Pulisic clear to play for USA against Netherlands as Berhalter faces familiar foes | USA

Louis van Gaal says he doesn’t recall the last time he faced Gregg Berhalter in a competitive match.

Berhalter, whose United States team will play Van Gaal’s Netherlands on Saturday in the last 16 of the World Cup, doesn’t believe him for a second.

The date was 4 May 1997. Berhalter was a fresh-faced 23-year-old center-back for a mid-table Sparta Rotterdam side that beat Van Gaal’s Ajax team – who had played in the Champions League semi-finals only 11 days earlier – thanks to an 88th-minute winner.

“I think he remembers,” Berhalter said on Friday with a smile. “Being that competitive, he has to remember that game.”

Twenty-five years later, the US manager will take on the underdog role once again when the Americans meet a favored Dutch side that have yet to taste defeat in 18 matches since Van Gaal took over after last year’s European Championship, conceding only 14 times in that span. Should they buck the odds against the Oranje, the Americans would go through to the last eight of a World Cup for the first time since 2002, when Berhalter’s left foot nearly sent the US into the semi-finals at Germany’s expense.

That the biggest game of his three-and-a-half-year tenure will come against the Netherlands carries added meaning for Berhalter, who has become the first man to play for and manage an American side at a World Cup. After leaving the University of North Carolina after his junior season, he cut his teeth with a number of Dutch clubs at the outset of a decade-and-a-half playing career in Europe, signing with Zwolle in 1994, then with Sparta in 1996 and Cambuur Leeuwarden in 1998.

It’s no surprise that Dutch football has deeply informed his coaching philosophy.

“I learned so much in Holland,” Berhalter said. “It’s almost like, what concepts haven’t I taken from Dutch football? It was a great experience being there.

“After every training session, you have a debate with your players about it. After every game, you have a talk with people about the game. People love to discuss soccer and you really learn a lot.

“I went to Holland just out of university, totally unprepared for professional-level soccer. If I wasn’t in Holland, I don’t think I would have had that background that really helped shape my ideas.”

Gregg Berhalter spent six years in the Netherlands during his playing career
Gregg Berhalter spent six years in the Netherlands during his playing career. Photograph: Ashley Landis/AP

Berhalter described how his experience in the Netherlands was an awakening to the nuances of the game that weren’t a part of his development back home.

“Just about spacing and the positional game, third man, triangles,” he said. “There was a striker, an old striker that I played with when I first got there. His name was Remco Boere. He would yell at me for giving him the ball with too much spin. He wanted balls that came at him straight that I had to hit with my laces. And I wasn’t good enough hitting with my laces, so I had to practice, practice, practice so I could play him a ball that he wanted.

“If you ever laid a ball off to someone and you put it to their wrong foot, they would start yelling at you. How crisp you play passes. There were a lot of details that I was missing that I learned in Holland.”

Berhalter is not the only figure in the US camp with deep ties to the Netherlands. US Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart, who captained the national team in the famous win over Portugal that launched their 2002 World Cup run, was born in the southern Dutch town of Veghel.

Meanwhile US right-back Sergiño Dest, the son of a Dutch mother and Surinamese-American father, grew up in Almere and came up through Ajax’s vaunted youth academy. When he was deciding whether to represent the US or the Netherlands at the international level, it was Berhalter’s connection with Dest defender that helped tip the balance.

“As he transitioned to the professional level, there came some attention from the Dutch side and our side,” Berhalter said. “And basically it was about me just making a connection with him, talking to him about what we thought his role could be for us, what the plans are for this group over the next eight years, and then introducing him to his teammates and getting him into our environment.”

Said the 22-year-old Dest: “It’s going to be a pretty fun one, playing against the country I was born in. I know almost every single guy over there.”

The most pressing question in the US camp ahead of Saturday’s match surrounded the fitness of Christian Pulisic, who suffered a pelvic contusion while scoring the winner in Tuesday’s win-or-go-home match with Iran that sealed the Americans’ progress to the knockouts for the fifth time since 1994.

One day after the Chelsea winger said he was taking it day-to-day with the injury before a training session at the team’s Al Rayyan headquarters but “doing everything in my power to be able to be out there on the field Saturday”, Berhalter offered a slightly rosier assessment.

