On the day Gregg Berhalter officially is introduced as the new head coach of the United States men’s national team, you’re darned right I’m going to take credit for the idea.
It’s not like I launched a campaign for Berhalter to become the permanent replacement for Dave Sarachan, who was an interim replacement for Bruce Arena, who was an emergency replacement for Jurgen Klinsmann, whose arrogance started the U.S. men down the road to missing the 2018 World Cup and obviously needing a new direction.
Back in 2015, though, when Klinsmann’s suitability for the position began to be openly and regularly questioned in the public sphere, soccer writer Andrea Canales was asked on Twitter whether there were any coaches in Major League Soccer who might be attractive candidates. She mentioned 2013 MLS Cup champ Peter Vermes, 2006 and 2007 champ Dominic Kinnear, Oscar Pareja of FC Dallas and Jesse Marsch, then of the New York Red Bulls.
“Watch out for Berhalter,” I responded. “New to the job, but his team plays pretty soccer.”
That was near the end of Berhalter’s third season as Columbus Crew SC head coach and sporting director, and it became his most successful year. The Crew finished second in the Eastern Conference, reached the MLS Cup final and got the chance to host the championship game. They made the playoffs in four of his last five seasons in charge of the club and advanced every time, including a narrow loss in 2017 in the Eastern final to eventual champion Toronto FC.
It has been more than a month since it became apparent, though not quite definite, that Berhalter would be the choice of national team general manager Earnie Stewart. During that period there have been many questions about whether he has the resume to warrant such an enormous promotion. That is exactly the wrong question to ask.
Resumes do not scout talent, select players, organize them into cohesive, effective units and adjust when things inevitably go wrong. Coaches do that.
Berhalter consistently did this in Columbus despite one of the lowest payrolls, one of the least supportive fan bases and one of the squirreliest owners in the league. Columbus spent a little more than $136,000 in payroll for every point it accumulated in the 2018 regular season. Toronto spent $726,000.
His teams play a consistent, coherent style based on building possession from the back and using a creative central midfielder to fuel dynamic, attacking wings. Over the past four years, Columbus has fielded three different primary strikers: Kei Kamara, Ola Kamara and Gyasi Zardes. Each finished a season among the league’s top-five goal scorers. Berhalter’s system has been able to generate high-quality scoring opportunities regardless of which player was tasked with finishing the job.
“I am ready for this job,” Berhalter said upon being introduced at his New York press conference. “I am focused on style of play, and I’m focused on team cohesiveness. The closer we can come together, the closer we can come to achieving our goals.”
The process the U.S. Soccer Federation followed in arriving at Berhalter as head coach has been criticized widely, in part because it led to the job remaining in interim hands for more than a year, in part because it led to a coach with only a half-dozen years’ experience as a head coach and in part because that person is the brother of an executive within the USSF.
But all this was the price of the change demanded when the USMNT failed to qualify for Russia 2018. The presidency of U.S. Soccer changed hands, a determination was made to put the soccer decisions into more qualified hands, and then Philadelphia Union executive Earnie Stewart was hired to be that general manager and did not start his new job until Aug. 1. He was exceedingly thorough about identifying the person he wanted in the position.
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Chief commercial officer Jay Berhalter was part of the group that selected Stewart for the GM job, but he was excluded from the coaching search. Steward worked with several others at the federation to identify the qualities the U.S. desired in a new coach, and he “scored” the candidates regarding those items. He spoke with a lot of different coaches, had an initial pool of 33 candidates that was cut to 11, then to five, and to three. One of those three chose another direction; presumably that was Atlanta United’s Tata Martino becoming the next Mexico coach. Two were interviewed. Stewart recommended Berhalter.
One of the essential duties of the team executive is to recognize and pursue genuine coaching talent, something that can be a challenge to discern given the disparity of actual playing talent on the rosters those coaches are handed. Consider the case of Ohio State basketball’s Chris Holtmann. In the spring of 2013, he’d just completed his third season as head coach at Gardner Webb. His record was 10 games under .500 because he’d had to rebuild. He chose to accept an offer from Brandon Miller to become associate head at Butler, then after a year wound up as the Bulldogs’ interim head coach because Miller had to leave the job.
And now he is one of those college basketball coaches whom everybody in the business speaks of with reverence, because it’s so obvious his teams are tough, together and organized. After four NCAA Tournament seasons, he still has won just 60 percent of his games. The quality of his coaching exceeds the attractiveness of his resume.
Zinedine Zidane, as a coach, won three UEFA Champions League titles at Real Madrid. Does that automatically make him a better pure coach than, say, Jurgen Klopp? It’s not as simple as merely counting up the trophies. Zidane had superior talent to the opposition in about 99 percent of the games he coached.
As coach of the USMNT, Berhalter will have the better hand in a far lower percentage of his games. If he is successful at qualifying the team for the 2022 World Cup, which is the minimum level of acceptable performance, he will walk onto the fields of Qatar at a disadvantage in possibly two of the three group games.
“The idea is that we’re an attacking-based team that creates scoring opportunities by disorganizing the opponent,” Berhalter said. “We’ll do that in a number of different ways. Consistently during my time in Columbus we did it through buildup; we start the ball with the goalie in the back, if teams try to press us we play through them to create goal-scoring opportunities. Another way to do that is to use pressure.
“The idea is, it’s a fluid style … but we want to see ball circulation, breaking lines, creating goal-scoring opportunities.”
Berhalter was asked whether his style can work given that the U.S. often is at a talent disadvantage against opponents and occasionally tasked with playing in sub-par field conditions in World Cup qualifying against CONCACAF opponents.
“My job, and the job of the staff, is to work as hard as we can and give the players belief,” he said. “We know they’re quality players. I think with direction and belief we can achieve our goals, and then it’s just about being smart.
“You have to be realistic about where you’re going to play and when you’re going to play, but first and foremost we want a team that’s going to compete, we want a team that’s going to be prepared and that’s going to understand our style of play and be able to execute it.”
You can see who Berhalter is in those responses: intelligent, reflective, meticulous, aware. He is not the most dynamic personality the U.S. might have hired. He will not win a lot of press conferences with his humor and passion.
He might win games, though, because he is a coach who succeeds even when at a disadvantage. That’s the nature of U.S. men’s soccer now as it continues its evolution. Doing more with less isn’t always great for the resume, but if you’re a part of the team with “less,” it works out well.