Two years ago, Gregg Berhalter spoke of building a USA team that could “potentially shock the world”.
The fact he finished that sentence with the words “in 2026”, for many, spoke volumes. More recently, when Berhalter selected a FIFA World Cup™ squad with an average age of 25, the second-youngest at Qatar 2022, and made Tyler Adams, 23, the tournament's youngest captain, it seemed to confirm the same widely held perception.
This World Cup, pundits said, was merely a warm-up tournament for the Americans; preparation, essentially, for the global finals they will co-host in 2026.
Berhalter himself has always been clear on this point. "It's definitely preparation for 2026," he admitted in the build-up. "But like anything, you need to focus on the next step you're taking. And for us, there's a deep focus on 2022."
The US coach was also adamant that, even now - and when they're on song - his US team “can beat anyone in the world. Anyone."
Cynics, of course, will point out that they haven't beaten anyone at all so far in Qatar. All the same, this youthful American team proved a significant point at Al Bayt Stadium on Friday, showing they don't need to wait four years to slug it out with one of world's heavyweights.
“We showed a lot of confidence and battled toe-to-toe with a very strong team,” Christian Pulisic said after the Stars and Stripes' 0-0 draw with England. “We did that for everyone back home watching and I hope we made a lot of people proud.”
“It is nice to know we can really compete with one of the best teams in the world,” added Gio Reyna. “You see England's squad, the depth of their roster, so to have a performance like that – the game was very even and we were even a bit better at times – is good for our confidence.”
Asked about England fans booing at full-time, Pulisic replied with a laugh: “I guess that's a positive sign for us. It was a really strong performance from us and there were stretches of the game where we had control and had them pushed back in their half. Opposing fans don't like to see that, especially against so-called underdogs.”
Berhalter is aiming to change that perception of USA as a lesser, second-tier World Cup nation. But before the wider game believes that a shift has taken place, his players themselves must believe it.
That, he said, was what pleased him most about the fearless approach to facing the world's fifth-ranked team.
“I'm pleased with the performance of the group but, more importantly, the belief of the group,” he explained. “That never wavered. What I saw pre-game was a team really focused on getting a result, and what that's set us up with is our first knockout game of the World Cup (USA now face IR Iran on Tuesday needing a win to progress).
“This team has come a really long way and this performance should spark confidence going into that last group match, which is a must-win for us. Any time you're in a World Cup and you get to go into the last group game in control of your own destiny, that's a pretty good thing.
“In terms of changing the way the world view American soccer, we're chipping away at it – and you need games like this one to be able to do that. And we're not done. Hopefully by the end of the tournament we'll give people something to talk about.”