Gregg Berhalter is a stunning but sensible choice for USMNT – with a glaring question mark
Gregg Berhalter’s six-month limbo began in the fog, the drama still silent and the wounds still fresh. It began with roiling emotions the morning after leaving the World Cup, but before the rekindling of the family feud that changed his life. On December 4th all was quiet; There have been no investigations, no executive impeachments, no confidential comments gone awry. But there was Uncertainty. Berhalter’s future was in part in the hands of his boss, Earnie Stewart. As they chatted over a lively barbecue at Qatar’s Marsa Malaz Kempinski that night, Berhalter wasn’t sure if Stewart wanted him back as head coach of the US men’s national team.
But Stewart more or less knew. According to multiple sources familiar with their mindset, he and US Soccer were leaning heavily towards keeping Berhalter. The polarizing manager retired to his room that night and was seen as a favorite for the job, for reasons Stewart and the players have since set out.
Then he got sick, rearranged his travel plans, attended a leadership summit and told a story, and everything changed. The story was published, prompting Gio Reyna’s parents to bring to light decades-long trauma and launch an investigation that led to a mess, a reshuffle in US football and the assumption that Berhalter would not be reinstated.
But as temperatures cooled, the limbo dragged on, and the search for coaches began to take shape, a familiar rationale emerged.
Berhalter had created a culture. He had inspired faith. The players liked him. You fought for him. They had played progressive football. They had taken steps together. They longed for an opportunity to continue their growth.
And all of this is just as true on June 16 as it was on December 4, save for one tricky detail. Because of this, US Soccer made the surprising decision to reappoint Berhalter. That’s a sensible thing to do – as long as that one thorny detail can be sorted out.
US Soccer’s search ends where it began
Berhalter’s popularity in the dressing room gradually increased after Qatar. A consensus is of course always difficult to assess, but common themes have emerged. “I think the hardest thing for a coach is to get everyone moving in the same direction,” said DeAndre Yedlin inside the Khalifa International Stadium, just an hour after the World Cup defeat by the Netherlands, when asked about Berhalter. “I think he did it very well. He got everyone excited about the culture. And that is the most important.”
Critics, meanwhile, have been obsessed with specific Berhalter tactics. But in and around the team and among the federation’s forward-thinking leaders, it became clear that mood took precedence over tactics. Stewart recalled arriving in Qatar in a February interview with Emox News and felt “a real, strong feeling in this group that they could win against anyone.” That’s something I think is so powerful. And that’s something that didn’t happen overnight, but something that Gregg and his staff have been working on for a long time. And I think he’s done a great job of creating that culture.
“And is everything we’ve done perfect?” Stewart continued. “NO. … I don’t think that will ever be the case. But I think he did a really good job.”
Matt Crocker succeeded Stewart as athletic director in April and inherited a charter. However, at his introductory press conference, he outlined the core competencies and a recognizable picture emerged.
“For me,” Crocker said, “leadership is the most important thing.” We need the right leader. We need the right head coach to give ownership and accountability to the players to build a really, really strong culture or develop that really, really strong culture.”
He spoke of “forming emotional connections with the players” – the kind of connections that would lead, say, a crying player into the arms of a coach after a round of 16 loss to the Netherlands.
He also spoke about identities on the field, but focused on “reproducing” what had already been created, “an aggressive, forward-thinking, fearless team.”
“Playstyle is going to be really important,” Crocker said. “Obviously Gregg has laid some great foundations.”
When he left Southampton, Crocker embarked on a supposedly worldwide search, but the man he was essentially describing still lived in US Soccer’s backyard in Chicago. When the team met in March without Berhalter, the players supported him. As they prepared for the Nations League final, interim coach BJ Callaghan poured ideas from him. After beating Mexico on Thursday night to extend their unbeaten streak to six since Berhalter’s era, Christian Pulisic announced that Berhalter’s fingerprints were everywhere.
“Today is a testament to the work he put into this team,” said Pulisic.
Other candidates came forward, including Jesse Marsch for boss, but all had flaws, many for the same reason. “A lot of the discussion,” US Soccer CEO JT Batson told Emox News on Tuesday, “revolves around making sure that coaching a club team is distinct from coaching a national team,” the latter of which Marsch, Patrick Vieira and others have never had did. Berhalter had managed it with some success.
“There is much to do”
Berhalter, of course, had his own flaw. His relationship with Gio Reyna’s parents, formerly best friends of the family, was broken. Gio, meanwhile, had said in a Dec. 12 Instagram statement that he was “disappointed” and “extremely surprised that anyone from the USA men’s team would contribute to the ongoing coverage of his World Cup drama — which Berhalter had done by he detailed Gio’s wrongdoing during a session at a leadership summit on December 6.
The two men have not spoken since.
Gio, meanwhile, has not given any interviews. His feelings towards Berhalter remain a mystery. And his talent remains among the brightest players in the US.
So there is a relationship that needs to be repaired. “I would definitely acknowledge that there is still work to be done,” Berhalter said at his opening press conference on Friday. He said he planned to meet up with Gio later in the summer, before camp in September, when he will regain control of the team.
“And Gio is an important player for this team, he is an extremely talented person,” said Berhalter. “And I have the obligation and commitment to coach him like I coach any other player. And I want to get the best out of him, we want to get the best out of him. And we know that if we can unleash his talents, he will transform this program forever.
“So there’s still work to be done, and part of that is working with Matt and trying to rebuild a relationship that we know will be important going forward.”
Whether they can rebuild it remains questionable. But during an intense interview process, after a 10-hour day last week, Berhalter was sufficiently able to convince Crocker that he could. Berhalter impressed Crocker with his interpersonal qualities – communication, influencing, listening. “Gregg turned out to be a person of tremendous leadership ability and competence,” Crocker said.
In the end, it wasn’t a unanimous decision. The US Soccer board, which must approve the hiring of coaches, had what Batson called “a very lively discussion.” Batson admitted that one board member “did not vote yes” when Crocker presented his election to the board on Thursday.
But he was the players’ choice. And that’s why he’s reasonable.
From the start, Crocker had asked players what they wanted in a head coach. “That allowed me to develop a really comprehensive coaching framework,” he said on Friday. “So the players were actually part of the process all along.” In the end, they got their man. And Berhalter got his team back.