Berhalter Says Mexico's Fear Factor Is Gone And Calls Out MLS Media For Negativity

U.S. Soccer released the eighth (and final?) episode of the Gregg Berhalter Podcast (hosted by former FC Dallas midfielder Bobby Warshaw) on Tuesday. The USMNT manager spent a lot of time discussing the intense final window of qualification, reflecting on "The Ocho" as a whole and how all that shapes his decision making going toward the World Cup.

The team ultimately secured qualification on the final day of qualifying despite losing 2-0 in San José, and Berhalter admitted that the "strangest" and "hardest" thing was celebrating after a loss, but that the guys fully deserved praise and congratulations. Christian Pulisic, Miles Robinson and Antonee Robinson were singled out for their ability to party.

"At the end of the day we're in the World Cup and that's what's most important," Berhalter said. "It's a great achievement. We'll be the youngest team in the World Cup. We could qualify with this same group in four years and we'd still be younger than the last cycle that tried to qualify. That's how young this team is, and that's one thing where I think there's a little bit of unfairness or intolerance towards inconsistency or whatever and I just don't think that's fair." 

Going back to the first game of the window against Mexico at Azteca, it was interesting to hear how Berhalter's analysis of that match — where the U.S. earned a rare draw but generated enough chances to win — contrasted with an answer he provided later in the episode about his lowest point as USMNT manager so far.

Berhalter said that moment was the 3-0 friendly defeat to Mexico at MetLife Stadium on Sep. 6, 2019. If you'll think back, that's when Berhalter was widely lampooned as a system-loving fraud that was forcing the U.S. to play in a style detrimental to its own strengths (the traditional values of running hard and trying hard). 

"The most dangerous moment was the 3-0 loss at Giants Stadium to Mexico," Berhalter said. "That's where I started to sense that guys wanted to win so much that they don't care how we play — it's not important. There was this mental conflict. I could see it was weighing on people's mind. They didn't really say anything, but I could see it was starting to affect them. 

"It was important that we got that right. That we started to get our identity and to work with our identity and continue on, but reassuring the guys that we have made progress. It was one of those talks after the game where we really had to tell them that they're making progress. ... But we let them play against us like we want to play against them."

Fast forward to the Azteca and the transformation — while not yet complete — was well under way. Like Mexico, the U.S. has largely abandoned the mid-block and now presses high, responding to enough triggers that it borders on being relentless (although Berhalter admits that more work needs to be done on the backline pushing up to avoid a stretched field).   

"I think it's our approach," Berhalter said of the change. "It's how we go about the game. There's no fear (against Mexico). The fear has been diminished. We're very aggressive. We make them uncomfortable in the game. We force them to adjust. We force them to do things that they don't like to do, and I think that's been successful for us. 

"I realized it in the Nations League game. I realized as that game was playing out, I realized this is what type of game it needs to be for us to be successful against Mexico: it needs to be high intensity, it needs to be a lot of transitions, it needs to be aggressive, a lot of duels and we have the personnel to do that so let's go do it."

When the question became "what is it going to take to beat Mexico in Azteca?" The answer was simply "everything we've been doing — we don't have to do anything different." 

That mentality informed the decision to play a strong XI in Mexico City, and Berhalter couldn't resist a swipe at Warshaw's friends in the media who called for a B-Team at the Azteca. 

"Actually it was your colleagues at MLS Soccer," Berhalter said. "You should've heard this one day that they were going through what we should do, and it was like they were at a funeral the way they were talking. It was unbelievable. ... If you don't believe you can get a result, then that would have some validity, but as soon as you believe you can get a result, then why wouldn't you go for a result?"

Berhalter admitted that he does have one regret from the qualifying cycle, and that was the 1-0 away defeat to Panama back in October, where Paul Arriola and Yunus Musah were hooked at halftime and Gyasi Zardes, Shaq Moore and Tim Weah didn't last much longer.  

"I think we didn't play the right lineup," Berhalter said. "It's not to blame any players on the field, but just knowing what that game was gonna be like — what type of conditions with the extreme humidity — I think we could've potentially chose other players in that. We did have two suspensions that made it challenging, but looking back on it, we could've dealt with that game differently."

Berhalter also spent quite a bit of time talking about the (online) relationship between the team and its fanbase. For example, my favorite discussion point of the entire cycle was the discourse over Joe Scally's defensive duels and accurate long passes per 90. If you don't know, Scally is a promising 19-year-old right back that's started three league games this calendar year for Germany's 11th-place team. A couple voices among the U.S. fan base believe he's further along in his development than a teenage Philipp Lahm.

"Yeah. Yeah," Berhalter said when asked why he's ignoring America's salvation. "What I'd say is that, what you're going for now is guys that have some World Cup qualifying experience. Shaq Moore has played against the kid from Panama in his league, in the second league in Spain. He's played in World Cup qualifying games before. He knows what it's about. We didn't have that breaking in period that you may have with Joe, in particular in this case, and he's been playing for his club regularly coming into camp and doing a really good job.

"It's not personal against Joe or for Shaq. We're looking at the profile of these two players and we said 'Shaq can give us this,' and that's who we went with." 

Berhalter then said there's no doubt new players will be incorporated into the side when you factor in form and injuries over the next seven months, so there's still a chance that Scally will torment Luke Shaw on Nov. 25.    

The USMNT manager also responded to Grant Wahl's claim that the U.S. fanbase is more toxic than ever. 

"I think that's soccer's game popularity," Berhalter said. "Along with popularity comes this negativity. Look at any other sport, look at American sports — what do you think they're saying about the Lakers right now? What do you think fans are saying about them? When it becomes more popular that's what happens. Before it used to be 'we'll support them through anything' type of deal, because there wasn't the breadth of fans that there is now. I think that comes with the job.

"It's always interesting to try and quantify that, right? Grant Wahl is reading whatever he's reading, but he's not really quantifying the total amount of fans, he's quantifying the people he's reading with negative comments towards the program, and those are the people that actually take the time to write things.

"What I would hope is that people would see the progress this team's made. People would understand that this is a young, exciting team — let's get on board with this team. I think a lot of fans are. You see the atmosphere in the stadium in Orlando. People are behind the team because it's going to be an exciting run for this group of players. That's just how it is. Qatar is going to be an amazing event for the players."

As for the future, Berhalter says "the cycle is just beginning" for this group, but the World Cup will be here in a flash. 

"It's not much to be honest," Berhalter says of the build-up. "It's four games in June and two games in September. That's it. It's not much. We'll play some opponents that are similar to opponents in the World Cup. We'll play opponents from other continents that we haven't faced yet and we'll play an African team, we haven't faced an African team yet."

Finally, @watke_: "The guy's overall tone is hilarious. He does a great job of narrating. He's getting a little overboard with the technique."

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