“We’re going to see him on the training field today,” the manager said. “What I think is it looks pretty good, so we’ll have to see him today on the pitch to get confirmation of that.”

US Soccer later confirmed Pulisic has been cleared to play against the Dutch.

Berhalter was less optimistic about the availability of Josh Sargent, the Norwich City striker who went off with a right ankle injury in the 77th minute of the Iran match.

“He’s another one we’re going to test in training, to see where he’s at,” Berhalter said. “… He’s going to test. At this stage, it’s go time. If you can push through it, you do.”

The United States’ have done little to assuage long-running concerns over their ability to produce goals during their time in Qatar, scoring just twice in three matches so far. But they have yet to concede from open play – and Berhalter is confident the closely knit team play that has seen the Americans go this far will be enough to close what’s an undeniable gap in individual skill.

“It’s tough,” he said. “[The Dutch] have talent. I can see them playing with two strikers, one behind the striker. It could be any combination of who they’ve been playing, but they have some real top-end talent with Memphis Depay and [Cody] Gakpo and if [Steven] Bergwijn plays.

“But for us it’s about the collective. The back four has done a great job. The goalkeeper has done a great job. It’s about team defending, working as a unit, moving collectively. And when we do that, we put the opponent in difficult positions where they can’t access the spaces they want to access. And I think that’s been what we’ve been good at in this tournament so far.”

‘I didn’t get hit in the balls’: Christian Pulisic settles World Cup injury mystery | Christian Pulisic

In good news for both the United States’ chances at the World Cup and the continuation of the Pulisic family line, the USMNT winger has confirmed he did not suffer a testicular injury during his team’s win over Iran on Tuesday.

Speaking at a press conference two days before the US face Netherlands for a place in the World Cup quarter-finals, Christian Pulisic said he was hit in the pelvic bone while scoring the winning goal in USA’s 1-0 win.

Pulisic was taken to hospital with what was described as an abdominal injury after colliding with the Iran goalkeeper as he forced the ball over the line. Many believed “abdominal injury” was a euphemism for a blow to somewhere rather more delicate.

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“It was very painful. That [pelvic] bone is there for a reason to protect you; I hit it well,” Pulisic told reporters on Thursday. “It was sore, but it’s getting better.” He added that he “didn’t get hit in the balls. I’m all right.”

Pulisic said he hopes to be fit to play the Dutch but his status is still uncertain.

“I’m going to go meet now with the team medical staff and make a decision on [training] today, just kind of see how I’m feeling, taking it day by day,” Pulisic said. “Right now I’m doing everything in my power to be able to be out there on the field on Saturday.”

The Chelsea midfielder is USA’s most high-profile player, but he said the team can win without him.

“Honestly, this team helps me so much to take the pressure off of me,” he said. “A couple of years ago, there were times maybe I felt like I needed to do more.

“But with these guys, I don’t feel that way at all, to be honest. I know they have my back. I know when I went down, and I see Brenden [Aaronson] running onto the pitch, I’m not worried at all because I know these guys.

“I mean, you see the talent. You see the work that they put in. Just the unity of this group is what makes it special and takes any pressure that there might be off of me. They know that I got their back. They [have] got mine.”

Pulisic is not the only US injury concern going into the Netherlands game. Striker Josh Sargent, who started against Iran, is dealing with ankle soreness and may miss the match.

Christian Pulisic’s bravery the difference in World Cup’s Great Satan v Iran II | Christian Pulisic

It was never going to be easy. Then again, neither has the grinding pressure of being American soccer’s chosen one. But when the right opportunity arrived, Christian Pulisic surrendered his body for his team and finally took hold of his signature moment on the international stage.

With the temperature of this geopolitical proxy war between the United States and Iran at the Middle East’s first World Cup having risen to a boiling point, Pulisic turned the volume down with a goal the United States desperately had to have, making the difference in a tense and riveting win-or-go-home showdown for the Americans. When Sergiño Dest directed a header toward goal off Weston McKennie’s floated pass in the 38th minute, an onrushing Pulisic burst through a thicket of white shirts and struck home what proved to be the winner while barreling into the Iranian keeper. Pulisic then lay sprawled in the goalmouth for nearly four minutes.

