Louis van Gaal says he cannot remember the last time he faced Gregg Berhalter in a competitive match.
Berhalter, whose United States team will play Van Gaal’s Netherlands on Saturday in the eighth finals of the World Cup, does not believe him for a second.
The date was May 4, 1997. Berhalter was a 23-year-old fresh-faced central defender for a mid-tier Sparta Rotterdam side who defeated Van Gaal’s Ajax team – who had played in the semi-finals of the Champions League just 11 days earlier. played – thanks to a winner in the 88th minute.
“I think he remembers,” Berhalter said with a smile on Friday. “Because he’s so competitive, he has to remember that game.”
Twenty-five years later, the US manager will again assume the role of underdog as the Americans meet a favorite Dutch team that has not tasted defeat in 18 games since Van Gaal took over after last year’s European Championship, in which he made just 14 appearances. cashed. that team. Taking on the Orange squad, the Americans would advance to the last eight of a World Cup for the first time since 2002, when Berhalter’s left foot almost sent the US to the semi-finals at Germany’s expense.
That the biggest game of his three-and-a-half-year tenure will come against the Netherlands has added significance for Berhalter, who has become the first man to play for an American team and lead a World Cup. After leaving the University of North Carolina after his youth season, he cut his teeth at a number of Dutch clubs at the start of a year-and-a-half playing career in Europe, signing with Zwolle in 1994 and then Sparta in 1996. and Cambuur Leeuwarden in 1998.
It is no surprise that Dutch football has profoundly influenced its coaching philosophy.
“I learned so much in the Netherlands,” Berhalter said. “It’s almost, some drafts not I taken over from Dutch football? It was a great experience to be there.
“After every training you have a debate about it with your players. After each game you talk to people about the game. People like to talk about football and you really learn a lot from it.
“I just came to the Netherlands from university, completely unprepared for professional football. If I hadn’t been in the Netherlands, I don’t think I would have had that background that really helped shape my ideas.”
Berhalter described how his experience in the Netherlands was an awakening to the nuances of the game that were not part of his development at home.
“Only about distance and the positional play, third man, triangles,” he said. “There was a striker, an old striker that I played with when I first got there. His name was Remco Boere. He would yell at me for giving him the ball with too much spin. He wanted balls that went straight to came down to him and I had to hit with my laces And I wasn’t good enough to hit with my laces so I had to practice, practice, practice so I could play him the ball he wanted.
“If you ever passed a ball to someone and you misled them, they started yelling at you. How sharp you play passes. There were a lot of details that I missed and that I learned in the Netherlands.”
Berhalter is not the only figure in the American camp who has deep ties with the Netherlands. US Soccer Sporting Director Earnie Stewart, who captained the national team in the famous victory over Portugal that kicked off their 2002 World Cup run, was born in the southern Dutch town of Veghel.
Meanwhile, American right-back Sergiño Dest, the son of a Dutch mother and Surinamese-American father, grew up in Almere and grew up through Ajax’s vaunted youth academy. When deciding whether to represent the US or the Netherlands at the international level, it was Berhalter’s connection to Dest defender that tipped the balance.
“When he moved to the professional level, some attention came from the Dutch side and our side,” said Berhalter. “And really it was about me just bonding 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 proposed and him in our vicinity.”
22-year-old Dest said, “It’s going to be pretty fun playing against the country where I was born. I know almost every guy there.”
The most pressing question in the US camp ahead of Saturday’s game was the fitness of Christian Pulisic, who suffered a pelvic contusion when he scored the winner in Tuesday’s win-or-go-home game with Iran, which has shattered the progress of sealed the Americans to the knockouts. the fifth time since 1994.
A day after the Chelsea winger said he was taking it day by day with the injury for a training session at the team’s Al Rayyan HQ but was “doing everything he could to be on the pitch on Saturday”, Berhalter offered a slightly rosier verdict.
“We’re going to see him on the training ground today,” said the manager. “What I think is it looks pretty good, so we’ll have to see him on the pitch today to get confirmation of that.”
US Soccer later confirmed Pulisic has been given permission to play against the Dutch.
Berhalter was less optimistic about the availability of Josh Sargent, the Norwich City striker who was sidelined in the 77th minute of the game against Iran with a right ankle injury.
“He’s another one we’re going to test in training, to see where he stands,” said Berhalter. “… He is going to test. At this stage it’s time to go. If you can get through it, you will.”
The United States have done little to allay long-running concerns about their goal-scoring ability during their time in Qatar, scoring just twice in three matches so far. But they are the only team to have progressed through the group stage without conceding from open play – and Berhalter is confident that the close-knit team play the Americans have come this far will be enough to close this undeniable gap in individual skills.
“It’s hard,” he said. “[The Dutch] have talent. I see them playing with two strikers, one behind the striker. It could be any combination of who they played, but they really have top talent with Memphis Depay and [Cody] Gakpo and if [Steven] Bergwijn plays.
“But for us it’s about the collective. The back four did a great job. The keeper did a great job. It’s about team defense, 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 what we’ve been good at so far in this tournament.”