One could reasonably argue that TQL Stadium will be the site of the most important night in Gregg Berhalter’s managerial career to date.
Berhalter, who has been the head coach of the U.S. men’s national team since late 2018, will lead his side out against Mexico’s national team Friday at FC Cincinnati’s TQL Stadium (9:10 p.m.) in a pivotal FIFA World Cup qualifying match in the Concacaf region.
The eight-nation qualifying group will see the top three finishers qualify automatically for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, and while the Americans have controlled the series against Mexico this century, anything can happen when the two sides meet.
Berhalter’s already taken two trophies off the Mexicans this year in winning the Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup finals against “El Tri,” but it doesn’t get bigger for the head coach of the USMNT than the World Cup qualifier played against Mexico on American soil.
Ahead of the start of the camp, which kicked off Monday at the Mercy Health Training Center in Milford with 10 players present, Berhalter conducted an exclusive interview with The Enquirer. The conversation ranged from further dissection of the health of Christian Pulisic, arguably the biggest American star in the November camp, to Joe Scally, the 18-year-old Borussia Mönchengladbach rising star that’s been called into the senior national team for the first time.
Berhalter also reflected on the selection of TQL Stadium as the site for the all-important USMNT-Mexico clash, and a 2017 U.S. Open Cup match in which his Columbus Crew were eliminated from the tournament by FC Cincinnati.
Enquirer: We’re less than a week out from the Mexico match. Now that it’s finally here and is the next match to play, what are the emotions? What’s the feeling in the pit of your stomach?
Gregg Berhalter: “You know, it’s a good question. In the context of World Cup qualifying, it’s just another game, right? But in terms of the rivalry and the history and the times when you get to play them with a pro-U.S. crowd in a great stadium, I mean, it makes it special. It really does, and we’re focused on playing our game, playing a good game, and really just looking forward to giving this young group the experience of this game.”
E: The home match (for the U.S.) against Mexico in World Cup qualifying – a lot of people will say that’s the big one in the career of a U.S. national team manager, whether they get two cycles or one or whatever, the perception is this is the big one. Do you agree with that?
GB: “I just think it’s a great event. All the qualifiers that we play at home are amazing but this takes it to another level. It’s like amazing-plus. Because of the attention around the game, because of the amped up crowd, all of this just turns it into a really special event. For us as a group, we’re relishing this opportunity. We’ve played them four times already and all four times were in the United States but you could argue it wasn’t a pro-U.S. crowd. So, now we get to play in Cincinnati with our fans behind us and we’re looking forward to it.”
E: In our American soccer consciousness, we heap so much attention on this Mexico match. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for that but why do you think the game takes on the importance that it does from an American perspective?
GB: “I think it’s because they’ve been top dog in the region historically, right? And now we come in and we have something to say about it. And we, over the years and the early 2000s, we started dominating the matchup. It was something that – no one likes to be taken off their perch and this was something where it became personal and the matchups have been heated. For the U.S. fans, the U.S. loves to see winners and to see the national team start to get some good victories against Mexico, it meant a lot. All that intensified the rivalry. Now, if you’re talking about in the 70s and they’re beating us every game, the rivalry wasn’t as intense, right?”
E: In the 2018 Russia World Cup cycle, the U.S. lost its home match to Costa Rica and that was one of the key results in that cycle. The math is different in this qualifying cycle because it’s an eight-team group as opposed to six like it was previously, but you reversed that result back on Oct. 13 in a 2-1 win (at Lower.com Field). That was the last match you played in qualifying and since you’re trying to kind of do the same thing on Friday against Mexico and reverse a loss from that previous cycle, how big do you think it was to reverse the Costa Rica result?
GB: “We didn’t really look at it like that. We looked at it like we want to have a good performance, a strong performance, and we want to win the game. It wasn’t really something that crept into our mind. You know, this group is a different team, has a different focus and we want to win our home games. And whether it’s Costa Rica, Jamaica, whoever – we want to win. We have Mexico, and Friday night will be no exception.”
