DOHA, Qatar — Tyler Adams smiled on Sunday night when asked about his earliest days with the United States national soccer team.
It was 2018, and the program was sputtering through an odd period of stasis. The World Cup was taking place that year in Russia, but the American team, having imploded spectacularly in the qualifying rounds, was not in it. The squad lacked a full-time coach and, in Adams’s mind, a general purpose.
“We had no identity, no game plan,” Adams said. “It was almost just like you were going to national team camp for fun.”
Then Gregg Berhalter arrived. Hired at the end of 2018, he was given a blank canvas and a clear mandate: to position the team to compete again on the biggest stage in the near future and for years to come. The roster was being almost completely overhauled. There was space and time to form an identity, to unroll a game plan.
On Monday, a United States soccer team remade in Berhalter’s image will play its opening match at the World Cup — its first game in the tournament since 2014 — and all the planning and theorizing and charactering-building of the past four years will finally be put to the test.
“We’re pleased with how this group has been rebuilt,” Berhalter said after his team had assembled in Doha last week. “We’re pleased with the core of this team. We think the core of this team has a ton of potential. And we’re just excited to get the tournament started.”
The matchup against Wales has been a long time coming, and Berhalter, a former defender who played with clubs in the Netherlands, Germany, England and the United States, has seemed impatient at times over the past week for it to arrive.
A veteran of two World Cups as a player, Berhalter, 49, was asked what wisdom he could impart to his players to prepare them for the intensity of this tournament. His response: not much.
“We can say anything we want, and I can give them any type of experience I’ve had,” he said. “But I know this group, and they’re not really going to know until the whistle blows against Wales.”
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There is perhaps not too much more to say at this point, he knows, because he has had the players’ undivided attention since 2018. He already has drilled into them his soccer ethos and various motivational mantras, including a near constant urging to “change the way the world sees U.S. Soccer.”
Berhalter took over the program as an evangelist for possession-based soccer, a style of play he employed with considerable success as coach of the Columbus Crew in Major League Soccer. Over time, in acknowledgment of a player group that is young, athletic and still developing its skills, he has shifted stylistically to more of a pressing and relentlessly forward-moving approach.
The colorful outlines of his own character have filled in, too. He has used the sideline as a runway for an impressive personal collection of rare and expensive sneakers. His propensity for flinging all manners of basketball-style bounce passes to his players during games has become an internet inside joke among U.S. fans. During interactions with players and members of the news media, he has undercut the professorial earnestness common in international soccer coaches with flashes of amiably dry humor.
On a FaceTime call this month with Weston McKennie, a midfielder who plays with Juventus in Italy’s top league, Berhalter slipped on an Italian accent to deliver the news that McKennie had made the World Cup team.
“Ciao, McKennie!” Berhalter said in a moment that was 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 any experience in the tournament after playing in the 2014 World Cup, summarized the effectiveness of Berhalter’s coaching style in two points.
The first was an almost exhaustive approach to maximizing performance — employing data, sports science, psychology and various other modern tools — and entrusting the players to accept and digest those reams of information.
“He’s so detailed, and you know how he wants every little thing done,” Yedlin said in an interview months before the World Cup.
The second was his approachability. He is a so-called players’ coach, procuring buy-in from players for his overall project by establishing a level of comfort and trust.
“We can make suggestions — maybe there’s too many meetings, maybe we need some time off in the afternoons, maybe we’d like to wear a certain thing — and he’ll have a conversation with us,” Yedlin said. “It’s not, ‘Oh, players, you decide.’ It’s not, ‘Hey, coaches or staff, you decide.’ It’s, ‘Let’s meet in the middle and decide on something that works for all of us.’”
Adams has personified this. On Sunday, he was announced as the team’s captain for the tournament. For the past four years, Berhalter used a rotating cast of captains for different games. But before the World Cup, he consulted a group of team leaders about the role, and they expressed a preference for there to be 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 mold the team’s identity after taking over for Dave Sarachan, who had served as the team’s interim coach after Bruce Arena resigned in the wake of the 2018 qualifying disaster. Sarachan has been widely praised by the current players and coaching staff for his steady management of a difficult situation, but this is now unquestionably Berhalter’s team.
“Now you have a coach that comes in and tactically understands the game better than almost every coach that I’ve ever had,” Adams said of Berhalter. “And he puts a plan in place of really wanting to develop the players, these young players, giving them the opportunity and having that belief in them, and that was different than what U.S. Soccer had done in the past.”
Berhalter’s first task, though, was doing what the United States had always come to expect — reaching the World Cup. He and the players did that. Now they will see how far Berhalter’s blueprint can take them.