DOHA, Qatar — Eight years ago, Jurgen Klinsmann famously said it was impossible for his U.S. men’s national team to win the World Cup in Brazil. He said it to me in an extended interview for The New York Times Magazine a few months before the tournament, then doubled down on it in a press conference in Sao Paulo just before the U.S. opener. Klinsmann felt it was important to be blunt, but many American fans — and some of Klinsmann’s own players — were troubled by what felt like a defeatist attitude.
On Saturday, in an exclusive interview with ESPN two days before his U.S. team opens the World Cup, head coach Gregg Berhalter considered the same question. He paused, just a for a moment, then smiled.
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“What I do believe,” he said, “is that on our best day we can beat anyone in the world. Anyone.”
That’s the mentality Berhalter has ingrained in his young team, pushing them to embrace the idea that the only way they’ll make history is if they believe they can. To help advance that way of thinking, Berhalter recently organized a team meeting in which Eric Thomas, a popular motivational speaker with a remarkable personal story of rising up from homelessness, talked with the players about the incredible power of belief.
And while Berhalter, a well-known sneakerhead, said he hasn’t yet picked which shoes he’ll wear to the U.S.’s first match against Wales, when asked how many pairs he’d brought with him to Qatar, he didn’t hesitate: seven, one for each possible game through to the final.
“Look, it is a great honor to play in the World Cup, but we don’t want to just be participants,” Berhalter said. “We want to perform.”
To be clear: Berhalter isn’t predicting the U.S. will be champions. He’s simply focusing on the notion that success rarely comes without conviction. That was something Berhalter learned first as an international player and now works to instill as a manager.
After all, this is — by some distance — the biggest stage Berhalter has been on as a coach. He took over four years ago, charged with restoring the U.S. to respectability after the disastrous failure of the 2018 qualifying cycle. At a minimum, he has done that, overseeing a generational overhaul of the U.S. team that included the recruitment of star-level dual nationals like Yunus Musah and Timothy Weah, and the elevation of talented prodigies like Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Brenden Aaronson.
Berhalter, though, wants more. His preparation for these next three games has ramped up in intensity over the past week, as he and his coaching staff pushed each other to try and consider every potential scenario they might encounter during one of the group stage matches.
If that sounds exhaustive, that’s because it is; Berhalter is known for his bent toward data and analytics, and he is determined to prepare for any direction a U.S. game might go.
What will the U.S. do if they’re up a goal? Down a goal? Down two? Up a man? Down a man? How will they handle it if one of their players gets injured? What if the opposing star goes down early? Berhalter wants to have a plan for all of them. The scenario that most concerns him? The one he hasn’t thought of ahead of time.
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“We have the time now, we’ve had the time for the last couple months,” he said. “When you’re on the field and the sideline and the crowd is loud and there’s pressure moments — if you’re not prepared, I think it hurts decision-making.”
Berhalter knows there will be challenges. There are missing first-choice players out because of injury. There are extreme temperatures and very late kickoff times and three Group B opponents (England, Wales, Iran) with significant pedigree and experience. There are no pushovers, no matches in which the U.S. is a significant favorite.
But there is also determination. There will be thousands of U.S. fans supporting the team in Qatar. There will be millions more watching and hoping back in the United States. There will be that youthful mix of precociousness and pluck which can, yes, sometimes lead to naïve performances but can also transform into magic.
Berhalter’s job is to lead. To inspire. To put his players in a position where they might find their best selves when it matters most. The journey begins Monday. And unlike his predecessor, Berhalter doesn’t yet know where it will end.
“We think the first step is getting out of the group,” he said. “And the second step is, in the knockout games, playing our best possible game and seeing how far we can go.”