Louis van Gaal says he doesn’t recall 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 last 16 of the World Cup, doesn’t believe him for a second.
The date was 4 May 1997. Berhalter was a fresh-faced 23-year-old center-back for a mid-table Sparta Rotterdam side that beat Van Gaal’s Ajax team – who had played in the Champions League semi-finals only 11 days earlier – thanks to an 88th-minute winner.
“I think he remembers,” Berhalter said on Friday with a smile. “Being that competitive, he has to remember that game.”
Twenty-five years later, the US manager will take on the underdog role once again when the Americans meet a favored Dutch side that have yet to taste defeat in 18 matches since Van Gaal took over after last year’s European Championship, conceding only 14 times in that span. Should they buck the odds against the Oranje, the Americans would go through to the last eight of a World Cup for the first time since 2002, when Berhalter’s left foot nearly sent the US into the semi-finals at Germany’s expense.
That the biggest game of his three-and-a-half-year tenure will come against the Netherlands carries added meaning for Berhalter, who has become the first man to play for and manage an American side at a World Cup. After leaving the University of North Carolina following his junior season, he cut his teeth with a number of Dutch clubs at the outset of a decade-and-a-half playing career in Europe, signing with Zwolle in 1994, then with Sparta in 1996 and Cambuur Leeuwarden in 1998.
It’s no surprise that Dutch football has deeply informed his coaching philosophy.
“I learned so much in Holland,” Berhalter said. “It’s almost like, what concepts haven’t I taken 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 have a talk with people about the game. People love to discuss soccer and you really learn a lot.
“I went to Holland just out of university, totally unprepared for professional-level soccer. If I wasn’t in Holland, 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 weren’t a part of his development back home.
“Just about spacing and the positional game, 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 came at him straight that I had to hit with my laces. And I wasn’t good enough hitting with my laces, so I had to practice, practice, practice so I could play him a ball that he wanted.
“If you ever laid a ball off to someone and you put it to their wrong foot, they would start yelling at you. How crisp you play passes. There were a lot of details that I was missing that I learned in Holland.”
Berhalter is not the only figure in the US camp with deep ties to the Netherlands. US Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart, who captained the national team in the famous win over Portugal that launched their 2002 World Cup run, was born in the southern Dutch town of Veghel.
Meanwhile US right-back Sergiño Dest, the son of a Dutch mother and Surinamese-American father, grew up in Almere and came up through Ajax’s vaunted youth academy. When he was deciding whether to represent the US or the Netherlands at the international level, it was Berhalter’s connection with Dest that helped tip the balance.
“As he transitioned to the professional level, there came some attention from the Dutch side and our side,” Berhalter said. “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.”
Said the 22-year-old Dest: “It’s going to be a pretty fun one, playing against the country I was born in. I know almost every single guy over there.”
The most pressing question in the US camp ahead of Saturday’s match surrounded the fitness of Christian Pulisic, who suffered a pelvic contusion while scoring the winner in Tuesday’s win-or-go-home match with Iran that sealed the Americans’ progress to the knockouts for the fifth time since 1994.
One day after the Chelsea winger said he was taking it day-to-day with the injury before a training session at the team’s Al Rayyan headquarters but “doing everything in my power to be able to be out there on the field Saturday”, Berhalter offered a slightly rosier assessment.
“We’re going to see him on the training field today,” the manager said. “What I think is it looks pretty good, so we’ll have to see him today on the pitch to get confirmation of that.”
US Soccer later confirmed Pulisic has been cleared to play against the Dutch.
Berhalter was less optimistic about the availability of Josh Sargent, the Norwich City striker who went off with a right ankle injury in the 77th minute of the Iran match.
“He’s another one we’re going to test in training, to see where he’s at,” Berhalter said. “He’s going to test. At this stage, it’s go time. If you can push through it, you do.”
The United States’ have done little to assuage long-running concerns over their ability to produce goals during their time in Qatar, scoring just twice in three matches so far. But they are the only team who went through the group stage without conceding from open play – and Berhalter is confident the closely knit team play that has seen the Americans go this far will be enough to close what’s an undeniable gap in individual skill.
“It’s tough,” he said. “[The Dutch] have talent. I can see them playing with two strikers, one behind the striker. It could be any combination of who they’ve been playing, but they have some real top-end talent with Memphis Depay and [Cody] Gakpo and if [Steven] Bergwijn plays.
“But for us it’s about the collective. The back four has done a great job. The goalkeeper has done a great job. 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.”