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Instant Reaction: Gregg Berhalter as USMNT Head Coach

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The announcement isn’t official, but evidently it’s the worst kept secret for... months now. Here’s our reaction.

2015 MLS Cup - Portland Timbers v Columbus Crew SC

Well, the cat’s out of the bag. Or was never in the bag. Or has been out and roaming around, getting its hair everywhere for like a year now. Whatever. The metaphor doesn’t make any sense, but apparently, Gregg Berhalter is the new USMNT Head Coach.

Let’s unpack this news, shall we?

Nathan: So, yeah. I’ll start with the positive. Berhalter has a fine resume. He had a solid international career for the US and plenty of experience in his playing days over in Europe, including about seven years in the Bundesliga. He was solidly productive as well in Major League Soccer. Coaching-wise, it’s all fine - an assistant coach with Los Angeles, a couple of years with Hammerby in Sweden, and finally five years as head honcho with the Columbus Crew.

It’s clear the guy has some love and appreciation from a variety of voices in soccer and potentially was in the running for the open Galaxy position too.

To bring it closer to home, I really grew in respect for him after his Columbus side held FC Dallas to a scoreless draw in Frisco. You could tell that Oscar Pareja recognized the coaching ability, the tactics, and the discipline that Berhalter had his guys playing with. FC Dallas struggled a bit. Columbus looked cohesive and well-organized, not giving Dallas the openings they wanted. If he could get the USMNT to play like that, it could be fine.

Ben Lyon: Outside of a (lucky?) run to the 2015 MLS Cup final that resulted in a 2-1 loss to their guests at Crew Stadium in late fall (sound familiar?), Berhalter’s tenure at Columbus is highlighted by a couple of playoff misses, some ok regular season performances, and mostly uninspired playoff performances. You give him points for doing it in a small market for a club that looked all set not to be the Crew any more, I guess.

Nathan: So, then let’s get critical too.

First, this hire is the biggest dud, maybe only less a so-called surprise than Dominic Kinnear (probably) getting the job with Los Angeles. This move has been choreographed for a long time. It’s safe. There hasn’t been much drama to it. The United States Men’s National Team is at a turning point, and you go with a safe hire? That’s a let down.

Second, sure, Berhalter has a fine resume, he has experience, he knows the USMNT program, and he can put together some solid tactical plans. Fine. But is that enough? Is that really what this program needs to take the next step? Was Klinnsman’s big problem his lack of tactical acumen, or did Jurgen, like most coaches, have to try to win with what he has? Can Berhalter do that? Can Berhalter develop players? Will he push back against a national program that needs to continue to change?

Third, a common critique is that Berhalter hasn’t won anything. I don’t think that is showstopper, because it’s not like every player who wins a championship makes a good coach or every coach who has won a championship can help another team do that (*cough* Mike Stoops *cough*). However, winning championships isn’t just about getting into a groove and putting together a good plan - it’s often about getting little decisions right in pressure-packed environments. There is no bigger stage than a World Cup, never mind a soggy pitch against Trinidad and Tobago. How will Berhalter do in this scenario? Is he really ready?

Ben: Berhalter hasn’t won anything, but that isn’t even remotely disqualifying to me when you consider all of the other nonsense that went along with hiring a coach. Honestly, you have to start with the ‘regime change’ that was part of the impetus in delaying a new coach.

In Carlos Cordeiro, a former Goldman Sachs excecutive, US Soccer somewhat opaquely hired a new boss who was same as the old boss. This certainly didn’t inspire fans who were looking for a shake up at the Fed, and it hardly justified delaying the hire of a new coach who was already pretty well connected at US Soccer House. Cordeiro was elected almost 10 months ago.

In the name of ‘process’ and ‘reform’, US Soccer hired it’s first Men’s Team General Manager. It took almost 4 months longer to get that accomplished, but Ernie Stewart didn’t assume that position until August 1st. This was, of course, well after the end of the World Cup and a good time to look at other candidates who, at least on paper, would be superior options to Berhalter. Honestly, I don’t think the Fed ever wanted that. I think that they wanted Berhalter from the start, possibly before Cordeiro even was elected.

So after waiting all that time, missing out on a plethora of new national team coaches with recently refreshed cv’s, and depending on what story you believe, totally blowing off a former Spain and Real Madrid coach, it was down to the annointed one, and...I’m really not sure. Were any interviews made with other candidates with intent beyond optics?

One person of note at US Soccer this whole time (before the Cordeiro election and before Stewart started as GM) was Gregg Berhalter’s brother Jay who is the Chief Commercial Officer at US Soccer. Allegedly, Jay recused himself from the process, but that’s going to be a tough sell when we live in an era where the unvetted and unqualified children of leadership globe trot functioning as diplomatic emissaries, trade representatives, and official representation that requires expertise that there’s no evidence they have. To Gregg’s credit, he’s at least been a head manager for a while, so it isn’t quite as brazenly bad.

Nathan: Let’s finish with a small prediction. How will he do?

For me, I’ll stay cautiously optimistic. He deserves a chance, and maybe the people who talked to him and were convinced to hire him... like a year ago... are excited for a reason. Maybe he is the right choice for now. Maybe he will grow into the position. Certainly, he can’t do any worse than Bruce Arena did.

I think the US will make next the World Cup, though it will be a rocky journey (really shocking take there, I know) but that the future will remain kind of cloudy. I’m not intentionally using poetic language, but even though I think Berhalter is going to be fine (I keep using that word) in the long run, I’m not sure it solves or moves the USMNT forward. So, we’ll see.

Ben: In some ways, a nepotism hire is perfect to lead us into a World Cup in Qatar secured by rampant bribery and built on slave labor. It’s a real feather in our cap as we wrap up (I hope) the New Gilded Age we’re living in. CONCACAF is still low-hanging fruit when it comes to qualification, and it took the worst performance in the Hex in US history for us to bow out last time. Only another Bruce Arena could screw this up, and Gregg Berhalter’s professional coaching career started as an assistant to (checks notes) Bruce Arena. Gah!

Look, this hiring is far from something to get excited about, but I do have a couple of concerns aside from what was a horrible process to get to Gregg Berhalter. First off, Berhalter’s going to have to come in quickly and get the team fired up. This is not great. If Arena failed here, and Arena’s assistant failed to improve/made worse the morale, is kind of questionable that a 2nd Arena assistant is going to right the ship. It’s certainly not impossible, but this might not be a full cycle gig for Berhalter.

Second, this new group is going to be very young, and it absolutely should be. Gregg Berhalter’s record at youth development in Columbus consists almost entirely of Wil Trapp and Zach Steffen. Ben Sweat and Romain Gall both earned their first caps with the ‘Nats this fall, and both were on Berhalter’s Crew teams where they mostly rotted on the bench. After moving elsewhere, they flourished with both going to the lower divisions before earning callups with their current teams (NYCFC and Malmo, respectively). That seems like a pretty thin development record for 5 years, and it’s fair to wonder if that’ll be a detriment with what should be the new core of the ‘Nats. Ultimately, the US will qualify for the next World Cup, but I’m only about 50-50 that Berhalter is the coach in Qatar.

Questions:

What’s your take? How are you feeling about this hire? What is good about it, and what is worthy of critique?