He was taken to hospital at half-time with dizziness and to receive a precautionary abdominal scan. But once the US held off a furious Iranian onslaught late in the second half, sealing their progress to the knockout stage and a date with the Netherlands on Saturday, the fallen winger joined the rollicking locker-room celebration over FaceTime.

“Christian makes those runs,” USA manager Gregg Berhalter said after the game. “That’s what he does. That’s the special quality he has. As soon as the ball is wide, he goes in with intensity into the penalty box and good things happen and you score goals. We’ve seen at Chelsea he’s scored a number of goals on the same types of runs. He crashes the box and makes it really difficult for defenders with his change of pace.”

The 24-year-old from Hershey, Pennsylvania, remains the frontman of a romper room that’s been breathlessly touted as America’s golden generation. More than half of Berhalter’s 26-man squad compete in the world’s top five leagues, including Pulisic (Chelsea), Dest (Milan), McKennie (Juventus) and captain Tyler Adams (Leeds United). It’s a set-up designed at least in part for the next World Cup, when the US will be co-hosts and today’s core players will be in their presumptive primes, even if Berhalter resists the notion. “We want to build a ton of momentum going into 2026,” he said last week. “But it all starts now.”

And how. Berhalter has selected the three youngest lineups of all the games played in Qatar and Tuesday’s was the youngest one yet with an average age of under 25 years old. All of them levelled up on a night when the thorny geopolitical underpinnings were uncomfortably thrust to the fore. The atmosphere in and around many of the stadiums at the Qatar World Cup has been oddly flat. That was not the case on Tuesday, to the extent it almost felt like a different tournament altogether. It was clear outside the Al Thumama Stadium more than three hours before kickoff that US fans would be vastly outnumbered by the Iranian supporters and the many neutrals brought into their fold. They turned the 44,400-seat venue into a cauldron of noise: a neutral site in name only.

Coming off a draw with Wales that felt like a loss and another with England that felt like a win, the United States were always going to face an uphill climb in the group-stage finale, needing three points against Asia’s highest-ranked team. Iran would most likely progress with a draw, meaning they could pack players behind the ball in the type of low block the United States have struggled mightily against. But the hostile roars and ear-splitting cacophony of vuvuzelas and drums made it that much harder. Welcome to Great Satan v Iran II, a rematch a quarter-century in the making.

The US celebrate after clinching victory against Iran
The US celebrate after clinching victory against Iran. Photograph: Ashley Landis/AP

The first half hour unfolded on a knife’s edge, with the counter-attacking threat from Iran’s forward pairing of Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Taremi looming over the US team’s promising start, but the Americans were not in awe of the occasion. Adams took command in midfield. McKennie made the lung-busting box-to-box runs that have become his calling card. The prodigious Yunah Musah, celebrating his 20th birthday, dribbled out of pressure and fearlessly ran at defenders.

By the 35th minute they’d already peppered the Iran goal with as many shots as in the entire Wales game, but the agita mounted with each missed finishing touch. Until that moment. For all the precocious talent in their ranks – so young and ambitious, unscarred by failure, with the note-perfect blend of confidence and humility – Pulisic remains the bellwether; as he goes, so go the Americans. It’s not an accident the US team have won eight straight matches in which he’s scored.

“What I saw from the group was a tremendous amount of focus, especially leading into the game: you could tell they were locked in,” Berhalter said. “The end of the game is really what I’m most proud of because it’s the mark of determination and an extreme amount of effort and resiliency to hang in there and get the win not buckle.”

It’s the fifth time the United States have reached the knockouts since 1994 – which puts them in some elite company – but this one means so much more after that gloomy night five years ago when they failed to qualify for Russia with a dour defeat at Trinidad & Tobago. Pulisic is one of four holdovers from that evening in Couva and the wait surely makes his maiden World Cup goal that much sweeter.

And now? The Americans enter the business end of the tournament on a tailwind of confidence, struggling to score but having yet to concede a goal from open play. Berhalter, who will forever be remembered by US fans as the player whose left foot nearly sent the US into the semi-finals back in 2002, believes his team can make a deep run.

“From here, anything can happen,” Berhalter said. “All we need to do is play one game at a time and there’s no need to even project how far this team can go because the next match is against Holland and that’s our main focus. It’s great to be in this knockout format. We relish this. It’s an opportunity for our guys to keep grinding and stick together and enjoy this experience.”

