USMNT’s 3G era is officially underway: US Soccer has announced Gregg Berhalter will fill the US Men’s National Team’s head coaching vacancy. He will be formally introduced to media and fans at a press conference on Tuesday, December 4 at 12:00 pm, Eastern - streamed live on ussoccer.com.
Under normal circumstances, Berhalter might at worst be considered a dull choice. He is qualified: a respected player and coach with high-level experience on both sides of the Atlantic. Berhalter played for clubs in the Netherlands, England, Germany, and latterly the USA. His first head coaching job was at Hammarby in Sweden and he’s been in charge of Columbus Crew since 2013. Berhalter won MLS Cup and two Supporters’ Shields with LA Galaxy before he retired as a player; he earned 44 USMNT caps and played in two World Cups. As a coach, he led Columbus to the 2015 MLS Cup final (which the Crew lost); he was also the head coach at Hammarby when former New York Red Bulls forward Luke Rodgers joined the club.
His most significant achievement since he moved into coaching might have been guiding Columbus Crew through an entirely respectable 2018 season (5th place in the Eastern Conference standings and exiting the playoffs in the Conference semifinals) while the club’s ownership was apparently trying burn it to the ground. US Soccer is not likely to announce it intends to move USMNT to Algeria in search of more sustainable finances, so Berhalter has probably already weathered the most difficult situation of his coaching career. And if USSF does manage to start a fire off the pitch, Berhalter has shown this year that he can keep a team focused on what’s happening on the field even when those in the executive suites appear to have lost their minds.
Berhalter is a safe choice: a national team player in his day, a respected coach in MLS, and a blood relative of one of the more senior executives in US Soccer.
This is in contrast to Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure as USMNT head coach. Klinsmann was an outsider to the US soccer establishment, hired to be a change agent. But (somewhat predictably since he seems to do it wherever he goes as a coach) he took his disruption brief so far that he became increasingly isolated from a significant number of USMNT fans, players, administrators, executives, and media. Klinsi cut American soccer legend Landon Donovan from the USMNT squad on the brink of the 2014 World Cup and enraged MLS Commissioner Don Garber so much that Garber once called a press conference specifically to rant about Klinsmann.
During that rant, Garber essentially demanded Klinsmann fall in line:
We need deep alignment with everyone who is an influencer in the sport. I not only ask this but I insist that everyone who is paid to work in this sport that they align with the vision.
Berhalter can be assumed to be suitably aligned with whatever the vision might be. His brother, Jay, is an influential executive at US Soccer - currently its chief commercial and strategy officer, per SI’s Grant Wahl - and was instrumental in hiring USMNT General Manager Earnie Stewart.
Jay hired Earnie; Earnie hired Gregg:
Did Jay Berhalter tell you that?— Jimmy Conrad (@JimmyConrad) May 28, 2018
Therein lies the problem Berhalter has been handed by those who appointed him. Having a brother, whatever he might do for a living, is not a disqualifying factor for the position of USMNT head coach, but US Soccer has not done a particularly good job of pre-empting charges of nepotism.
Based on years of conversations, let me say something many fans may not know - it's difficult to overstate the importance of Jay Berhlater behind the scenes at Soccer House. G. Berhalter deserves a shot BUT anyone who isn't somewhat suspicious doesn't know how #USSF works.#USMNT— Kartik Krishnaiyer (@kkfla737) December 2, 2018
The hiring process has been long and opaque. Bruce Arena resigned as USMNT head coach in October 2018, after the team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Dave Sarachan coached the team for more than a year on an interim basis, and in that time the list of potential candidates US Soccer had not interviewed grew and grew: Jesse Marsch, Peter Vermes, Tata Martino, Juan Carlos Osorio, Tab Ramos, Bob Bradley, Julen Lopetegui - media hopefully cast around for names that might be in the hat and kept coming up empty.
Seemingly conscious of the fact that the shine was coming off its new hire before he’d even officially been appointed, US Soccer did start to try to address the question of what exactly it had been doing with all the time it had to find someone - anyone - other than Gregg Berhalter to interview for the USMNT job.
Just last week, via Doug McIntyre at Yahoo Sports, word got out that there had been a shortlist of four candidates. One of them was reportedly Oscar Pareja - who had said in September that he hadn’t been interviewed for the job. Quite so, McIntyre’s source reported: Pareja was interviewed after that new was broken. How convenient.
No word on who the other candidates might have been, and by the time Berhalter was appointed the official line from US Soccer was that only two candidates were interviewed from a shortlist of 11, selected from an initial list of 33.
Those seeking to defend US Soccer’s methods would point out that the federation was pushed off balance during the last few months of Klinsmann’s tenure with USMNT, then fell into full-fledged disarray when Bruce Arena failed to pick up the pieces of Klinsi’s World Cup qualifying campaign and the USA missed out on a World Cup for the first time since 1986.
Arena resigned in October, 2017; in December, USSF president Sunil Gulati indicated he wouldn’t seek re-election - US Soccer had to deal with the first contested election for its presidency since 1998, which ultimately delivered Carlos Cordeiro to the job in February; Earnie Stewart didn’t start the job of USMNT General Manager until August, 2018: USSF has been busy, just not all that busy with hiring a head coach for the men’s national team.
A charitable view of events would suggest Stewart started the hiring process for a head coach for USMNT in August and has found his man by December and that seems entirely reasonable.
A less charitable view would note that Berhalter - who was both head coach and sporting director at Columbus Crew - was available this time last year and presumably have been just as capable as Sarachan of managing USMNT while US Soccer put its house in order. Indeed, if the fix was in for Gregg, brother of Jay, why not hand him a year to establish his credentials and effectively settle the question of whether or not he could do the job under cover of an “interim” appointment?
Curiously, USSF’s bungling of the optics around his hiring might be what most qualifies Berhalter for the job at this moment in time. He appears not to have a put a foot wrong in Columbus during a time when the club’s ownership was at war with its fanbase. Emerging with his reputation unscathed from #SaveTheCrew was surely much more challenging than handling a few questions about negligence and nepotism around his appointment to a job for which he is manifestly qualified.
Berhalter can be expected to shrug off the questions, ask to be judged on results, and get on with the task of putting together a roster for USMNT’s January training camp as he looks ahead to this summer’s Gold Cup. He has been dealing with off-field drama all year, he can handle a little more on USSF’s behalf. If and when the questions about his suitability for the job are based on results on the field and not shenanigans in the executive offices, he’ll have a more serious problem. Until then, he’s just coaching another team backed by sub-optimal administrators: he can handle that challenge.