DOHA, Qatar — Gregg Berhalter can admit now to being “totally unprepared” for professional soccer when he went to the Netherlands out of college.
He’d lay the ball off to someone’s wrong foot. And get yelled at. He had a teammate who wanted balls delivered with no spin, something Berhalter struggled to do. So he’d get yelled at. His passes weren’t always as crisp as they needed to be. So he’d get yelled at some more.
“There was a lot of details I was missing in college that I learned in Holland,” Berhalter said Friday.
And those lessons he learned then can be seen now in the U.S. men.
It’s fitting the USMNT’s path to the World Cup quarterfinals goes through the Netherlands, given the influence the Dutch game has had on this squad.
Yes, most of the current players on the USMNT who play in Europe are either in England’s Premier League or Germany’s Bundesliga. Or have been previously.
But it’s Berhalter’s time in the Dutch league – six years at Zwolle, Sparta and Cambuur – that shaped who he is as a coach and, in turn, the team he now leads.
“It’s almost like what concepts haven’t I taken from Dutch football,” Berhalter said. “When you’re in Holland, basically after every training session, you have a debate with players about the training session. After every game, people talk about the game. People love to discuss soccer, and you really learn a lot.
“I went to Holland just out of university and totally unprepared for professional-level soccer,” Berhalter said. “If I wasn’t in Holland, I don’t think I’d have that background, that building that really helped shape my ideas.”
Though Berhalter left Holland more than 20 years ago – in 2000 to be exact – he remains close to people he met during his time there. But pivotal as his time there was, there’s no room for sentiment in Saturday’s round of 16 game.
He now leads an American team, one that is trying to impact the game in the United States the way the Dutch game once influenced him.
Since the USMNT returned to the World Cup in 1990 after a 40-year absence, the Americans have made the quarterfinals just once – in 2002, a team on which Berhalter played.
“We felt a responsibility to use this World Cup to create momentum in the United States for soccer,” Berhalter said. “That’s why we want to keep going, and we want to keep doing well.”
This group has the talent to do that. It held mighty England scoreless. Of the round of 16 teams, the USMNT is one of five to have conceded a single goal. And it wasn’t from the run of play, coming on a penalty in the opener against Wales.
“The USA is a very energetic squad with physically strong players and that is tough for any opponent,” Dutch coach Louis van Gaal said. “And you can tell from their results.”
This USMNT also is appealing in a way that can’t be manufactured or predicted.
Americans are predisposed to root – hard – for anyone with U-S-A on their chest, and a run to the quarterfinals or beyond could help elevate a game that still lags behind American football and the NBA in terms of attention. But with their engaging personalities – U.S. captain Tyler Adams has been as impressive off the field as on, a wonderful representation of his team and country, while Christian Pulisic sacrificed his body after his game-winning goal – and obvious affection for one another, success here could be a watershed moment for both the USMNT and the game.
No small thing given the United States will co-host the World Cup in four years.
“It’s really, really cool to see how much just a tournament can change the perspective on people supporting soccer,” Adams said. “That was one of our goals coming into this tournament. The further we go, the more support that we gather. That’s what we want. We want the next generation, and generations to come, to have that support behind them."
The USMNT wants to leave its mark on American soccer, just as Berhalter's time in the Netherlands left its mark on him.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USMNT influenced by Dutch soccer due to coach's time in Netherlands