Gregg Berhalter has established a gigantic goal for his second term as U.S. soccer coach.
“We set out on a mission four years ago to change the way the world views American soccer. And now our motto is to change soccer in America forever,” midfielder Weston McKennie said ahead of Saturday’s exhibition against Uzbekistan in St. Louis.
Berhalter was hired after the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and led the Americans to the second round of last year’s tournament, where they lost to the Netherlands 3-1. He was replaced by interim coaches while the U.S. Soccer Federation investigated a domestic violence accusation brought to its attention by the Reyna family, then was rehired in September.
The U.S. has an automatic berth in the 2026 World Cup it co-hosts with Mexico and Canada, so the Americans don’t have to qualify for an expanded 48-team field that will feature nearly one-quarter of the world’s nations.
“It’s really the work we can do in the next three years to build a group that when we go into the World Cup we’re confident that we can beat the elite of international soccer, because that’s what it’s going to take to do what we’re talking about doing,” Berhalter said. “If we want to go to rounds that we’ve never been before, it’s going to be: We have to beat those teams and use the next three years to build the team up, to gain experiences to that we’re confident that we can actually do that. And when we say change soccer in America forever, for me it’s both on the field and off the field.”
The U.S. reached the semifinals of the first World Cup in 1930 and since has advanced past the round of 16 just once, losing a quarterfinal to Germany in 2002.
About 30 former players from the St. Louis area have been invited to the match -- the area has long produced top talent going back to providing five starters for the famous 1950 World Cup upset of England.
“It’ll be good for the guys that have come before us to see how much the game has grown and what they kind of started, the mission that they started off on and see how it’s being carried,” McKennie said.
Berhalter, who doesn’t publicly identify his lineup ahead of competitive matches, said the 11th-ranked U.S. will open against No. 74 Uzbekistan with goalkeeper Matt Turner, right back Sergiño Dest, central defenders Tim Ream and Chris Richards, left back Antonee Robinson, Luca de la Torre or Tanner Tessman in defensive midfield, McKennie and Yunus Musah in attacking midfield, Tim Weah and Christian Pulisic on the flanks and Folarin Balogun up front.
Tessmen will start if he overcomes a calf injury Berhalter termed minor. Ricardo Pepi will replace Balogun at the start of the second half.
“We played seven-a-side today and we had old versus medium versus young. And the old team is Christian, Weston, Antonee. Robinson, Sergiño,” Berhalter said. “They don’t know how time flies, they still think they’re one of the younger guys on the team and they’re not, they're senior players, so they were really surprised. And I think they didn’t take it too well.”
Berhalter favors the expanded stoppage time used at the World Cup and now in European leagues.
"This is a way for the fans to get their money’s worth, to see the amount of time in play that they deserve. And it can potentially change tactics from players, when they’re staying down because they know the time is added in and it’s not going to do any good for them to stay down on the field and waste time,” he said. “I reserve the right to change my decision.”
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