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Thursday, February 9, 2023

Gregg Berhalter vindicated as USMNT reach last 16 of the 2022 World Cup

The USA have achieved what they set out to accomplish at the 2022 World Cup. Anything less than an appearance in the Round of 16 in Qatar would have been considered a failure, but the USMNT now have a knockout round meeting with the Netherlands to look forward to on Saturday. Gregg Berhalter can take some vindication from that.

Berhalter and his team arrived in Qatar amid a cloud of negativity. The USA staggered through CONCACAF qualifying with inconsistent performances, underlined by highs against Mexico and lows against the likes of Jamaica and Costa Rica. Then, they faltered badly in their final World Cup warm-up games, losing to Japan and drawing 0-0 against a limited Saudi Arabia side.

At the tournament itself, however, things have clicked for Berhalter – at least to a certain extent.

Three years ago, Berhalter established his mission statement as US men’s national team head coach. He stated his aim to change the way the world views American soccer, both in terms of the profile of the players the country produces and the style with which they operate as a unit on the pitch.

It would be hyperbolic to claim the USA have fulfilled this objective at the 2022 World Cup, but there have been signs that Berhalter is closer to his ultimate aim than many initially thought was possible. There have been periods in all three matches in Qatar during which the US have controlled the contest through their use of the ball.

The purest distillation of this came in the winning goal against Iran, when the USA created the space out wide for Weston McKennie to clip a diagonal ball in behind for Sergiño Dest, who headed it across goal for Christian Pulisic. In that moment, the process that led the USA to Qatar paid off. It was the sort of goal Berhalter had always envisaged his team scoring on the biggest stage.

Defensively, the USA have been particularly strong despite the worries over the centerback position heading into the World Cup. They have conceded just one goal in three matches, with that singular goal coming from a penalty kick that resulted from a poor defensive decision. When the USA had to close out a crucial 1-0 win over Iran to get out of Group B and into the last 16, they were able to. This is a difficult team to play against – that much has been proven at the World Cup.

Many of Berhalter’s big calls have paid off. Matt Turner, who was favoured over Zack Steffen, has been solid in goal while 35-year-old Tim Ream – called in amid a defensive injury crisis – has been a calming presence at the back. Then there’s the MMA (McKennie, Musah, Adams) midfield, which has benefited from playing at the highest levels in Europe, producing an intelligence and awareness that seemingly multiplies when playing alongside each other. The chemistry of the US central midfield is undeniable, and turning heads around the soccer world.

This isn’t to say Berhalter has gotten everything right. The continued absence of Gio Reyna has been a major talking point all the way through the tournament, with speculation so intense that it was suggested a rift between the Borussia Dortmund player and Berhalter had taken place. Such suggestions have since been dismissed, but the sight of Reyna on the bench has been a frustration.

Injury and fitness may well be a factor in this, but Berhalter has repeatedly clarified that Reyna is available to play. His ability on the ball and in tight spaces could have helped the USA better break down the low defensive blocks used by both Wales and Iran. Reyna is unlike any other player in the USA squad.

Berhalter’s substitutions have also come under scrutiny. The USA conceded too much possession and territory in the second half against Wales and were eventually pegged back to a 1-1 draw, while they were unashamedly defensive as they protected their 1-0 lead against Iran, producing 30 heart-pounding minutes for US fans everywhere. Some argue, with a degree of justification, that the US should have been more focused on scoring a second goal.

Nonetheless, it’s the results that matter, and the USA deserve their place in the Round of 16. There’s a theory that the tactical match-up against the Netherlands could well suit them, too. The Dutch have looked vulnerable in the wide areas at the 2022 World Cup – precisely where the US have thrived through the likes of Sergiño Dest, Timothy Weah, Antonee Robinson and Pulisic. What’s more, the Netherlands’ midfield appears lightweight.

Conclusions can only be fully drawn once the 2022 World Cup campaign is over. It could be the case that US Soccer decides to head in a different direction and appoint a new head coach such is the pressure to perform in 2026, but Berhalter has at least shown in Qatar why he stuck with his principles for so long. And why plenty of credit is due.

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