It is easy to forget just how close Gregg Berhalter came to being a World Cup hero.
The American defender sent a shot toward Germany's goal that threatened to keep the U.S. national team's dream run at the 2002 World Cup going. That was before Torsten Frings "accidentally" got his arm in the way of the shot. Germany won the game and the Americans went home. Berhalter was left wondering what could have been and praying he would have another chance at World Cup glory.
That chance isn't coming. Berhalter was among the players to miss the cut for the 2006 U.S. World Cup roster. One of the more surprising omissions from the roster, Berhalter fell victim to the increased strength of the U.S. national team pool as well as to a couple of poor national team performances that dropped him from roster lock to alternate.
So what went wrong? You could point to three games during the past 14 months that may have doomed Berhalter. The first came in Mexico City, when he was paired with Oguchi Onyewu in the U.S. team's 2-1 loss to Mexico. The pair had never played together before and was suddenly thrown into the hostile setting of Azteca Stadium. They struggled to communicate and Berhalter was labeled one of the scapegoats following the loss.
The second and third matches came this year in the team's two matches in Europe. Against Poland, Berhalter was paired with Onyewu yet again and the twosome appeared to struggle to work together, even though the U.S. won 1-0.
The final blow came against Germany, when Berhalter looked awful on two of Germany's four goals in its 4-1 romp. Even though the midfield was as much to blame for the U.S. team's defensive woes against the Germans, the backline was roundly criticized for the breakdowns.
Those games surely had more to do with Berhalter's omission than his club form. He has quietly enjoyed one of the best seasons of his 13-year career in Europe, serving as captain for Energie Cottbus as the club stands on the brink of promotion to the German Bundesliga. His club exploits weren't enough, though, and you wonder if coach Bruce Arena was worried about Berhalter being fatigued after pushing Cottbus toward promotion.
It isn't easy to argue with Arena's decision to select Jimmy Conrad ahead of Berhalter. Conrad has developed into one of the best, if not the best, defenders in Major League Soccer and his impressive form since recovering from hernia surgery put the pressure on Arena. With neither player expected to start this June, Arena might have decided to select the player more likely to accept a minimal role at the World Cup.
Playing in the World Cup this summer, in the very country where Berhalter now plies his trade, seemed like a dream scenario, but it wasn't meant to be. Sure, he could still wind up on the roster if another injury downs a defender on the roster (Chris Albright has already replaced Frankie Hejduk), but for now, Berhalter can only think about what could have been this summer and what almost was four years ago.
The first month of the MLS season is behind us and we've learned quite a bit already. We've learned that the pressure of making a World Cup roster can wreak havoc on a team, Texas is the new soccer hotbed and the folks in Utah still have no idea what they are doing.
May is going to make for a very interesting month as the players slated to play in the World Cup leave. This time of year was supposed to devastate New England, but now the Revs have three stars who will surely be playing with an edge after being passed over by Arena. Then there is the Galaxy, who will have to find a way to win without Landon Donovan. Someone should call Vegas to find out what the odds are that Steve Sampson is still head coach when Donovan returns from the World Cup.
Another week and another .500 record for yours truly. Now I know how Mo Johnston feels having to settle for a tie almost every week. Things will turn around this week, even though the five-game schedule does have some tricky matchups.
Los Angeles Galaxy at New England Revolution
Who would have thought that there would be more Galaxy players than Revs on the U.S. World Cup team? If you don't think New England's World Cup alternates aren't going to play with a chip on their shoulders, you should guess again. The Revs have struggled to defend and to create scoring chances, but look for the Galaxy to provide the perfect remedy.
Revolution 2, Galaxy 0
Chicago Fire at Kansas City Wizards
The Fire's offense finally showed signs of life last week while beating New England, but this week's opposing defense will be tougher to break down. The Wizards' offense should find more space to operate after playing D.C. United's stingy defense. Kansas City should be able to punish the Fire's slow central defense and stay in first place.
Wizards 2, Fire 1
FC Dallas at Houston Dynamo
The first installment of the I-45 Derby should be a thriller, with both Texas teams playing quality soccer. Dallas is coming off a thrilling victory against Kansas City and could be primed for a letdown against a Houston squad that is tough at home. Brian Ching is on fire and isn't likely to be slowed down by the Dallas defense as Houston hands the Hoops their first loss of the season.
Dynamo 2, FC Dallas 0
D.C. United at Colorado Rapids
The Rapids are usually tougher at home, but they face the toughest team in the league in D.C. United. Peter Nowak's men should have little trouble dominating the Rapids' midfield and creating a plethora of chances against Colorado. The Rapids need Clint Mathis to put some pressure on the D.C. defense, but that won't be enough to hand D.C. its first loss.
D.C. 1, Rapids 0
Columbus Crew at Real Salt Lake
There are can't-miss games and then there are games like this. Real Salt Lake is still searching for a win, and there aren't many better chances than against the young Crew. Look for a wide-open contest as the defensive issues of both teams allow the tortured fans in Salt Lake City to be treated to some high-scoring soccer.
Real Salt Lake 2, Crew 2
Last week: 3-3
Ives Galarcep covers MLS and U.S. soccer for ESPN.com and is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.