USMNT’s confident display against England a reward for Berhalter’s faith in young players


Nearly four years ago, as he sat in a small office in Chula Vista, California at the start of his tenure as U.S. men’s national team manager, Gregg Berhalter summarized in just a few words the tremendously difficult task he was taking on.

The U.S. had failed to reach the World Cup the year before. Belief around the team was at an all-time low.

“Our job,” Berhalter said, “is to restore that faith.”

The mission he laid out to the team was to change the way the world viewed American soccer. The U.S. checked one box when they got back to the World Cup, but when they arrived this month in Qatar, the success of this group of players — one that people want so badly to be the golden generation of American men’s soccer — was as much about the way they played as it was the results on the field.

On Friday night against England, in the biggest game of Berhalter’s tenure so far, this young U.S. team showcased the progress they have made over the last few years. The U.S. was fearless against an England team considered to be one of the favorites in the tournament. They were the better side for long stretches of the game, dominant and dangerous on the ball and created chances that probably should have resulted in three points.

It was one of the more confident performances we have seen from this U.S. team and in some ways, it was validation for the trust that Berhalter has shown in a young group. He’s stuck with the young core through good moments and bad over the last few years, building belief within the group as they’ve learned along the way, understanding the long game.

Berhalter also knew that a potential benefit of youth at a World Cup is fearlessness. This group doesn’t know when they should be intimidated. That was on display on Friday night, too. There was a level of belief that already existed within the group and Friday’s match was about distilling it all down into a strong performance. That’s part of the maturation process — to harness your confidence into a level of control in the game.

And yet, Friday’s scoreless draw also showed that this team is not yet the final product.

The U.S. failed to punish England in the key moments where they could have seized three points. It was the type of result where the U.S. both felt positive and also believed they could have had more from the game. There is still work to be done. The U.S. must beat Iran on Tuesday to advance to the knockout stage.

“I felt like we were a team out there who showed a lot of confidence and battled toe-to-toe with a very solid team,” said U.S. star winger Christian Pulisic, who came the closest to providing the goal when his shot rattled the crossbar in the first half. “We did that for everyone back home watching. I hope we made a lot of people proud, but the job is not even close to done, so we’ve got a lot of work left to do.”

For all the hype around the players on this team, the U.S. arrived in Qatar with real questions still being asked about what they were capable of accomplishing. They had put on some bright performances over the last 18 months — three consecutive wins over rival Mexico stood out the most — but the U.S. finished third in CONCACAF qualifying and limped into the World Cup on the back of two poor outings in the September international window.

It’s understandable that they would still have much to prove. The U.S. is the second-youngest team in Qatar — they had an average age of 25 years and 215 days when the tournament kicked off; only Ghana (25 years, 109 days) was younger — and though they have players at Champions League clubs and other top teams in Europe, most are still very much in the earlier stages of their career. There are growing pains, still. The inconsistencies that come with youth.

It’s why Berhalter was hesitant on Thursday when asked if this is the golden generation of American men’s soccer.

“I think that’s (to be determined),” he said. “We haven’t achieved anything as a group on the world stage.”

This World Cup is their first real proving ground on the international level. Only one player on the U.S. team had ever played in the tournament before, right back DeAndre Yedlin, and while Pulisic has won a Champions League, this group had yet to truly face off with the very best in the world in U.S. colors.

This World Cup was about finding out what this team is all about.

The opening game against Wales, a 1-1 draw, left plenty unsettled. But the England game was always going to be the measuring stick.

The U.S. understood that if they really wanted to change minds about their program, there would be no better opportunity. The popularity of the Premier League back home and the stature of some of England’s stars — Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham, among them — meant Friday’s game would be the chance to prove their standing to the world.

Over 90 minutes on Friday night, the U.S. showed they are more than capable of competing on the same stage.

The result was really the only thing lacking. The U.S. survived an early flurry of England chances in the first 15 minutes and then took over the game. U.S. midfielder Weston McKennie bumped out to the right side of the formation and England had no answers as he, Tim Weah and Sergiño Dest caused all sorts of headaches on that side of the field. The result was wave after wave of U.S. attacks.

McKennie should have scored in the 26th minute when he found himself unmarked in the middle of the box and got on the end of a Weah cross, but his right-footed shot sailed over the bar. Pulisic hit the crossbar in the 33rd minute on a brilliant individual effort after the U.S. built through that right side again and then found the Chelsea man in space on the left.

Pulisic’s shot off the bar set up a run of chances for the U.S., including numerous corners that they just couldn’t capitalize on.

If there is a theme through the first two games, it’s a familiar one from qualifying: the U.S. just doesn’t have a consistent goal-scoring threat.

It feels like the last missing piece to this team, and has for some time. Whether it’s through a go-to No. 9, or just unlocking more answers in the final third, the U.S. can’t fulfill their potential until they start scoring goals. But there isn’t an easy answer. Berhalter talked about the difficulty of scoring goals at this level. Weah said the team needed a bit more luck. Sargent said they just had to get the ball into the back of the net.

Until they do that — and however they do it — it’s hard to talk about what they deserve. More is there for the taking, but they have to learn to take it.

“We had a lot of close opportunities, we played well, I think we showed what type of team we are, what we’re capable of,” Berhalter said. “But it’s also difficult for me to say that we should’ve won the game, because you need to score to win the game and we didn’t do that.”

England was able to seize momentum back midway through the second half and Kane nearly found a winner with a late header, but there was no doubt at the final whistle which was the better team on the night.

If the mission was to make an impression, the U.S. certainly did that.

“I think we had some opportunities to score and it’s just unfortunate that we didn’t put them away, but I think it was a pretty positive performance,” Weah said. “I feel like competing with a big team like England showed we have quality and we’re able to play with the best in the world.”

It will all be for naught, of course, if they don’t get a win against Iran on Tuesday. Any other result will send the U.S. home, and a group-stage exit won’t change many minds.

The U.S. team watched Iran beat Wales earlier on Friday. They understand plenty about the talent of the team they’ll be facing. And they also understand the stakes — not just for the tournament, but for the bigger goal they took on as a group to change the way people think about American soccer.

To restore that faith.

“I talked before the World Cup about how seriously the team is taking and the staff is taking this responsibility to gain momentum for the sport,” Berhalter said. “And good performances will do that. We want to capture the public’s attention, we want to perform at a high level, we want to give them something to be proud of and a night like tonight helps, but there has to be more to come. And that’s the focus as of right now.”

(Photo: Adam Pretty – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)


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