In Gregg Berhalter's first big interview since he was rehired as U.S. men's national team manager, he put down a lofty marker for the 2026 World Cup. His goal, he told Vanity Fair, "is for us to go to a round that no U.S. team has ever gone to."
Wishing for it is one thing, but getting there will be a massive undertaking.
Technically, reaching a new frontier at the World Cup would mean reaching the final, given that the U.S. made it to the semifinals of the inaugural edition of the tournament in 1930, where it was routed by Argentina 6-1. If one limits his statement to the modern era -- loosely defined as starting in 1990, when the U.S. men qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years -- that means reaching the semifinals.
For the sake of argument, let's say that was what Berhalter meant, and reaching the semifinals is certainly possible for this U.S. team. It's arguably as talented a group as the USMNT has ever had, and it's not unheard of for a wild card to reach the semifinals of a World Cup. Turkey and South Korea did it in 2002. Morocco did it last December in Qatar. The U.S. will also benefit in 2026 from what will undoubtedly be some vociferous home support at American stadiums.
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There is certainly nothing wrong with Berhalter stating such a lofty aim -- it fits with the culture of the team and the country. But possible doesn't mean likely. A number of things will have to line up for the U.S. to reach that goal, some of which Berhalter can't control, such as player health and a favorable path through the tournament.
So, the question remains: What can Berhalter do now to give the U.S. a better chance of getting there?
Berhalter said he has met with U.S. Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker to work on a plan to move the team forward. Yet this query is especially pertinent when it comes to the team's attack.
Reaching the round of 16 in Qatar, where the U.S. fell 3-1 to the Netherlands, was a respectable showing, but it was not a tournament in which the Americans showcased a sufficient level of attacking prowess. There was little to quibble about in terms of the U.S. team's approach work -- the U.S. averaged 187.75 touches in the attacking third per 90 minutes in the tournament, good for sixth place among World Cup teams -- but in terms of creating quality chances, the U.S. was lacking.
The U.S. team's xG, or expected goals, per 90 minutes of actual playing time (which includes stoppage time) was 0.91, a mark that ranked 22nd in the tournament among all 32 teams, and 12th out of the 16 teams that reached the knockout stages. The fact that the U.S. under-performed that mark by scoring just 0.67 goals per 90 minutes of actual playing time didn't help. We're talking about a small sample size against some of the world's best teams, but even when the eye test is applied, the U.S. couldn't be confused with an offensive powerhouse.
When asked how Berhalter and the staff will move the U.S. attack forward, assistant coach B.J. Callaghan said one way to do that is play a variety of opponents.
"I think each challenge that the opponent brings is going to dictate sort of how you can create chances," he said on a conference call with reporters. "So the more experience that we can give these core group of players playing against a diverse schedule of opponents, I think will teach us and give us ideas on how to advance that attack against different types of setups."
With no World Cup qualification for the U.S. during this cycle, the schedule is bound to be less Concacaf-heavy. That will be in stark contrast to the 2022 cycle -- from the start of 2019 onward the U.S. played 43 of its 56 matches against Concacaf opponents. In particular, the U.S. team's participation in next year's Copa America, against the best of South America, will offer the kind of competition outside of the USMNT's home region that it rarely sees.
But that will take the Americans only so far. Of greater benefit will be a couple of personnel switches -- including some new players coming in and moving familiar names into new roles.
The arrival of Folarin Balogun amounts to an immediate upgrade in the striker position. The expectation is that the threat provided by his mobility, and runs off the ball will open up space for the likes of Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah, and his 21 goals in Ligue 1 last year with Stade de Reims shows he's capable of scoring in a highly competitive league (though he did underperform his xG last season of 27.2). A move to a bigger club in AS Monaco is the next step in his development.
That said, Balogun alone won't solve the USMNT's issue of creating quality chances. In the aftermath of the defeat to the Dutch at the World Cup, Berhalter said, "We don't have a Memphis Depay right now, who is scoring goals in the Champions League, and playing at Barcelona and has been an international for years and years." The U.S. also didn't have a Denzel Dumfries, who had a goal and two assists on that night, either.
The U.S. still doesn't, but there is upside to the attack by positioning Gio Reyna in a central attacking role, instead of out wide, where he was for almost the entirety of the 2022 cycle. It was a move that Callaghan made during the Concacaf Nations League last June, and the U.S. looked much more dynamic in attack.
The next step is to see how it works against higher quality opponents, but even that seemingly obvious move carries with it some uncertainty.
First, there is the thawing of the relationship between Berhalter and Reyna that needs to take place. It's easy to think they'll agree to put the past aside and move on, but what transpired, and as public as the fallout was, will leave scars for both individuals. The extent to which healing will take place is still an unknown at this point. Berhalter said recently he still hasn't spoken to Reyna since the ordeal unfolded.
Then there is the question of whether Berhalter will actually move Reyna to a central attacking role once the latter is back to full fitness. During the past week's conference call with reporters in which the current roster was announced, Berhalter called the midfield triumvirate of Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah "a tremendous engine that we were able to take advantage of" during the past cycle. Reading the tea leaves, it doesn't sound like continuing with that trio in midfield -- when they're all healthy, it should be noted -- is something that Berhalter has moved on from just yet.
Switching the team's formation to a 3-5-2 could alleviate that issue in that it would allow Reyna to play as a second forward off Balogun. It suits some of the team's other personnel as well. Antonee Robinson, Sergiño Dest and Weah have the skill-set to play as wing backs, and Chris Richards, Miles Robinson and Tim Ream are comfortable enough on the ball to play in a three-man back line.
"For us, I think it's more about just the general philosophy of how we want to be playing, and what we're trying to do," Berhalter said. "We want to be aggressive. We want to be high pressing. We want to be able to control the ball. And I won't really get caught up on the formation. If it means that one can't [play a certain way] because this is the personnel that we have, we need to play with three in the back, then we'll do that.
"I think that's the beauty of the time between camps: you have the opportunity to plan what's most effective for this given opponent. Ideally, I'd like to go into the next World Cup having a back three system and a back four system in place."
Such an approach would require Reyna to enjoy something that's has eluded him for much of his professional career: an extended period of durability and health. And even if he can, it might not be enough. Other players like Adams and Pulisic will need to stay healthy as well, all of which speaks to the small margins that separate success and failure at the international level.
Progress is also rarely linear. Expectations were high back in 2006 coming off the U.S. run to the quarterfinals in 2002, but a difficult draw that saw the U.S. grouped with the Czech Republic, Ghana and eventual champions Italy -- coupled with key players like DaMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan and John O'Brien not reaching the heights of 2002 -- saw the U.S. get eliminated in the group stage.
This U.S. team is deeper now than that 2002 edition, but the rest of the world hasn't been standing still either. So, while Berhalter's stated goal is clear, the pathway isn't. The onus will be on Berhalter to find a way.