Klinsmann wasn’t necessarily wrong, as the USMNT bowed out in the Round of 16 to Belgium – a game where goalkeeper Tim Howard made a tournament-record 16 saves and Chris Wondolowski's near-range miss still prompts what-could-have-been questions.
Back on the sport’s biggest stage, at Qatar 2022, now-USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter has taken a more hopeful outlook around the same topic, even if it’s laced with some pragmatism.
“What I do believe is on our best day, we can beat anyone in the world,” Berhalter said in a sit-down interview with ESPN’s Sam Borden before their Group B opener Monday against Wales (2 pm ET | FOX, Telemundo). “That's the mentality that we want to have as a group.
“Does that mean we're going to win the World Cup? No, not necessarily. But we think that the first step is getting out of the group, finishing in the top two. And the second step is, in knockout games, playing our best possible game and seeing how far we can go.”
Berhalter recognizes the USMNT aren’t entering the tournament as favorites. That label belongs to South American powerhouses Brazil and Argentina, the latter of which has MLS representation in Atlanta United midfielder Thiago Almada.
The USMNT aren’t planning to be bystanders, though. They’ll also play England (Nov. 25) and Iran (Nov. 29) in Group B, hoping for a Group A matchup in the knockout stages – possibly against the Netherlands or MLS-heavy Ecuador.
“We're here and part of it is a great honor to play in the World Cup, but we don't want to just be participants,” Berhalter said. “We want to perform and that's what we're going to be focused on.”
Berhalter’s team, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, also hasn’t experienced many top-end tests in the buildup to the tournament. They’ve been limited to mainly Concacaf foes, placing third in regional qualifying (automatic spot) and winning both Gold Cup and Nations League titles over Mexico in the summer of 2021.
Yet the USMNT carries arguably the most talented squad in their history, led by Chelsea forward Christian Pulisic, Leeds United midfielder Tyler Adams and more. A familiar American trait could prove decisive all the same.
“In the end, I think it's going to come down to the cohesiveness of the group and how we play together and fight together, compete together,” said the ex-Columbus Crew coach, who played in two World Cups for the USMNT. “We have talent, but the difference-maker for us is going to be our cohesiveness.”
You can view Borden’s complete interview with Berhalter here.