World Cup 2022: How the USMNT restored its culture

In late September, before the U.S. men’s national team played its final two warm-up games before the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Gregg Berhalter gathered 26 of his players in the conference room at a hotel in Duisburg, Germany.

With the words ‘together we are better’ emblazoned on the big screen behind him, the manager delivered an important reminder to his squad.

“At the World Cup we won’t be the most talented team,” he told them. “That’s just the reality. But we can be the more cohesive team. That’s something we can control. We can be a team that fights for each other on every play. We can do it. And if we do, we’ve got enough talent . to beat anyone.”

The unity of the team has sustained the modern history of the USMNT. It is what allowed a group of bursting university students to qualify, against all odds, for the 1990 World Cup after a 40-year absence from sports’ biggest party.

It helped the Americans avoid the humiliation of becoming the first World Cup host not to survive the group stage four years later. He made the 2002 version, of which Berhalter was a member, the most successful since the inaugural tournament in 1930, stunning pre-tournament dark horse Portugal in their opening match and then narrowly losing to eventual runners-up Germany in the quarter-finals of end

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For a country that, man for man, didn’t come close to matching even second-tier international foes, let alone elite soccer nations like Argentina, Brazil or Italy, the United States, in the classification for seven consecutive world cups of Italy. 90 at Brazil 2014, earned a reputation for being greater than the sum of their parts.

So when the U.S. failed to make it to the 2018 event in spectacular fashion, a full and clear autopsy was required.

“When I first got the job, I sat down with former national team coaches and talked to over 30 players who had been through the program,” Berhalter told FOX Sports in an interview last month. “I was very surprised to hear how the culture had deteriorated, because I remember being on the team. That was one of our strengths.”

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Cracks began to appear under former coach Jurgen Klinsmann. A World Cup winning German striker he coached The team in the semifinals in 2006, Klinsmann’s approach was very different from his predecessors. Instead of creating a collaborative environment, he deliberately kept his players on the sidelines. The idea was to make sure no one ever got too comfortable.

And for a while, it worked. The United States advanced from the Group of Death in 2014, surviving a quartet that included a German team that would go on to claim its fourth title, a Portuguese team led by debutant Cristiano Ronaldo, and Ghana, the rival that had eliminated the Americans of the party. two previous World Cups.

However, Klinsmann’s methods quickly wore thin. The losses piled up. The players only looked out for themselves.

“They were a team of individuals,” said Bruce Arena, who took over for Klinsmann after the U.S. opened the final round of 2018 World Cup qualifying with back-to-back losses. “There was a lot of interest in the group.”

Arena tried to get everyone in the same direction, but it was too late. The U.S. lost its final qualifier in Trinidad and missed the World Cup for the first time in more than 30 years.

Berhalter took over a year later. Once his deep immersion in the team’s culture was complete, he set about trying to restore it. He met with Owen Eastwood, a team-building expert recommended to Berhalter by Gareth Southgate, the England coach who will face the Americans in their second group game in Qatar on November 25.

“We had to come together around a shared vision and common values ​​and be deliberate about how to build those relationships with each other,” Berhalter said.

As a former national team, the starting point was for the new generation to know the history of the program. It helped that Berhalter’s boss, then manger general and now U.S. Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart, was also a decorated former USMNT player. (Another, Brian McBride, would replace Stewart as CEO, further strengthening the bond between generations.)

“Culture surrounds us as national team players. It’s not something we should take lightly,” Berhalter said. “It’s something we should be proud of.”

Each time a boy made his debut, Berhalter would give him a game ball afterward and welcome him to the “fraternity.” (Malik Tillman, the latest member, became the 843rd player and USMNT in June.)

The training sessions were designed to be as fun as they were competitive. Berhalter also gave his players ownership of the process. Half a dozen are on what the coach calls the “leadership council,” a group that bridges the gap between their teammates and the staff. They have a say when it comes to things like training schedules, activities and curfews.

Still, on the second-youngest team in U.S. history (only 1990 was younger), there were some hiccups along the way. Ahead of the USMNT’s second World Cup qualifier, Berhalter sent star midfielder Weston McKennie home for violating team rules.

“I think we all grew and matured from that because we got a wake-up call,” Berhalter said. “I got a wake-up call. I thought everything was going to be fine, and then two games into qualifying you have to take one of your best players off the field. It was like, ‘Holy s. . .’

“It wasn’t the easiest thing to manage, but I think everyone came out in a better place,” he added. “After that, and especially now, we can look each other in the eye and I think there’s honesty.”

In some respects, Berhalter was also a little lucky.

Most of the players from the disastrous 2018 cycle have already left the program or been forced out by younger, better players. Only four remain, defenders Tim Ream and DeAndre Yedlin, midfielder Kellyn Acosta and star attacker Christian Pulisic.

Instead of carrying baggage, they and top newcomers like McKennie, Tyler Adams, Gio Reyna and Tim Weah are eager to right a wrong, write their own history and, as the team’s mantra says, ” change the way the world sees American football.” .”

Even the pandemic played a role in uniting the players.

“When we got into camps, we had designed tables, so you’re intertwined with guys you might not talk to as much,” Acosta said last week. “We were building relationships without even realizing it.”

Being close in age (at 35, Ream is five years older than the next oldest outfielder) also helps.

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“There’s nobody who has an ego on this team, nobody’s above anybody else,” said Yedlin, a grizzled 29-year-old vet and the only player with previous World Cup experience. “We’re all pretty similar in the things we like, so it’s really easy to connect with everyone.”

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That’s a far cry from the locker room Arena walked into five years ago. “In 2017 we inherited some asses,” he said. “In the end we were able to eliminate them, but the damage was done.”

With little margin for error, there is no room for bad apples in the current workforce.

“Sometimes when groups of guys are together for too long, it can get a little hostile,” Yedlin said. “With this group, we can be together for a long time and everyone gets along. We go out to dinner together, we do activities, we relax together.”

For Berhalter, choosing good people who care about each other and the national team, who can be counted on to support each other and put the good first, is essential, especially in a World Cup, where the national team is hijacked for weeks and the pressure is relentless.

“That’s part of the picture, along with how they perform on the field,” Berhalter said. “It’s a balancing act. We need a team in Qatar that gives every bit of energy to be successful.”

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Doug McIntyre is a football writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a writer for ESPN and Yahoo Sports and has covered the US men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @By Doug McIntyre.

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