Louis van Gaal says he can’t remember the last time he faced Gregg Berhalter in a competitive match.
Berhalter, whose United States team will face Van Gaal’s Netherlands on Saturday in the Round of 16 of the World Cup, doesn’t believe him for a second.
The date was May 4, 1997. Berhalter was a fresh-faced 23-year-old centre-back for a Sparta Rotterdam mid-table side that beat Van Gaal’s Ajax side – who had made the League semi-finals champions just 11 days earlier. – thanks to an 88th-minute winner.
“I think he remembers it,” Berhalter said Friday with a smile. “Being so competitive, he has to remember this game.”
Twenty-five years later, the American coach will again assume the role of underdog when the Americans face a favorite Dutch side who have yet to taste defeat in 18 matches since Van Gaal took over after the Championship. of Europe last year, conceding just 14 times in that span. If they turn the tide against the Oranje, the Americans would advance to the last eight of a World Cup for the first time since 2002, when Berhalter’s left foot nearly sent the United States into the semi-finals at the expense of Germany.
That the biggest game of his three-and-a-half-year tenure comes against the Netherlands has added significance for Berhalter, who became the first man to play and coach an American team at a World Cup. After leaving the University of North Carolina after his junior season, he cut his teeth at several Dutch clubs at the start of a decade and a half playing career in Europe, signing with Zwolle in 1994 and later with Sparta in 1996. and Cambuur Leeuwarden in 1998.
It’s no surprise that Dutch football has had a profound influence on his coaching philosophy.
“I learned so much in Holland,” Berhalter said. “It’s almost like, what concepts do not have I took Dutch football? It was a great experience to be 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 chat about football and you really learn a lot.
“I went to Holland straight out of university, without any preparation for professional level football. If I weren’t in Holland, I don’t think I would have had this experience that gave me 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 part of his development back home.
“Just about spacing and positional play, third man, triangles,” he said. “There was a striker, a former striker I played with when I arrived there. His name was Remco Boere. He was yelling at me for giving him the ball with too much spin. He wanted some balls that were coming straight at him that I had to hit with my shoelaces. And I wasn’t good enough at hitting with my shoelaces, so I had to practice, practice, practice to be able to play the ball to him That he wanted.
“If you ever left a ball for someone and put it on the wrong foot, they would start yelling at you. How well you play crisp passes. There were a lot of details that I missed and that I learned in Holland.
Berhalter is not the only figure in the American camp with deep ties to the Netherlands. American football sporting director Earnie Stewart, who captained the national team in the famous victory over Portugal that launched their run to the 2002 World Cup, was born in the town of Veghel, in the southern Netherlands.
Meanwhile, American right-back Sergiño Dest, the son of a Dutch mother and a Surinamese American father, grew up in Almere and came through Ajax’s vaunted youth academy. When he decided to represent the United States or the Netherlands at international level, it was Berhalter’s connection with Dest that helped tip the balance.
“As he transitioned to professional level, there was some attention from the Dutch side and from our side,” Berhalter said. “And basically it was about me just connecting with him, talking to him about what we thought his role could be for us, what the plans are for this band over the next eight years, and then introducing him to his teammates and get him into our environment.
Dest, 22, said: “It’s going to be a lot of fun playing against the country I was born in. I know almost all the guys there.”
The most pressing issue in the American camp ahead of Saturday’s game concerned the physical condition of Christian Pulisic, who suffered a pelvic contusion while scoring the winner of Tuesday’s game-winning or home game with Iran that sealed the progression Americans to knockouts for the fifth time since 1994.
A day after the Chelsea winger said he was taking it day by day with the injury ahead of a training session at Al Rayyan’s team headquarters but “doing everything in my power to to be on the pitch on Saturday,” Berhalter offered a slightly more positive assessment.
“We’re going to see him on the training ground today,” the manager said. “What I think is it looks pretty good, so we’ll have to see it today on the pitch to confirm that.”
Football confirmed later Pulisic was cleared to play against the Dutch.
Berhalter was less optimistic about the availability of Josh Sargent, the Norwich City striker who injured his right ankle in the 77th minute of the game against Iran.
“He’s another one we’ll test in training, to see where he’s at,” Berhalter said. “He will test. At this point, it’s time to go. If you can get through it, you do.
The United have done little to allay long-standing concerns over their ability to produce goals during their time in Qatar, scoring just twice in three matches so far. But they’re the only team to make it through the group stage without conceding a goal in open play – and Berhalter is confident that the tight team play that has seen the Americans get this far will be enough to close what is an undeniable gap in individual skills.
“It’s tough,” he said. “[The Dutch] to have talent. I see them playing with two strikers, one behind the striker. It could be any combination of who they’ve played, but they’ve got some real top-tier talent with Memphis Depay and [Cody] Gakpo what 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 defending as a team, working as a unit, moving forward collectively. And when we do that, we put the opponent in difficult positions where they can’t get to the spaces they want to get to. And I think that’s what we’ve done well in this tournament so far.
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