Chris Henderson is a big shot in the United States soccer community. As a player the Cascade High School graduate was a member of the U.S. men’s national team, earning 79 caps and being a part of the 1990 World Cup squad. As an executive he’s the sporting director for MLS club Inter Miami, and he’s currently hard at work in the offseason trying to continue Inter’s build into an MLS Cup contender.
But on Tuesday Henderson was a fan just like anyone else, sitting nervously on the edge of his seat and holding his breath as the ball squirted between the legs of U.S. goalkeeper Matt Turner in the waning moments of the game.
The U.S.’s tense 1-0 victory over Iran on Tuesday secured second place in Group B at the World Cup in Qatar. The U.S. advanced to face the Netherlands in the round of 16 at 7 a.m. (Pacific Time) Saturday.
And for Henderson, who’s Snohomish County’s connection to the U.S. men’s national team, watching the U.S. qualify for the knockout rounds was an intense source of pride.
“I feel incredible pride for this group,” Henderson said when reached by phone Thursday in Miami. “The Iran game was exciting, and the end was a little scary, but I’m really proud of the team.”
Henderson was a 19-year-old midfielder plucked straight from college soccer at UCLA when he was selected for the U.S. team that competed at the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Though he didn’t appear in any of the U.S.’s three games, watching this year’s team advance sparked memories of his own World Cup experience.
“I remember the work it takes to qualify for the World Cup,” Henderson said. “Qualifying takes a couple years, then the tournament starts and you snap your fingers and it’s over. But it’s memories I’ll have for my whole life. I look at this group and they’ll never be together again because there will always be changes, but they will always have this moment together. When I see people who I was teammates with 30 year ago we still go through those things together, it’s something you never lose.”
Yet on Tuesday he found himself fully in the role of a U.S. fan, sharing a room at Inter Miami’s headquarters with former England national team member and current Inter Milan head coach Phil Neville, watching the concurrent U.S.-Iran and England-Wales games on side-by-side televisions. Henderson was decked out in the jersey of U.S. star midfielder Weston McKinnie, rooting on his country as it needed a victory to advance to the knockout stage.
The U.S. controlled the first half and took the lead on Christian Pulisic’s 38th-minute goal. However, Iran increased the pressure in the second half, and the U.S. found itself holding on for dear life in the final minutes, which included nine minutes of stoppage time.
“I was nervous,” Henderson said. “I’ve been in those games where it gets easy to start dropping back to protect the goal. It’s why coaches try to train on how to play when you’re winning at the end of the game, or how to play when you need a goal. There were some amazing performances, Pulisic scoring that goal with a great assist from (Serginho) Dest. Honestly, I think the U.S. was the most consistent team in the group.”
Indeed, the U.S. went undefeated in group play, drawing 1-1 against Wales and 0-0 against England to the set up the win-and-advance game against Iran. Henderson said he was impressed by the central-defensive pair of Walker Zimmerman and Tim Ream, as well as by Turner in goal.
The U.S., which finished second in its group, faces one of the world’s traditional soccer powers in the round of 16 in the Netherlands, which went undefeated in topping Group A. Although the U.S. are underdogs, Henderson believes the Americans will pull off the upset.
“I think the U.S. has really good team spirit,” Henderson said. “They have a young team that believes in themselves, and they’ll get a ton of confidence from (advancing to the knockout rounds). In tournaments team spirit and motivation are important, you get on a roll when everyone is playing for each other. We don’t have a megastar like (Argentina’s Lionel) Messi (who Inter Miami is rumored to be pursuing) or (Portugal’s Cristiano) Ronaldo, it takes a total team effort, and I think we saw moments of that in the group stage.
“I think the pressure is on the Netherlands. Based on global soccer they should win, but I think the U.S. is going to advance.”
But regardless of Saturday’s result, Henderson believes advancing out of the group constitutes a successful World Cup for the U.S.
“It’s for sure a success,” Henderson said. “Look at Germany, which has been knocked out in the group stage two times in a row, and how many times have they won the World Cup? Some of the best countries in the world have been knocked out. Now there’s a chance to move on, and in one game anything can happen.
“I’ll have my jersey on Saturday and will be supporting them.”