DOHA, Qatar — Tyler Adams smiled Sunday night when asked about his earliest days with the US national soccer team.
It was 2018 and the program was stuttering through a strange period of stasis. The World Cup took place in Russia that year, but the American team, which spectacularly imploded in the qualifying rounds, was not there. The squad lacked a full-time coach and, in Adams’ view, general purpose.
“We had no identity, no game plan,” Adams said. “It was almost like you were going to national team camp for fun.”
Then came Gregg Berhalter. Hired in late 2018, he was given a blank canvas and a clear brief: to position the team to compete again on the biggest stage in the near future and for years to come. The roster has been almost entirely reworked. There was space and time to form an identity, to roll out a game plan.
On Monday, a US soccer team remade in Berhalter’s image will play its opening game at the World Cup – its first game in the tournament since 2014 – and all the planning, theory and character building of the last four years will finally be put to the test.
“We are pleased with the rebuilding of this group,” said Berhalter after his team gathered in Doha last week. “We are happy with the core of this team. We believe that the core of this team has a lot of potential. And we are just looking forward to starting the tournament.”
The game against Wales has been a long time coming and Berhalter, a former defender who has played for clubs in the Netherlands, Germany, England and the United States, seemed impatient at times over the past week.
Berhalter, 49, a two-time World Cup veteran as a player, was asked what wisdom he could pass on to his players to prepare them for the intensity of this tournament. His answer: not much.
“We can say anything we want and I can give them any type of experience that I’ve had,” he said. “But I know this group and they won’t really know until kick-off against Wales.”
A short guide to the 2022 World Cup
What is the World Cup? At the event, which takes place every four years, the best national football teams compete against each other for the world championship title. Here is an introduction to the 2022 men’s tournament:
There might not be much more to say at this point, he knows, because he has had the undivided attention of the players since 2018. He’s already instilled his football ethos and various motivational mantras into them, including an almost constant urge to ‘change’. how the world sees US football.”
Berhalter took over the program as an evangelist for possession-based soccer, a style of play he used with notable success as coach of the Columbus Crew in Major League Soccer. Over time, he has stylistically shifted to a more urgent and relentlessly forward-leaning approach in recognition of a young, athletic and still-developing group of players.
The colorful outlines of his own character have also filled in. He has used the sidelines as a catwalk for an impressive personal collection of rare and expensive sneakers. His penchant for throwing all manner of basketball-style bounce passes at his players during games has become an internet inside joke among US fans. In interacting with players and the news media, he subverted the professorial seriousness customary among international football coaches with touches of endearingly dry humor.
In a FaceTime call earlier this month with Weston McKennie, a midfielder who plays with Juventus in Italy’s top flight, Berhalter used an Italian accent to deliver the news that McKennie had made the World Cup team.
“Bye, McKennie!” Berhalter said in a moment captured on camera and shared in the team’s promotional campaign for the tournament.
DeAndre Yedlin, 29, who is the only player on the team with tournament experience after playing at the 2014 World Cup, summed up the effectiveness of Berhalter’s coaching style in two points.
The first was an almost exhaustive approach to maximizing performance – using data, sports science, psychology and various other modern tools – and entrusting players to accept and process this vast amount of information.
“He’s so detailed and you know how he wants to do every little thing,” Yedlin said in an interview months before the World Cup.
The second was its accessibility. He is a so-called player-coach who gets players buy-in to his overall project by instilling a level of comfort and confidence.
“We can make suggestions — maybe there are too many meetings, maybe we need some time off in the afternoon, maybe we want to wear something specific — and he’ll have a conversation with us,” Yedlin said. “It’s not ‘Oh, Player, you decide.’ It’s not, ‘Hey, coach or staff, you decide.’ It’s, ‘Let’s meet in the middle and decide on something that works for all of us.’”
Adams embodied this. On Sunday, he was announced as the team’s captain for the tournament. In the past four years, Berhalter has used changing captains for different games. But ahead of the World Cup, he consulted with a group of team leaders about the role, and they came out in favor of a single captain for the tournament. A vote of about 35 players was held and Adams emerged as their choice.
Adams on Sunday praised the work Berhalter had done to shape the team’s identity after taking over from Dave Sarachan, who had acted as the team’s caretaker coach after Bruce Arena resigned following the 2018 qualifying disaster. Sarachan has been widely lauded by the current players and coaching staff for his consistent handling of a difficult situation but this is undoubtedly Berhalter’s side now.
“Now you have a coach who comes in and understands the game tactically better than almost any coach I’ve ever had,” Adams said of Berhalter. “And he sets up a plan, rather than really wanting to develop the players, these young players, to give them the opportunity and have that belief in them, and that was different than what US Soccer had done in the past.”
However, Berhalter’s first task was to do what the United States of America had always expected – to reach the World Cup. That’s what he and the players did. Now they will see how far Berhalter’s blueprint can take them.