Pulisic ready to play for USA against Netherlands as Berhalter faces familiar foes | USA

Louis van Gaal says he can’t remember the last time he faced Gregg Berhalter in a competitive match.

Berhalter, whose American team will play Van Gaal’s Netherlands on Saturday in the last 16 of the World Cup, does not believe him for a second.

The date was May 4, 1997. Berhalter was a fit 23-year-old centre-back for a mid-table Sparta Rotterdam side who beat Van Gaal’s Ajax side – who had played in the Champions League semi-final just 11 days earlier. – thanks to an 88th-minute winner.

“I think he remembers,” Berhalter said Friday with a smile. “Being competitive, he has to remember that game.”

Twenty-five years later, the American manager will take on the underdog role again when the Americans face a favored Dutch team that has yet to taste defeat in 18 games since Van Gaal took over after last year’s European Championship, conceding just 14 times in that span. Should they defy the odds 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 semifinals at Germany’s expense.

That the biggest game of his three-and-a-half-year tenure will come against the Netherlands adds extra significance for Berhalter, who has become the first man to play for and manage an American team in a World Cup. After leaving the University of North Carolina after his junior season, he cut his teeth with a number of Dutch clubs at the start 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 is 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 has not I picked up from Dutch football? It was a great experience to be there.

“After every training session you have a debate with your players about it. After each game you have a chat with people about the game. People love to discuss football and you really learn a lot.

“I went to Holland just after university, completely unprepared for football at a professional level. If I wasn’t in Holland, I don’t think I would have had the background that really helped shape my ideas.”

Gregg Berhalter spent six years in the Netherlands during his playing career. Photo: Ashley Landis/AP

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.

“Just about spacing 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 yelled at me because I gave him the ball with too much spin. He would have balls coming right at him that I had to hit with my laces. And I wasn’t good enough to hit my laces, so I had to practice, practice, practice so I could play him a ball that he wanted.

“If you ever put a ball from someone and you put it on the wrong foot, they would start yelling at you. How sharp you pass. There were a lot of details I missed that I learned in Holland.”

Berhalter is not the only figure in the American camp with deep ties to the Netherlands. United States sporting director Earnie Stewart, who captained the national team in the famous victory over Portugal that kicked off their 2002 World Cup, 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 came up through Ajax’s infamous youth academy. When deciding whether to represent the United States or the Netherlands at the international level, it was Berhalter’s connection with the Dest defender that helped tip the balance.

“When he moved to the professional level, there was some attention from the Dutch side and our side,” Berhalter said. “And basically it was just me reaching out to 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.”

The 22-year-old Dest said: “It’s going to be pretty fun playing against the country I was born in. I know almost every guy over there.”

The most pressing question in the US camp ahead of Saturday’s game 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 a 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 the team’s Al Rayyan headquarters but was “doing everything in my power to be out there on the pitch on Saturday”, Berhalter offered a little praise rating.

“We’re going to see him on the training ground today,” said the manager. “What I think is that it looks pretty good, so we’ll have to see him on the pitch today to confirm 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 game.

“He’s another one we’re going to test in practice to see where he’s at,” Berhalter said. “… He will test. At this stage, it’s time. If you can push through it, you do.”

The United States have done little to allay lingering concerns over their ability to produce goals during their time in Qatar, scoring just twice in three games so far. But they have yet to concede from open play – and Berhalter is confident that the tight team play that has seen the Americans go this far will be enough to close what is an undeniable gap in individual skills.

“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 have played but they have some real top talent with Memphis Depay and [Cody] Gakpo and if [Steven] Bergwijn plays.

“But for us it’s about the collective. The back four have done a great job. The keeper has done 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 areas they want to access. And I think that’s what we’ve been good at in this tournament so far.

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