Christian Pulisic taken to hospital after scoring USA winner against Iran | USA

Christian Pulisic was taken to hospital with an abdominal injury sustained while scoring the winner in USA’s tense 1-0 victory over Iran, raising concerns about his availability for Saturday’s last-16 tie against the Netherlands.

The forward underwent scans after being substituted at half-time on Tuesday night, having initially attempted to shrug off his collision with the Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand. He took the knock as he bravely converted Sergiño Dest’s header in the 37th minute but was clearly in discomfort. He was examined in hospital in what was described as a precaution.

“He was feeling some dizziness, it was a blow to his abdomen,” Gregg Berhalter said. “We FaceTimed him from the hospital and he was in good spirits.” Weston McKennie said Pulisic had sent him a text reading: “Best believe I’ll be ready on Saturday.”

A fit Pulisic will be valuable against a Netherlands team that topped Group A. “It’s a great opportunity but we are not going in thinking it’s an honour,” Berhalter said of the task ahead. “We want to go on, we deserve to be in the position we are in, we have to come up with an idea of how to beat a very good Dutch team.”

That has been achieved by a USA side once before, winning a friendly in Amsterdam 4-3 seven years ago, although the Netherlands prevailed in their previous four meetings. History will have little impact this weekend, though, and Berhalter emphasised that all bets are off when the knockouts come around. “From here anything can happen,” he said. “All we need to do is play one game at a time, there’s no need to project how far this team can go.”

Berhalter paid tribute to the way his players dealt with considerable noise around the Iran fixture, drawing comparisons with the 2-1 defeat when the countries met at France ‘98. “I talked about 1998 and the guys not having the appropriate intensity to compete against Iran,” he said. “Today we had it, battling. You saw that from the opening minute.

“You see how resilient this group is, you see the energy. The American spirit is summed up in this group.”

Being Christian Pulisic: the pressure of life as US soccer’s chosen one | Christian Pulisic

In America, the French actor Isabelle Huppert once said, Europe disappears: “They have everything. They don’t need anything. Deep down to them we are a sort of elegant Third World.” The history of American sport reads as one iteration of this blazing autonomy: from the development of baseball as a derivative of regional English games like stoolball and tut-ball to the evolution of rugby union into American football and the creation of basketball from the manipulation of a soccer ball indoors, the US has specialized in fashioning its own kind of sporting modernity out of Europe’s raw cultural materials, often consigning these older sports to the scrapheap of national memory.

But globalization – the great success story of American free-market economics – and the unstoppable rise of football have, in recent decades, forced the US to confront a discomfiting reality: in the world’s most popular sport, the global hegemon remains a middleweight at best. The country that has everything now finds that it doesn’t: emerging (almost) every four years from a middling confederation into the glare of the World Cup, the spotlight deflected for once towards other countries, the America that wants for nothing – so confident, so culturally self-reliant – now finds itself in need. It needs to prove that it has footballing muscle equal to its muscle in every other domain. It needs to show that it belongs. And it needs, perhaps more than anything, to convince the world that it can produce a player in the men’s game equal to Haaland, Neymar, Salah, or Mbappé.

For the past five years, American hopes of producing a world-class player have largely focused on one man: Christian Pulisic. To be sure, many fine footballers have emerged from these shores in recent times: Clint Dempsey is a folk hero at Fulham, Landon Donovan – though he struggled to build a club career in Europe – was never better than when appearing in national colors. And the stocks of the country’s shot stoppers – including such fixtures of recent English Premier League history as Brad Friedel and Tim Howard, a player who was once as resolute in goal as he now is impenetrably wooden as a pundit on NBC – have historically been particularly rich.

But outside the women’s game, where America is now an unfailing conveyor belt of top-class talent, the US has yet to produce a player with that insistent specialness – that fizzing mixture of skill, strength, personality, and will to win – capable of transcending national boundaries. Even players of a caliber one rung below the very top continue to elude the US, which is a genuine curiosity when you consider the country’s size and financial means and the domestic popularity of football as a participation sport. Australia, a temperamentally similar country with a far smaller population and not one but three rival football codes to siphon talent away from soccer, has arguably produced three top-class players during the Premier League era: Tim Cahill, Mark Viduka, and Harry Kewell. America is yet to produce one.

