"First Person" with Gregg Berhalter
The U.S. MNT is currently in Dublin, Ireland preparing for tomorrow’s match with the Irish which will be broadcast live on ESPN2 at 2:30 p.m ET / 11:30 a.m. PT. The game is the final one for Bruce Arena before he announces his 23-player World Cup roster on April 22 live on ESPN’s SportsCenter at 6 p.m. ET.
U.S. defender Gregg Berhalter has been involved with the national team programs since 1993. Through an eight- year professional career in Holland and England, he’s the only member of his Under-20 class to make and keep a place in the senior team. After missing out on the ’96 Olympics and the 1998 World Cup through injury, he is once again in a position to make the final 23-man roster as the announcement for the 2002 World Cup looms.
It’s been a great life. I’ve learned and seen so much in eight years, it’s almost hard to believe. From my days as youth player at Union County Sport Club to playing in one of the top leagues in the world, I’ve seen a great evolution in myself as player as well as the national team. Since 1994 this team has improved greatly. The depth of the squad has improved and you see more young players coming up and playing a role in the team. I think this has to do with development of MLS that gives young players a chance to play at a good level. We also have a group of players in Europe who have gained great experience and played at a high level for a number of years. These factors have helped American soccer and give us more credibility with other countries around the world.
Looking back, at the time I did choose a risky path, deciding to leave college early to go to Europe. I knew at the time I wanted soccer to be my life. I decided to leave the University of North Carolina after my junior year because I felt at the time that college soccer couldn’t help me develop anymore and I needed to take a step higher to keep improving. My first two years at college helped me get used to a more physical game, and I felt at the time that after my third year I needed to be challenged more soccer wise. Fortunately I was offered a contract with a team that wanted me to play right away. It was in the Dutch Second Division and the level was perfect to go right into and play without the pressure of playing for a big club. Playing in Europe really gave me a chance to study the game of soccer. It’s part of every day life there. Matches are on television all the time; it’s the subject of conversation everywhere you go, and you really learn the intricacies of not just playing the game, but thinking the game. Mentally and physically the game is played at a faster level, and it really raises your level when you’re forced to play in that environment. Decisions have to be made much faster, and you are seriously penalized for your mistakes. Also, the lifestyle can be pretty tough sometimes. There are many ups and downs. I have many great experiences in Europe, seeing so many cities and learning from different soccer cultures. At the same time, being so far from family and friends can be difficult.
MLS is something I’d love to do one day. It would be great to play in America alongside friends and guys you’ve known for so long. I think it’s important for American players to come back and play for many reasons. For one, it gives credibility to the league when Americans want to return home. Also, guys can share their experiences with younger players coming up and teach them what it means to be a good professional. There’s no question the image of U.S. soccer is improving around the world. We are now more respected as players and as a team, and that makes it easier dealing with players, new teams, managers, agents, etc. Players in the past and present helped achieve this respectability.
If it’s true that many of life’s lessons are learned the hard way, my career in the national team programs has certainly had its share of learning experiences. Missing out on the 1996 Olympics was devastating. I was captain of that team for three years and we were all good friends. I knew playing in an event of that magnitude in our home country would be an amazing experience. I got injured six months before the tournament, and then again three weeks before Olympics. In 1998 I had finally broken back into the team, and I was doing well. But I had to take time off with the stress fracture in my foot and Steve Sampson was basing a lot of decisions on games that I wasn’t a part of. It was terrible also. But these things that happen in your career, and it’s happened to better players than me. If you look at a player like Robert Pires, who was up for the English Premier League Player of the Year and a potential star for France in the World Cup, and in one play his season was over. It teaches you that the game is something that can be taken away from you quickly. The game doesn’t owe you anything, and it doesn’t stop for anyone. I believe you have to put in the hard work and be dedicated, and things will happen for you. But at the same time you can get injured the week before the World Cup. It’s just the way it is.
People have asked about our preparations for the World Cup this year, and so far I think things have gone extremely well. I haven’t been able to see all of the U.S. games this year, but I think it made sense for Bruce to schedule all these games in order to assess as many players as possible. In the long run it was good for everyone. I think a lot of players feel like they had a chance to make the team. While there is no question guys are competing for spots on the roster, the camaraderie amongst the team has continued to grow. I thought it would be worse actually leading up to this time. Even looking back to the last World Cup, the attitude of the players toward each other was pretty good. Everyone still seemed to be cool with each other and working hard for each other. You’re competitive and you want a spot, but people are still realistic about it and can look each other in the eyes. I think that’s good.
That attitude definitely reflects from the coach. Bruce makes it easier for us to relax and focus only on soccer. He reads the players very well, and is definitely well prepared for our opponents as well as instructing our team. Another of his skills is getting the most out of his players. He is a great motivator, and knows how to get the team ready play. That’s very important.
For me personally, the road to this World Cup has had some interesting turns. In the semifinal round of CONCACAF qualifying I played all the time. So heading into 2001, I was thinking ‘this is where I’m really going to make my mark,’ and then I only played in two matches. While I was disappointed, I understood that I wasn’t playing regularly with my club, and he needed guys to be in form. You're not always psyched about it, but you have to get on with it, and I knew I just had to hang tight a little. In the back of your mind, you have to remember to think it’s a 23-man roster. Even if you’re not in the first eleven, there’s still a lot of room. In the end you just look at your ability, focus on what you can do, and hope that’s enough.
I hope I’ve done enough. I’ve had a history of being involved in Bruce’s teams throughout the years. People have singled out the Italy match as a good performance for me, but I think Bruce looks at the whole big picture. That was a good game, but I’ve played other good games for him. Hopefully he remembers that also.
In terms of preparation for this summer, now is the crucial time. From the naming of the team to the beginning of the World Cup, you have to buckle down and start working on the specific things to get the team ready. As a team, we have to focus on playing for results. Our most important goal is getting to the second round; therefore, only results matter. We have to have a professional attitude, meaning we do what it takes to get a result. For example, when you run up against a team like Portugal, you can play in a way that doesn’t allow them to show how good they are. In the end it’s just 11 v. 11. A lot of people around the world are picking them as a dark horse to win the tournament, and their whole country will be watching, adding to their pressure. We don’t have anything to lose. That’s going to be important.
As April 22 approaches and the roster is about to be announced, everyone is a little bit anxious. There’s no question if I’m named to the World Cup roster it would be special, something I would remember for the rest of my life. As players, we just want to get over that hurdle so we can start focusing on what we need to do. This team is ready for the final countdown, and without a question Bruce will have us prepared by the time the World Cup comes around. Guaranteed.