In late September, before the United States men’s national team played its final two warmup games ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Gregg Berhalter gathered 26 of his players in a hotel conference room in Duisburg, Germany.
With the words “together we are better” emblazoned on the large screen behind him, the coach delivered an important reminder to his squad.
“In the World Cup, we’re not going to be the most talented team,” he told them. “That’s just reality. But we can be the most cohesive team. That’s something we can control. We can be a team that fights for each other on every single play. We can do that. And if we do that, we have enough talent to overcome anyone.”
Team unity has underpinned the modern history of the USMNT. It’s what allowed a ragtag bunch of college kids to qualify, against all odds, for the 1990 World Cup after a 40-year absence from the biggest party in sports.
It helped the Americans avoid the humiliation of becoming the first World Cup host not to survive the group stage four years later. It made the 2002 version, of which Berhalter was a member, the most successful since the inaugural 1930 tournament, stunning pre-tourney dark-horse Portugal in their opening match and then narrowly losing to eventual runner-up Germany in the quarterfinals.
For a country that, man for man, didn’t come close to matching up even with second-tier international foes — let alone elite soccer nations like Argentina, Brazil or Italy — the U.S., in qualifying for seven consecutive World Cups from Italia ’90 to Brazil 2014, earned a reputation for being greater than the sum of their parts.
So when the U.S. failed to reach the 2018 event in spectacular fashion, a comprehensive, clear-eyed postmortem was in order.
“When I first got the job, I sat down with former national team coaches and I spoke to over 30 players who had been part of the program,” Berhalter told FOX Sports in an interview last month. “I was really shocked to hear how the culture had deteriorated, because I remember being on the team. That was one of our strong suits.”
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The fissures first started to appear under former manager Jurgen Klinsmann. A World Cup-winning German striker who coached Die Mannschaft to the semifinals in 2006, Klinsmann’s approach was far different from his predecessors. Rather than creating a collaborative environment, he deliberately kept his players on edge. The idea was to make sure that nobody ever got too comfortable.
And for a while, it worked. The U.S. advanced from the Group of Death in 2014, surviving a quartet that contained a Germany team that would go on to claim its fourth title, a Portugal side led by prime Cristiano Ronaldo, and Ghana, the opponent that had eliminated the Americans from the two previous World Cups.
Klinsmann’s methods wore thin fast, though. The losses piled up. Players were looking out only 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 self-interest in the group.”
Arena tried to get everyone pulling in the same direction, but it was too late. The U.S. lost their final qualifier in Trinidad, missing out on the World Cup for the first time in more than 30 years.
Berhalter took over a year later. Once his deep dive into the team’s culture was complete, he set about trying to restore it. He met with Owen Eastwood, an expert in team-building recommended to Berhalter by Gareth Southgate, coach of the England squad the Americans will face in their second group game in Qatar on Nov. 25.
“We had to unite around a shared vision and common values and be deliberate about how to build these relationships with each other,” Berhalter said.
As a former national teamer, the starting point was making sure the new generation knew the history of the program. It helped that Berhalter’ boss, then-general manger and now U.S. Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart, was also a decorated former USMNT player. (Another, Brian McBride, would replace Stewart as GM, further strengthening the bond between generations.)
“The culture is around us being national team players. It’s not something we should take lightly,” Berhalter said. “It’s something that we should be proud of.”
Whenever a new guy made his debut, Berhalter would present him with a game ball afterward and welcome him to the “brotherhood.” (Malik Tillman, the latest member, became the 843rd and USMNT player in June.)
Training sessions were designed to be as fun as they were competitive. Berhalter gave his players ownership over the process, too. A half-dozen are in what the coach calls the “leadership council,” a group that bridges the divide between their teammates and the staff. They have a say when it comes to things like training times, activities and curfews.
Still, on the second-youngest team in U.S. history (only the 1990 one was younger), there were some hiccups along the way. Before the USMNT’s second World Cup qualifier, Berhalter sent star midfielder Weston McKennie home for flouting 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 gonna go smoothly, and then two games into qualifying you have to kick one of your best players out of camp. It was like, ‘Holy s—.’
“Managing through that was not the easiest but I think everyone came out in a better place,” he added. “After that, and especially now, we’re able to look into each other’s eyes and I think there’s honesty there.”
In some respects, Berhalter got a little lucky, too.
Most of the players from the disastrous 2018 cycle either aged out of the program or were forced out by younger, better players. Just four, defenders Tim Ream and DeAndre Yedlin, midfielder Kellyn Acosta and star attacker Christian Pulisic, remain.
Instead of carrying baggage, they and blue-chip newcomers like McKennie, Tyler Adams, Gio Reyna and Tim Weah are eager to right a wrong, write their own story and, as the team’s mantra goes, “change the way the world views American soccer.”
Even the pandemic played a role in bringing players together.
“When we came into camps, we had designed tables, so you’re intertwined with guys who maybe you don’t speak 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 most senior outfield player – helps, too.
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“There’s nobody that has an ego on this team, nobody’s above anybody else,” said Yedlin, a grizzled vet at 29 and the only player with previous World Cup experience. “We all are pretty similar in the things that we like, so it makes it very easy to connect with everybody.”
That’s a far cry from the locker room Arena walked into five years ago. “In 2017, we inherited some ass—-s,” he said. “We were able to weed them out in the end, but the damage had been done.”
With little margin for error, there’s no room for bad apples on the current squad.
“Sometimes when groups of guys are together for too long it can get a little bit hostile,” Yedlin said. “With this group, we can be together for a super long time and everybody gets along. We go out to dinners together, do activities, chill together.”
For Berhalter, picking good people that care about each other and the national team, that he can count on to support each other and put the greater good first, is imperative – especially at a World Cup, where the squad is sequestered for weeks and the pressure is unrelenting.
“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’s going to give every single piece of energy to be successful.”
Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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