In the Netherlands, the US World Cup team sees both friends and foes
The Washington Post December 2, 2022
RAYYAN, Qatar — During a news conference Friday ahead of the U.S. men's national team's World Cup round-of-16 match against the Netherlands, a reporter asked Coach Gregg Berhalter whether he would be willing to take a question in Dutch without the use of an earbud provided by FIFA for interpreting purposes.
"Give it a try," Berhalter said, eagerly.
He understood everything, but to avoid a misstep that could perhaps result in a tabloid headline in Amsterdam or Eindhoven, chose to answer in English.
The U.S. and Dutch national teams, who meet Saturday in Qatar, do not square off regularly and neither team features a player competing in the other country's pro league. The American delegation, however, has strong Dutch connections, including Berhalter, who, after attending the University of North Carolina, spent six seasons in the Netherlands.
He was a guest analyst on Dutch TV when the United States played Iran at the 1998 World Cup and, after moving to clubs in England, Germany and MLS and coaching in Sweden and the United States, he has retained bonds with many in the Netherlands.
"It is nice to see some familiar faces [in Qatar], get some text messages from friends back in Holland," Berhalter said. "But tomorrow night's all business."
Berhalter is not the only one with deep Dutch ties. Earnie Stewart, a former U.S. standout now overseeing all national teams as the U.S. Soccer Federation's sporting director, was born and raised in the Netherlands. Aside from two seasons with D.C. United, he spent his entire 17-year playing career in the Dutch leagues before moving into the front office of Dutch clubs.
Sergiño Dest, a Dutch-born right back, learned his craft at the famed Ajax academy in Amsterdam and starred for the highly decorated first team before moving to FC Barcelona and then AC Milan.
With a Dutch mother and American father, he is a dual national who in 2019 chose to play for the United States instead of the Netherlands. (Before making that decision, he represented U.S. youth national teams.)
Dest has been a World Cup standout, using his speed and attacking instincts to make overlapping runs and leave opponents off-balance. Dutch midfielder Daley Blind, Dest's teammate at Ajax from 2018 to 2020, said: "Dest joined the first team very quickly and you could see immediately he was full of talent. He grew rapidly. He's an excellent player. Very skillful."
Berhalter applied what he learned in the Netherlands into his coaching philosophy.
Asked what concepts he has taken from Dutch soccer, he said: "What concepts haven't I taken from Dutch football? I learned so much."
"It was a great time for me," he continued. "I went to Holland totally unprepared for professional-level soccer, and if I wasn't in Holland, I don't think I would have had that background that helped shape my ideas."
Berhalter, 49, recalled early days with his first club, Zwolle. An older striker would yell at him for passing 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," Berhalter said. "So I had to practice, practice, practice so I could play him a ball he wanted. It was details like that. If you ever laid a ball off to someone and you put it to their wrong foot, they would start yelling at you."
In 1997, Berhalter was a member of a Sparta Rotterdam team that upset Ajax, coached by current Dutch World Cup boss Louis van Gaal.
Asked about that match by a Dutch reporter, the 71-year-old van Gaal grumbled, "Do you really think I remember?"
Berhalter was back stage during the Dutch news conference and heard van Gaal's response.
"I don't think that's true. I think he remembers!" Berhalter said, drawing laughter. "Being that competitive, he has to remember that."
Van Gaal, who has guided Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United, was complimentary of Berhalter's work with the U.S. squad.
"What I have seen [from Berhalter] is a vision," van Gaal said. "What I see is a team that is keen to execute that vision. I see the conviction of the players. As a coach, that must be fantastic."
He added: "The U.S. has demonstrated it has an excellent team - I would even say one of the best teams, a team that is fine-tuned. It's going to be a tough match. They are an example of what a good team is supposed to be."