DOHA, Qatar u2014 Eight years ago, Jurgen Klinsmann said it was impossible for the US Men's National Team to win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. He told me in a lengthy interview with The New York Times Magazine months before the tournament. Some of the players were annoyed by what appeared to be a defeatist stance.
In an exclusive interview with ESPN on Saturday, two days before his US team opens the World Cup, head coach Gregg Berhalter asked himself the same question. He stopped and smiled, "What I do believe," he said, "is that on our best day we can beat anyone in the world. Anyone."
This is the mindset that Burhalter has instilled in his young teams, encouraging them to embrace the idea that history can only be made if they believe they can make it. , Berhalter recently hosted a team meeting where Eric Thomas, a popular motivational speaker with a remarkable personal story of recovering from homelessness, told players about the incredible power of faith.
Renowned sneakerhead Berhalter said he hadn't decided which shoes to wear for the USMNT's first match against Wales, but when asked how many shoes he brought to Qatar, he didn't hesitate. I did. 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."
For clarity, Berhalter does not predict the United States will be champions. He simply focuses on the idea that without conviction one rarely succeeds. Berhalter first learned it as a national team player and now works to teach him as a manager. After all, this is the biggest stage Burhalter has faced as a coach. Four years before him, he took on the task of getting America back on its feet after a disastrous failure of the 2018 qualifying cycle. At least he sees recruiting star-level dual nationals like Yunus Musser and Timothy Ware and nurturing talented geniuses like Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, and Brenden Aaronson.
But Berhalter wants more. His preparations for the next three matches have been stronger than they have been in the past week as he and his coaching staff encourage each other to consider all possible scenarios they may face during the group stage matches. It is
If that sounds exhaustive, it's because it is. Berhalter is known for his love of data and analytics and is determined to prepare for any direction the game may take.
What will America do if they score? 2 down? Are you a man? kill a man? If one of his players is injured, how do they deal with it, if their star falls early? Berhalter wants to come up with a plan for everyone. Which scenario is he most worried about? something he hadn't thought of before.
"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 are challenges. A regular player is out due to injury. With extreme temperatures and very late kick-off times, considerable background and experience, he has three Group B opponents (England, Wales and Iran). There are no underdogs, and America has no clear favorite game. But there is also determination. Thousands of US fans support the Qatari team. Across America, millions more are watching and anticipating. There is a youthful mix of precociousness and bravery, sometimes leading to naïve performances, while other times turning into magic.
Berhalter's job is a leader to stimulate and put players in positions where they can find their best selves when it matters most. The journey begins on Monday. And unlike its predecessor, Berhalter still doesn't know where it ends.
"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."