It was a long road back, but U.S. defender Gregg Berhalter is once again with the Men’s National Team as they get set for the next two matches in the semifinal round of qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup. After suffering a inadvertent elbow from a teammate last year, which ended up breaking numerous of bones in his face and forcing the central back to the sidelines, he's back on track. Berhalter has joined the team in Washington, D.C., as they get ready to head down to El Salvador for their matchup this Saturday, Oct. 9, before returning to face Panama in RFK on Wednesday, Oct. 13. ussoccer.com sat down with the Energie Cottbus defender and asked him about his journey back and what he’s looking forward to as the team attempts to advance to the next round.
ussoccer.com: First of all, welcome back. Tell us how the recovery process is coming.
Gregg Berhalter: “It’s been a long road back, but I think I’m making progress. I have to get used to the game again, the speed and things that like that. Now, I think it’s going a lot better. I would say I’m on the good track towards getting back to 100 percent.”
ussoccer.com: There were various reports – and a couple interesting photos – of the injury. Can you describe how it happened and what the injuries were?
GB: “I went up for a header and I got elbowed by my own teammate. I was coming back and he was coming forward. He caught me in the corner of my eye on the left side of my face, and broke all kinds of bones. I broke my nose, all the bones around my eye, and it lacerated my tear duct. I didn’t’ realize how severe it was at the time. The guy felt terrible, but it was an accident. It was just one of those things that happens in sports.”
ussoccer.com: Almost immediately after surgery you were traveling back to the U.S. for a wedding. Weren’t there complications that developed?
GB: “The cabin pressure in the airplane caused one of the implants to protrude out, and the air inside my sinus cavity basically blew my eye up to the size of a golf ball. My tear duct wound up being permanently damaged.”
ussoccer.com: That must have looked good in the pictures …
GB: “I looked like a boxer who just went three rounds! It looked horrendous. At least it wasn’t my wedding, so I wasn’t in all the pictures.”
ussoccer.com: When the 2004-05 season began, you were named team captain for Energie Cottbus. How did that happen, and how special was it for you to receive the captain’s armband?
GB: The coach picks the captain. It’s rare for a foreigner. It was an honor for me. I try to lead by example, and I take pride in leading our team out every game. I just want the best for the team, and I hope we get promoted.”
ussoccer.com: You’ve been out of national team action since the March game in Poland. Have you had the opportunity to watch any of the qualifying games so far?
GB: “I saw the game against Grenada when I was in the States. Obviously I’ve been following it, and I think we’re in a good position. Compared to qualifying the last time around, I think we’re in better position in the semifinal round. After three games last time we had four points, and now we have five. We just have to play concentrated and finish the business.”
ussoccer.com: Obviously there a lot of familiar faces here for you, and some new ones as well. With four days under your belt, what’s your impression of the team’s performance so far?
GB: “I was actually impressed with the younger guys. Normally they come in a bit timid, but I think it’s good the young guys come in and actually want to make their mark. It’s a good group of young guys. They are strong, and you can tell them things and they listen. I think it adds to the overall quality of the group.”
ussoccer.com: After the success of the 2002 World Cup and a few more years of settling down in Germany, do you still have the same desire to go through all the challenges of playing with the national team, like travel, time away from home …
GB: “Of course. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that. We’re in a good situation because all the guys get along, and it’s a lot of fun to be here. It’s also a huge honor, and I think Bruce [Arena] does a good job making us realize that. After the 2002 World Cup, a lot of the players thought that we did well, and wanted to do better next time.”
ussoccer.com: You’re certainly one of the veterans in the central defensive corps, along with Eddie Pope. With the addition of Carlos Bocanegra and Cory Gibbs into the mix, how do you rate pool of players at that position?
GB: “I personally think that this a really good group of defenders. We’re coming to a point where we have the right mix of guys with experiences, and younger players who are playing at a good level. We’re very solid in the middle, and it’s a good situation for the coach to be in.”
ussoccer.com: In this type of game in El Salvador, a World Cup qualifier where there is a tremendous amount of pressure in addition to the challenges of extremely hostile fans, weather, travel, and things like that, how important is experience and veteran leadership?
GB: “I think sometimes inexperience is better. You want the right mix. Sometimes you want players that don’t fear the game because they don’t know any better, and sometimes you want the guys that have been there before. They can have a calming influence, and can say the right things at the right time. Obviously we don’t want to be afraid of playing there, but it’s not easy to win in these countries and we have to realize that.”
ussoccer.com: Any personal experiences that you’ve had?
GB: “Well, there was the Costa Rica game. [Editor’s note: Berhalter was whistled for a controversial handball in the box late in the game against Costa Rica on July 23, 2000. The U.S. lost 2-1.] That happens where you have referees that make the wrong decision. It’s difficult when there are crazy fans in a close atmosphere. It’s difficult for the referees to keep their composure, but that’s all part of it.”
ussoccer.com: Now that you mention it, you’ve been screwed on two pretty big handball calls. One against you in Costa Rica, and one that wasn’t called against Germany in the World Cup …
GB: “You’re right. Hadn’t even thought of that! I hope the next one goes my way.”
ussoccer.com: The team often emphasizes prior to games to keep in mind that referees won’t give calls, that fans will be hostile, and conditions difficult, and to try and be smart about the way you play. But once the game kicks off and you’re in the heat of the moment, can you really manage those situations?
GB: “There’s ways. If the other team is getting on you a bit, there are ways to be clever and slow down the game. You deal with the referee if you know he’s quick tempered. When you’re dealing with hostile crowds and situations that can be dangerous for your team, you have to control the situation as much as you can.”
ussoccer.com: Everyone agrees that having five points after three games is a great position, especially with two of those games on the road. At the same time, the attitude appears to be that the team has not performed to it’s potential ...
GB: “Exactly. The mood is that we have something to prove. We’re still searching to play the way we know we can play. I sense that everyone has in their mind that we are going to make up for it. We still have better soccer to come.”