DOHA, Qatar — When the U.S. men arrived at the World Cup, coach Gregg Berhalter told them to unpack their suitcases, put their clothes in the dresser and their books on the nightstand.
They were, he said, going to be here for the duration.
So while those new to the USMNT might see anything from here on out as a bonus, they don’t. The Netherlands are up next, and the U.S. men are coming to play.
‘It’s a great opportunity. But it’s not something we’re going into it thinking it’s an honor,’ Berhalter said after the Americans advanced to the round of 16 with a 1-0 win over Iran on Tuesday night.
“We deserve to be in the position we’re in, and we deserve to keep going.”
The USMNT has gotten beyond the round of 16 just once in the modern era of American soccer, and the quarterfinal run at the tournament in Japan and South Korea was 20 years ago. Call it the exuberance of youth, but this group talks openly of winning the World Cup.
And not in a ‘someday’ kind of way. Now. At this tournament.
Getting out of the group was an accomplishment, yes. But the USMNT sees it as a means to an end rather than this team’s signature achievement.
‘The only way you can win the World Cup is getting to the knockout stages. That’s checkmark No. 1,’ defender Walker Zimmerman said. ‘The conversation in the locker room is, ‘Hey we’re excited to win but we have so much more from this group, so much more expectation from this team.’
‘We’re here until Dec. 19 in our head,’ Zimmerman said, referring to the day after the World Cup final. ‘We want to make that a reality.’
Of the four teams that have advanced so far, the USMNT went through with the fewest points (five) and the fewest goals scored (two). They also are the only ones not to have given up a goal in the run of play. The shutouts against England and Iran gave the U.S. men consecutive clean sheets at a World Cup for the first time since 1930.
Admittedly, it’s a small sample size. But beyond their defensive abilities, that stat indicates the grit the USMNT has, something that will become increasingly important the deeper into the tournament they go.
Despite its youth — the USMNT’s lineup against Iran was the youngest yet by any team at this World Cup, and that was even with 35-year-old Tim Ream starting — the Americans have rarely looked overwhelmed or flustered. Even when nine minutes of stoppage time were announced against Iran, a team that had scored three of its four goals after the 90th minute, the USMNT simply dug back in.
‘There was a calmness about the team. There was almost an ease with which we were able to deal with a lot of the situations,’ Ream said. “Obviously there’s going to be moments where things get a little bit squeaky, but I looked around and everybody had calm faces. Nobody was breathing heavy and had panic in their eyes.’
When a shot by Mehdi Taremi got through Matt Turner’s legs two minutes before the final whistle, Zimmerman, who’d come on as a sub after starting the first two games, was there to clear it out, preserving the win.
‘This win was really good for us. And also having a win where we had to suffer a lot because … we can all have that look back of what it took to get here. Not just the past four years but this past game against Iran,’ midfielder Weston McKennie said. ‘We’ll definitely look back and see what it took and remember it and use it as fuel for the next game.’
Berhalter and his players have talked often about the World Cup being two different tournaments. There’s the group stage and there’s the knockout rounds. Get through the first and anything can happen in the second.
Yes, even for a bunch of young Americans who some might be surprised to see hanging with the top teams in the world.
‘We relish this,’ Berhalter said. ‘It’s an opportunity for our guys to keep grinding, stick together and enjoy this experience.’
Because they’re in it for the long haul, at this World Cup and beyond.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.