Louis van Gaal said he couldn’t remember the last time he faced Gregg Berhalter in a match.
Berhalter’s USA, who face Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands in Saturday’s World Cup round of 16, did not believe in him for a second.
The date is May 4, 1997. Berhalter, a fresh-faced 23-year-old centre-back for mid-table Sparta Rotterdam, beat Louis van Gaal’s Ajax – which had reached the Champions League semi-final just 11 days earlier – thanks to the 88th minute the winner.
“I think he remembers,” Behalter said with a laugh Friday. “As a competitor, he has to remember that game.”
Twenty-five years later, the American manager will once again play the role of underdog when the Americans meet a heavily favored Dutch team that has gone 18 games since Van Gaal took over after last year’s European Championships. Has yet to taste defeat, conceding just 14 times in the European Cup. that team. If they buck that trend against the Orange, the U.S. will reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup for the first time since 2002, when Berhalter’s left foot nearly sent the U.S. into the semifinals as Germany.
The most important game of his three-and-a-half-year tenure will be against the Netherlands, which means a lot to Berhalter, who has become the first man to play for and coach the United States at the World Cup. After leaving UNC at the end of his junior season, he began a 15-year career in Europe, breaking out with various Dutch clubs, signing with Zwolle in 1994, Sparta in 1996 and the Cambuur Leeuwarden.
Not surprisingly, Dutch football has deeply influenced his coaching philosophy.
“I learned a lot in the Netherlands,” says Berhalter. “It’s almost like, what concept No I took it from Dutch football? It was a great experience being there.
“After every training session you have a debate with your players about it. After every game you talk to people about the game. People love to talk about football and you really learn a lot.
“I went to the Netherlands straight out of university, completely unprepared for professional football. If I hadn’t been in the Netherlands, I don’t think I would have had the background that really helped shape my thinking.”
Berhalter describes how his experience in the Netherlands made him aware of the sport’s nuances that were not part of his development in his homeland.
“It’s just about spacing and positional play, the third person, the triangle,” he said. “There was a striker, an old striker who played with him when I first got there. His name was Remco Boere. He would yell at me for giving him too much spin on the ball. He wanted the ball It was coming straight at him, and I had to hit the ball with my laces. And my laces weren’t good enough, so I had to practice, practice, practice so I could hit him the ball he wanted.
“If you pass the ball to someone and you kick it to the wrong foot, they start yelling at you. How cool you are to play the pass. I missed a lot of details that I learned in Holland.”
Berhalter is not the only figure in the US camp with close ties to the Netherlands. Earnie Stewart, US Soccer’s sporting director, was born in the southern Dutch town of Vegel and captained the national team in the famous victory over Portugal that kicked off the 2002 World Cup.
Meanwhile, American right-back Sergiño Dest, the son of a Dutch mother and a Surinamese-American father, grew up in Almere and out of Ajax’s vaunted youth academy. Berhalter’s relationship with Durst helped tip the balance when he was deciding whether to represent the United States or the Netherlands at international level.
“There was some concern from the Dutch side and from our side when he made the transition to professional level,” Berhalter said. “Basically I just want to connect with him, talk to him about what we think his role might be for us, what’s the plan for this team over the next eight years, and then introduce him to his teammates and get him in our environment.”
“It’s going to be a really fun game, against the country I was born in. I know pretty much everyone there,” Durst, 22, said.
The most pressing issue in the U.S. camp ahead of Saturday’s game is the health of Christian Pulisic, who suffered a pelvic contusion in Tuesday’s winner against Iran. , which allowed the US team to advance to the knockout stage ahead of schedule. Fifth time since 1994.
A day later, the Chelsea winger said he was undergoing daily training with the injury ahead of a training session at the team’s Al Rayyan headquarters, but was “doing my best to play on Saturday”, with Berhalter offering a slightly sanguine assessment.
“We will see him today at the training ground,” the manager said. “I think it looks pretty good, so we’ll have to see him on the pitch today to confirm that.”
american football later confirmed Pulisic has already been cleared to play against the Dutchman.
Berhalter was less optimistic about the availability of Norwich City striker Josh Sargent, who went off with a right ankle injury in the 77th minute of the tie against Iran.
“He’s another guy that we’re going to test in training and see where he fits,” Berhalter said. “He’s going to test. At this stage, it’s time. If you can get through it, you can do it.”
The Americans have done little to assuage longstanding concerns about their ability to score goals during their time in Qatar, with just two goals in three games so far. But they are the only team not conceding a goal in the open at the group stage – and Berhalter believes the close teamwork that has brought the Americans to this point will be more than enough to make up for the undeniable gap in individual skills.
“It’s hard,” he said. “[The Dutch] Talented. I can see they have two strikers, one behind the striker.It could be any combination they’ve been playing, but they’ve got some real top talent like Memphis Depay and [Cody] Jake Pu and if [Steven] Shanjiu opera.
“But for us, it’s about the collective. The back four do a good job. The goalkeepers do a good job. It’s about defending as a team, working as a unit, acting collectively. When we do that, we put the opponents Put in difficult positions, they can’t get into the spaces they want to be in. I think that’s what we’ve been good at so far in this tournament.”