USMNT World Cup Daily, Day 19
Pulisic cleared to play against the Netherlands in Saturday's Round of 16 showdown
DOHA, Qatar — The U.S. meets the Netherlands on Saturday in the first World Cup knockout-round game (10 am ET, FOX, Telemundo), and today coach Gregg Berhalter and captain Tyler Adams met the media in a much less tense environment than the one before the Iran game.
The big news is that Christian Pulisic, who suffered a “pelvic contusion” scoring against Iran, has been cleared to play against the Dutch. That’s huge, since Pulisic is massively important to the U.S. attack.
But it’s clear that the U.S. does not fear the Netherlands, who won their group but haven’t performed quite as well as I was expecting entering the tournament. A decent but not great Ecuador team got a point off the Dutch here, so there’s no reason the Americans can’t hang with the favorite in this game. The most important players for the Netherlands are forward Cody Gakpo (who has scored in every game here) and Virgil van Dijk, one of the world’s premiere centerbacks.
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“For me, the first thing you see is obviously the amount of quality,” Adams said, noting that coach Louis van Gaal is undefeated since taking over the team again last August (13 wins and 5 ties in 18 games). “That just goes to show the strength of their team. But from defense all the way to their attacking players, every single player plays at a high level. We know we’re going to have to be up for the fight because when you’re playing against that much quality, yeah, you’re able to limit them, but for how long?”
“So we know we’re going to have to give it our all,” Adams went on. “But I think that’s where our mentality has been really good against some of the bigger opponents. We haven’t looked at it as a 90-minute game. We’ve taken every game minute by minute, living in the moment, staying present, and that’s been the most important thing for us.”
Berhalter spent six years playing in the Netherlands, which had a major influence on his coaching development. He left the University of North Carolina after his junior year to try his luck as a pro there. Berhalter fell in love with the non-stop discussions of tactics in Holland, and he started keeping a notebook where he recorded his team’s training sessions, along with his preferred attributes for each position on the soccer field and the systems he would use had he been a coach.
“It’s almost like what concepts haven’t I taken from Dutch football?” Berhalter said today. “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 and 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.”
When it comes to this Dutch team, Berhalter said the U.S. staff has been watching all of its games from the past 11 months and have had multiple scouts watching live at the Netherlands’ group-stage games here. The U.S. defense, which has conceded just one goal in the tournament (a penalty against Wales), will get another test in this game.
“They have talent,” Berhalter said. “I can see them playing with two strikers or one behind the striker. It could be any combination of who they’ve been playing, but they have some real talent with Memphis Depay and Gakpo and if [Steven] Bergwijn plays, just really top end talent. But for us it’s about the collective. Listen, the back four has done a great job. The goalkeeper has 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.”
“In this knockout stage, anything makes a difference in the result, and you have to be patient,” Berhalter added later. “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 you have the penalty kicks, which we practiced yesterday, and we’ll practice again today.”
Berhalter has done a solid job in recent years recruiting dual-nationals to join the U.S., including starters like Yunus Musah and Sergiño Dest, who of course turned down interest from the Netherlands. Just as playing England was big for Musah, meeting the Dutch in a World Cup knockout game will loom large for Dest (who has been excellent in this tournament).
“People forget that he actually played for our U-20 team in the World Cup,” Berhalter said. “So he’s been part of our youth programs. As he transitioned to a professional, there came some attention from the Dutch side and our side. And basically it was about me just making a connection with him, talking to him about what we thought his role could be for us. What the plans are for this group over the next eight years, and then introducing him to his teammates and getting him into our environment. Because that’s where I think it really shines being part of our group. It’s a very tight-knit group, very welcoming of people coming into the group, and I think that’s what ultimately helped him decide.”
If Berhalter ever wants to get a club coaching job in the Netherlands, I think he’d have the ammo now, and Dutch journalists got a kick out of hearing Berhalter’s stories from his playing days there. The U.S. coach even responded to a Dutch-language question without needing the interpreter earpiece, though he did answer in English. What did he learn from Dutch soccer?