E: A couple questions on site selection for this Mexico match. You’ve managed twice in Cincinnati – a big game (a U.S. Open Cup match between FC Cincinnati and Columbus Crew) at the club level and the Venezuela friendly (in 2019). I wonder how your experience managing in those games, and taking stock of what this city offered on those occasions, impacted whatever voice you had in picking the site for this Mexico game.
GB: “We had a working group that got together and evaluated what’s gonna be important for each game. We looked at the weather, we looked at the crowd, we looked at the facilities – both training and stadium. We looked at the distance of that game to the next game, and overall, my personal experience here really helped me understand what the fans are like.
“I’ve mentioned, I referenced the game we had against Cincinnati in the Open Cup and that was one of the best atmospheres I’ve experienced in the United States because of both fan bases in the same stadium in big numbers. Diverse colors that were contrasting. It was a fantastic game, so I just know that when you talk about a pro-U.S. crowd, I was very comfortable with the fact that we’d get that in Cincinnati. With the venue (TQL Stadium) being what it is, it’s a top-class facility in Major League Soccer.”
E: Did you get to come and walk the stadium or take a tour during the selection process?
GB: “We had people come look at it. I didn’t personally. I was invited by the club to come to the opening game and unfortunately, due to my schedule, I couldn’t come but I got a lot of feedback and did the virtual tours and all that stuff.”
E: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about that 2017 Open Cup match. Time has passed. I remember the post-game and it was emotional, and there was just so much stuff there with those two organizations back in 2017. A lot of that has dissipated and now it’s just a great rivalry in MLS but what are your recollections of that night?
GB: “I mean, you don’t like to lose any game so that was never fun. Our fans were disappointed and your fans were excited. It was a great game. It’s a storybook-type of run that FC Cincinnati had that year and I don’t like to lose at all but I still remember the experience. I think overall, it was a great atmosphere in the stadium and that’s what soccer’s about. You got the away supporters as well, and that’s what made it a great event.”
E: In terms of where you are in the process of starting the November camp, you’ve picked your squad, you’re still waiting for the players to arrive. Can you describe what it’s like for you watching the last club matches for the players after you’ve named your squad? Especially with the Mexico game on-deck. I imagine there are a lot of nerves and maybe some personal investment in their performances because you’ve just named them to the national team.
GB: (Laughter). “It’s the worst. After you’ve named the roster, you want to put them in a glass case. What we’ve learned is to expect the unexpected and you just have to take it like that but it is nerve-racking when you name a squad and they still have to play a game, sometimes two games with the Champions League midweek, and you’re really just anticipating something happening but it’s also part of it. That’s part of being an international manager.”
E: I’m sure you addressed this to the best of your ability last week on your Zoom call and I’m not sure how much would have changed in just a few days, but do you have a better sense today of what you can lean on Christian Pulisic for in this camp and how you’ll manage his situation (coming off an injury)?
GB: “I think the important thing is that Christian leaves camp healthy and ready to push on with Chelsea. That’s gonna be first and foremost in our minds, and then when we get him in camp, seeing exactly where he’s at and seeing exactly what his role will be, so we haven’t determined exactly what his role will be but I’m sure he’ll be on the field in these games.”
E: Joe Scally. People are excited to see him get this call-up. What factored into the decision to call him in and what are your expectations for a younger player in his situation?
GB: “I think that it’s a case where he’s earned it. He’s pushed his way into the team by playing every week and playing at a high level and winning games, and playing against good team. It’s like that’s the beauty of the national team, when guys can really play their way onto the team. Joe’s an example of that. We’re not looking at the age. We’re looking at his quality, and we’re looking at what he’s doing every single week. You know, Joe’s certainly performed well. He’s the only player in this camp that hasn’t been in a camp before. We’ve used a lot of players over these last two years so it’s nice to get some consistency, but with Joe, he’s a guy that’s earned his way into the group.”
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: World Cup qualifying: Gregg Berhalter talks USMNT vs. Mexico