U.S. coach Berhalter learns same lesson as Canada's Herdman: belief will only take you so far in World Cup

Over the course of their years-long campaigns to qualify for the men's World Cup, John Herdman and Gregg Berhalter developed an unlikely friendship, rooted in their unshakable belief in belief.

Questions about substitutions and how he prepared defence following loss to Netherlands

USA coach Gregg Berhalter shakes hands with forward Christian Pulisic following their team's 3-1 loss to the Netherlands on Saturday. (AFP via Getty Images)

Chris Jones is in Qatar covering the men's World Cup for CBC Sports.

Over the course of their years-long campaigns to qualify for the men's World Cup, John Herdman and Gregg Berhalter developed an unlikely friendship, rooted in their unshakable belief in belief.

In other ways, Canada's head coach and his American counterpart have radically different styles, on the touchline especially. Herdman wears dark suits and crisp white shirts. Berhalter usually looks like he's hanging out in a convenience store parking lot.

Berhalter also takes far more grief from his country's soccer obsessives. Herdman was the only head coach in Qatar who could lose all three games and still enjoy perfect job security; rebuilding first the women's and next the men's programs has earned him understandable grace.

And yet the beleaguered, oft-abused Berhalter led his team to the Round of 16, the only CONCACAF coach to manage that feat. Despite his 3-1 loss to the Netherlands on Saturday, he's the one who achieved what, for now, remains a Canadian dream.

Less than a year ago, it seemed the opposite might prove true. During CONCACAF qualifying, the U.S. came to Hamilton, Ont., to play Canada on a frigid January day. That game was a tactical masterclass by Herdman: The Canadians conceded largely useless possession and countered with lethality.

Canadian coach John Herdman during his team's loss to Croatia in the group stage. (AFP via Getty Images)

Herdman struggled at times in World Cup

"It's hard for me to remember a performance away from home this dominant without getting a result," Berhalter said after.

He was wrong. His players weren't dominant. They ran themselves into a trap.

In Qatar, Berhalter has been the superior coach, at least until he reverted when he looked to his left and saw a smirking Louis van Gaal on the Netherland side on Saturday. The Americans were unlucky to draw their opening game against Wales after a late penalty; next, they held mighty England to a scoreless draw; finally, they showed serious mettle to beat Iran.

Herdman, in contrast, struggled to navigate the World Cup's finer margins, particularly during Canada's second game against Croatia. 

His "Eff Croatia" comments before the match were ill-advised but forgivable; he's an emotional man, and he was flying after a close opening loss against Belgium.

Tactically, however, he was too slow to respond to Croatian countermeasures in the midfield, where Canada was always a man down.

After, Jonathan Osorio said that he had watched almost in awe as the Croatians changed their shape, found weaknesses in the Canadian formation, and learned to read and respond to their pressing cues as though by animal instinct.

"As much as it hurt, because it happened against my team, when you analyze the game after, you'll learn to appreciate what they did and learn from it," Osorio said.

Denzel Dumfries celebrates scoring Netherland's third goal in a 3-1 defeat of the U.S. (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Winning teams finish their chances

The Dutch did to the Americans what the Croatians did to the Canadians, only not quite as brutally: They let U.S. have the early run of things and then slowed the game to a relative crawl, turning it into a battle of midfields and transitions.

Pace is one advantage that younger, less experienced teams hold. Without it, without real intensity and teeth, their attack gets nullified. The Dutch were content to pick their spots, and as we've seen here again and again, winning teams finish their chances.

The two first-half goals for the Dutch — one at the literal death of added time — were nearly identical. They both began with Denzel Dumfries crosses that were farther away from the goal than the Americans might have expected, taken perfectly by wide-open men, first Memphis Depay, and next Daley Blind.

The U.S. scored a strange goal in the 76th minute to get one back. Christian Pulisic hit a low cross that Haji Wright clipped with his heel. The ball took a slow, high, looping journey over everyone into the net.

Five minutes later, the Dutch erased any hope of a US comeback when an unmarked Dumfries was the receiver this time, beautifully finishing another pinpoint cross.

American player Tyler Adams shows his dejection following his team's elimination from the World Cup. (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

After the third goal, Berhalter stood with his hands on his shaved dome, his eyes closed. He knew his World Cup was over. A noted sneakerhead, he had brought seven pairs of Air Jordans with him to Qatar: one for every game it takes to win a World Cup. In the end, he needed only four.

His critics will also find more reason to wither him. He didn't have a reply for the unflappable Dutch, and there will be questions about his substitutions and how he prepared his defence.

There remain lessons for his Canadian friend to take from him, some of which stem from their shared mistakes.

Make roster and lineup decisions based on quality, not loyalty. Don't let players talk you into keeping them on when they should come off. Have multiple plans, and never hesitate to switch when the first one isn't working, or the second, or the third. 

And understand that belief will take you only so far.

WATCH | Soccer North breaks down Canada vs. Morocco:

Canada vs. Morocco post-match reaction show

10 months ago
Duration 28:15
Watch as Andi Petrillo takes a look at the Canada vs. Morocco game at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Look for new episodes of Soccer North each Friday during the World Cup on CBC and the CBC Sports YouTube channel


Chris Jones

Senior Contributor

Chris Jones is a journalist and screenwriter who began his career covering baseball and boxing for the National Post. He later joined Esquire magazine, where he won two National Magazine Awards for his feature writing. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine (RIP), and WIRED, and he is the author of the book, The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics. Follow him on Twitter at @EnswellJones

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now