In this context, the expectations that have been placed on Pulisic are immense. A sense of all-American destiny has beckoned him seemingly from birth. Born in the town of Hershey, Pennsylvania – home of the famed Hershey Company, the biggest chocolate manufacturer in a country that runs on sugar – Pulisic grew up in a football-mad family (his parents both played college soccer and his father later became a professional indoor player) and made rapid early progress through the national ranks.

One performance against Brazil in 2013 for the US under-17 team shows just how good he was as a teenager – pulling the strings from out wide, arrowing into space, timing his runs, burying his chances. All the speed, courage and control of his mature game were already there at the age of 15, with none of the self-doubt that has encroached in more recent years. The story from there is well known: the move to Borussia Dortmund, the first-team debut at 17, the string of impressive performances and the transfer rumors, the image of him slumped on the turf, head in hands, after the loss against Trinidad & Tobago that denied the USMNT a place at the 2018 World Cup. The passion, the skill, and the commitment were all there, and soon afterwards the money on the table matched the scale of Pulisic’s ambition, now nicknamed “Captain America” (a moniker he reportedly detests) for his inspirational performances with the national team.

At Chelsea, however, the narrative of Pulisic’s career has begun to take a more complicated turn. Injuries and managerial changes have starved Pulisic of starting opportunities, and when he has been given a chance to strut his stuff he’s often appeared hesitant and unsure of himself, qualities fatal to the game of a player who relies for so much of his efficiency on directness and courage. Pulisic is now in his fourth season in England and has never succeeded in nailing down a permanent place in Chelsea’s starting XI; given the number of managers who have declined to place their unconditional faith in him it seems fair to wonder whether he’ll ever make it to the very top of the sport as he has seemed destined to for so long. Among Chelsea fans his name is now a byword for missed chances and wasted potential, a bleak departure from the arc of his early career.

On those rare and increasingly distant occasions when he has put it all together – such as during Project Restart, the peak of his Chelsea career to date – the results have been exhilarating. The hat-trick against Burnley in late 2019 – the first goal scored with his left foot, the second with his right, the third with his head – showed the very best of Pulisic: the casual two-footedness, the feathery first touch, the willingness to take his man on, that surgical turn of pace. In open space he’s a dolphin breaking through the waves; cornered he’s a spider scampering free. Above all he is one of the sport’s great lateral movers, trampolining across the pitch with the limpid grace of a piano player as they command the keyboard. The sheer versatility of Pulisic at his peak is something that only half-cooked metaphors can capture.

The beauty of Pulisic’s play on the pitch is all the more remarkable when you consider his blandness off it. Guarded, risk-averse, perhaps even slightly square: Pulisic has none of the braggadocio of Cristiano Ronaldo, none of the laddish immensity of Erling Haaland or slick eloquence of Kylian Mbappé. In speech and manner he seems less like a footballer than a wealth management professional from a mid-sized regional city with some investment opportunities in municipal bonds and tech stocks he’d like to discuss. And yet. Despite all of this – the weight of national expectation, his stop-start progress in the Premier League and Lampardesque lack of charisma – Pulisic is liberated when he steps onto the field for the USMNT. All the doubts that consume his game at club level melt away and he is reborn as America’s star, the player through which all good things flow. Gregg Berhalter’s system – built on an inexhaustible press, quick transitions, attack at all costs, and speed out wide – is designed to get the very best out of his No 10, and there’s reason for American fans to feel real excitement at the prospect of seeing Pulisic, at his first World Cup, set free in a team where he’s the unquestioned talisman.

Given the relentlessness of European club football today – its booming popularity, the money it attracts, the sheer scale of its playing calendar – there’s little doubt that in our era, truly great players need first to be great for their clubs. Though football is no stranger to late bloomers – look at the careers of Jamie Vardy, Olivier Giroud, or Didier Drogba – and playing careers are unquestionably growing longer, Pulisic has been hyped since adolescence, which carries its own kind of psychological burden, and at 24, time may be running out for him to give full expression to his talent at club level. But for the next few weeks, the question of whether Pulisic can vindicate his country’s footballing potential and become truly “world class” does not really matter. The boy from the chocolate town needs only to be very good, and America will remember Qatar sweetly.