round of 16 encounter with the Dutch on Saturday.
How does that sound, soccer fans, Round of 16 for the USA?
The Americans are playing with house money now. They are not favored against the Netherlands, so anything else would be a cherry on top of the cake.
Can the USA defeat the Netherlands? In a tournament that has included several upsets, yes the team can. But it will be difficult and Berhalter will need to muster every part of his soccer brain to put together a team that can shut down the Dutch. Then it will be up to the 11 players on the field to pull it off.
And regardless of how the U.S. fares, I realize not everyone will be satisfied, especially with the coach.
It’s part of being a soccer, err, I mean football nation.