“Just about spacing, the positional game,” Berhalter explained. “Third man, triangles. All those things, like the details of the game. I remember there was an old striker that I played with when I first got [to Zwolle]. His name was Remco Boere. And some of you would know, right? He would yell at me for giving the ball with too much spin. He wanted balls that came at him straight, and I had to hit it with my laces, and I wasn’t good enough hitting with my laces.”
“So I had to practice, practice, practice so I can play him a ball that he wanted. It was details like that. If you ever laid a ball off to someone and put it to their wrong foot, they would start yelling at you. There were a lot of details that I was missing in college that I learned in Holland. And then the general side of the game was the positional game. You saw Ajax back then and how they opened the field, stretched the field, and really made it difficult for the opponent.”
Berhalter was also asked again about the seven minutes of playing time that Gio Reyna has had in the first three games of the World Cup, a shockingly low number for one of the U.S.’s best attackers, a player who starts for Dortmund in Champions League games.
“I think a lot of it comes down to timing and circumstance,” Berhalter said. “If you look at how the games have unfolded, we’ve had the lead and have to hold onto the lead later in games. The only game that we didn’t have that scenario, we actually put him in to help get the victory. So it’s just how we can use him in the most effective way. Really talented player. And we’re looking for the right moment, but he can no doubt help this team.”
THE START OF A NEW TOURNAMENT
The bracket is out! And it has some surprises in it:
• On the day after four-time World Cup champion Germany was eliminated in the group stage, two-time winner Uruguay and a tearful Luis Suárez went out when South Korea scored late to beat Portugal.
• Three teams from the Asian confederation (Japan, South Korea, Australia) have made the World Cup knockout rounds for the first time. And Japan beat former champions Spain and Germany to do it.
• Four years after no African teams made the Round of 16, Senegal and Morocco both reached the knockout rounds, with Morocco becoming the first African team to win a men’s World Cup group since Nigeria in 1998.
• Poland might be the worst team I have ever seen make the knockout rounds, which goes to show you how bad Mexico was at this World Cup. The U.S. is the only CONCACAF team still standing.
• It’s too bad there’s no English-language equivalent of “octavos de final.” I tried to get “octafinals” going a while back, but everyone laughed at me and so I stopped.
My predictions (I’d love to be wrong on some of these):
Quarterfinals: Netherlands-Argentina, Japan-Brazil, England-France, Spain-Switzerland.
Semifinals: Argentina-Brazil, France-Spain.
MY DAY IN DOHA
Today was one of the quieter birthdays I’ve ever had, since I ended up watching games at home while my housemates were either at stadiums (James at Brazil-Cameroon and Rafa at Switzerland-Serbia) or back in Europe for a few days (Guillem will be back on December 8).
Rhem, our amazing do-everything Filipina cook, also does massages, so I got a much-needed 90-minute massage at 9 am this morning. The only problem was the house-cleaning crew (which comes every three days) came unexpectedly during that time, when most of the guys were still asleep. We usually go to bed around 3 or 4 am and get up around 9:30 or 10 am, so the place was a bit of a madhouse. (But yes, I realize how nice it is that we have housecleaners, Rhem and everyone else here.)
I met up for coffee with a friend at the “Bud hotel,” which is at the W in West Bay, and then went to a journalist’s lunch where we learned that Qatar plans to bid to host the 2036 Summer Olympics. Then came the Berhalter-Adams press conference mid-afternoon, followed by interviews I did with a Spanish TV channel and SiriusXM in the States. Then it was the two match windows and a 1:50 am local time appearance on Hallie Jackson’s MSNBC show.
Then I finished writing this column! And now I’m going to bed. I’ll celebrate my birthday by having some friends over this Wednesday when we finally get an off day from games. In the meantime, tomorrow could be a giant day for U.S. soccer. Let’s enjoy it!
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