AL RAYYAN, Qatar – Christian Pulisic looks to be ready; Josh Sargent probably will be, too. Even Gio Reyna, as best we can tell from the outside, is fully available.
Much the same can be said of their Dutch counterparts, despite a bout of flu or a flu-like bug working its way through the Oranje squad, like the one that hit the US men’s national team’s staff during their first week in Qatar. (The Dutch blame the omnipresent, arctic air conditioning chilling seemingly every enclosed space here.)
On Friday Gregg Berhalter reminded everyone just how much a moment like Saturday’s World Cup Round of 16 match means (10 am ET | FOX, Telemundo).
“At this stage, it’s go time,” said the USMNT coach, “and if you can push through it, you do it.”
The Netherlands are accustomed to these big moments. Though they, like the US, missed out on Russia 2018, they’re perennial contenders at this tournament, and current boss Louis van Gaal led them to a third-place finish at Brazil 2014. He’s repeatedly underlined his belief that they can and will exceed that achievement this year, though he served up plenty of intriguing praise for Berhalter’s young Yanks at his matchday-1 press conference.
“It’s typically American; I think that they have evolved rapidly,” he said in Dutch of the USMNT. “They have many players at top European clubs. So it goes without saying that they would perform well and achieve these results. Perhaps the USA wouldn’t have expected it from this squad, but when you watch them play it’s crystal clear that they’ve had opportunities.
“… I had expected the USA to progress, in any case, after the first match [vs. Wales], because I hadn’t seen them before that.”
That won’t change the widespread expectation that his side will sweep past the US. World Cup golden boot chaser Cody Gakpo is on a scoring tear, with Memphis Depay a menacing creative force alongside him. Technical masters like Frenkie de Jong and Davy Klaasen dictate in midfield and imperious Liverpoool center back Virgil van Dijk, not so long ago the world’s most expensive defender, anchors a solid back line. That’s just a sampling of the individual quality.
“It’s tough; they have talent … really top-end talent,” said Berhalter, who began a 15-year stint in Europe with six seasons in the Eredivisie from 1994-2000.
“But for us, it’s about the collective. Listen, the [US] back four has done a great job, the goalkeeper’s done a great job. But it’s about team defending, working as a unit, moving collectively. And when we do that, we put the opponent in difficult positions where they can’t access the spaces they want to access. And I think that’s been what we’ve been good at in this tournament so far.”
Berhalter’s Dutch soccer education
Berhalter also spoke at length about the lessons and legacy of his time in a country that famously loves, and loves to argue about, the sport and its finer points.
“I learned so much in Holland, great experience being there,” he recalled. “When you’re in Holland, basically, after every training session, you have a debate with your players about the training session. After every game you have a talk with people about the game. People love to discuss soccer, and you really learn a lot.
“Everyone has their opinion, everyone shares their opinion. And it was a great time for me. I went to Holland just out of university, totally unprepared for professional-level soccer. And if I wasn’t in Holland, I don’t think I would have had that background, that building that really helped shape my ideas.”
From his team’s primary formation to the concepts of possession, pressing and positional play that they’ve espoused over his tenure, that influence is not hard to detect.
He also beat the Netherlands for the international allegiance of dual-national fullback Sergiño Dest, one of the USMNT’s top performers in the group stage.
While van Gaal may have only recently begun to research the USMNT, Berhalter said he and his staff received a scouting dossier on the Oranje “immediately after” their decisive win over Iran on Tuesday.
All that and the very real, very stressful eventuality of a penalty-kick shootout, should the game be deadlocked after 120 minutes, has occupied their two days of training since giving the squad a welcome day off on Wednesday.
“We’ve been watching Holland for the last 11 months, watching all their games. We’ve had multiple people at their group-stage games watching live, we have the wide angle. So really doing a deep dive on them,” Berhalter explained.
“It’s literally one game at a time, one minute at a time in this knockout stage. Anything makes the difference in the result. And you have to be patient, you also have to realize that it could be a 120-minute exercise, and you have to plan your lineups and substitutions accordingly. So we’re game-planning all that and then finally have the penalty kicks, which we practiced yesterday, and we’ll practice again today.”