Gregg Berhalter has a goal.

Gregg Berhalter: “When we say change soccer in America forever, for me it’s both on the field and off the field.” (Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

Gregg Berhalter has a goal.

He has targeted the 2026 World Cup as an opportunity “to change soccer in America forever.”

That’s what Berhalter said during a press conference on the eve of his first game on his return as USMNT head coach against Uzbekistan on Saturday.

Of course, that’s easier said than done.

But with the USA being co-hosts of the World Cup along with Mexico and Canada, there is a home field advantage built in.

And of course, plenty of pressure to do well.

Berhalter and the team will have slightly less than three years to prepare for the competition.

“It’s really the work we can do in the next three years to build a group that will go to the World Cup,” Berhalter said during a press conference at CITYPARK Field, the venue for Saturday’s match. “We’re confident that we can beat the elite of international soccer, because that’s what it’s going to take to do what we’re talking about doing. If we want to go to rounds we’ve never been to before, we have to beat those teams. We’ll use the next three years to build the team up to game experiences to be confident that we can actually do that.

“When we say change soccer in America forever, for me it’s both on the field and off the field. We have a fantastic group of guys. I think the world got to see that in the last World Cup with their humility and how they act and what type of people they are. I’m excited for America to get to know the group better both on and off the field.”

While the USA has qualified for the seven of the last World Cups, getting out of the group stage has proved difficult in those competitions.

The Americans reached the Round of 16 when it hosted the 1994 competition but were eliminated by eventual champion Brazil in the Round of 16. In 2002, the U.S. enjoyed its best finish since reaching the semifinals of the very first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930 but dropped a frustrating 1-0 decision to eventual runners-up Germany. The USMNT qualified for the Round of 16 in 2010, 2014 and 2022, but their World Cup journey ended in those rounds.

The USA failed to qualify for the 2018 competition.

Saturday’s game will be Berhalter’s first since he was renamed head coach over the summer.

The Reyna family controversy forced U.S. Soccer to delay its hiring of Berhalter for several months.

Assistant coach B.J. Callaghan directed the squad to the Concacaf Nations Cup title and a disappointing semifinal elimination in the Concacaf Gold Cup over the summer.

Asked what his emotions were coaching the team again, Berhalter replied, “The emotions were before, last week before you come into camp. When you get into camp, you just feel so comfortable, whether it’s with the staff or with the players. You pick right up where you left off. We’ve built some really strong relationships over these last four years. It was good to get in the camp and see the staff. The whole group has been working at a really high level for these last eight months. It’s been really nice to see from afar.”

Berhalter and the squad has three years to improve and refine the team’s play. There well could be a Copa America appearance in 2024, if the USA qualifies, but there will be many friendlies between now and June 2026.

“It’s the way we work, it’s about reflecting every single moment every single training session,” he said. “It’s the combination of things, building on top of each other. We review every session with fine detail, every single day with a fine detail. We’ll try to learn from every experience that we have together, and then keep building on that. In a nutshell, I’d say that these two games [the USA hosts Oman on Tuesday] the World Cup at the highest level are very difficult games. The group stages, you get three finals, and then you have the knockout stage. And that’s like a final-final. Those are tough games. You have to be resilient. You have to have a deep squad to go to battle through those games. And, you have to have a clear identity.

“It’s continuing to build on the foundation of what we’ve had in the last four years. Keep improving, and really target 2026 as an opportunity to change soccer in America forever.”

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Front Row Soccer editor Michael Lewis has covered 13 World Cups (eight men, five women), seven Olympics and 25 MLS Cups. He has written about New York City FC, New York Cosmos, the New York Red Bulls and both U.S. national teams for Newsday and has penned a soccer history column for the Guardian.com. Lewis, who has been honored by the Press Club of Long Island and National Soccer Coaches Association of America, is the former editor of BigAppleSoccer.com. He has written seven books about the beautiful game and has published ALIVE AND KICKING The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers. It is available at Amazon.com.