The United States men's national team opens World Cup play Monday in a match against Wales that will be nearly eight years in the making. After missing out on the 2018 World Cup, the Americans have a chip on their collective shoulder time around. And their coach will finally get an opportunity to prove his many detractors wrong.
When Gregg Berhalter was named manager of the U.S. national team on December 2, 2018, many questioned the hire. He had no international managing experience and only had two stints leading a club. One came for Swedish club Hammarby IF, and the other was a five-season run managing the Columbus Crew. It was an underwhelming hire for many given his resume's lack of depth.
Berhalter was expected to accomplish two things upon taking the job: integrate the legion of young talent the U.S. now has at its disposal, and qualify for the 2022 World Cup. Both of those boxes have been checked. Yet it still feels like something is missing.
The U.S. had an uneven run through World Cup qualifying. At times the Americans looked like a club destined to reach the knockout stages in Qatar and be dangerous once there. At others, it looked like a team confused at the back and one with no answers in the attacking third despite a wealth of talent.
To be fair, Berhalter has brought home trophies and pulled off some big wins. The U.S. beat Mexico to win the CONCACAF Nations League title, then a few months later bested El Tri again to take home the 2021 Gold Cup. But the Americans finished behind Canada and Mexico in qualifying, and tied Costa Rica for the final automatic spot, only avoiding an inter-confederation playoff on goal differential.
The U.S. had some embarrassing results in qualifying, like a 0-0 draw against lowly El Salvador, a 1-1 draw against a struggling Jamaica team, being dominated by Canada 2-0 and finally a 2-0 loss to Costa Rica to end the cycle. Two World Cup tune-up matches didn't go well either. A listless U.S. squad was pushed around by Japan 2-0, and settled for a 0-0 draw against Saudi Arabia.
Those results weren't a great sign, given the U.S. faces stiff competition in Group B at the World Cup. The Americans open against a plucky Wales squad, then face a true tournament contender in England, before closing group play out against Iran. That's not an easy path to the knockout stage. The Americans will need to be at their best every step of the way.
Throughout his nearly four years on the bench, Berhalter's team has struggled to provide consistent offense. The program seems unable to find a true striker who can stick in that role. In fact, the USMNT's inability to field a goal-scorer up top could ultimiately be its undoing during the World Cup.
To his credit, Berhalter has fully turned U.S. Soccer over to the next generation. The average age of the team in Qatar will be 25.48 years old, one of the youngest numbers in the tournament. A number of key players are 25 or younger, as Antonee Robinson (25), Christian Pulisic (24), Weston McKennie (24), Tyler Adams (23), Tim Weah (22), Brenden Aaronson (22), Sergino Dest (22), Giovanni Reyna (20) and Yunus Musah (19) are all regular starters. That's a positive as the program builds to 2026 when the U.S. will host the World Cup.
That's really what this is all about: the future. The U.S. is targeting the 2026 Cup as its chance to finally have a world class team capable of doing damage in the knockout rounds. Playing at home, with a team full of World Cup veterans in their primes and winning, would do a lot for soccer in the United States. Will Berhalter be the man on the sidelines leading that team? What happens over the next few weeks will go a long way to determining that.
If Berhalter can't get the U.S. out of Group B, there would be little reason for him to stay around to begin the next phase building towards 2026. At that point, U.S. Soccer would be best suited to throw a ton of money at an experienced international manager, and get out of the insular thinking that has dominated it for so long. If he fails, Berhalter should be the last MLS manager to get the job. Given the talent the U.S. has, it is past that kind of hire.
That said, if Berhalter can get his squad to play its best on the biggest stage, he'll have proven many fans and observers wrong. If the U.S. can get out of Group B and have a decent showing against England, anything is possible and he should be rewarded.
Berhalter's job is on the line over the next few weeks. It is solely up to him to elevate his players at the most important time. If he does that, he can write his own ticket.