It took 14 months, but the United States men’s national soccer team finally has a full-time head coach. On Sunday, U.S. Soccer announced that Gregg Berhalter would be taking the reins of the USMNT going forward. His contract runs through the 2022 World Cup.
As a player, Berhalter earned 44 caps for the USMNT and played for the team at two World Cups. He jumped into coaching immediately after retirement, starting out as an assistant with the LA Galaxy before taking over at Hammarby in Sweden. Berhalter was let go in 2013 after his team struggled to score in his final campaign, which he says led him to rethink his system.
It didn’t take long for Berhalter to land softly with the Columbus Crew, who he led to the playoffs in four of his five seasons, making the MLS Cup final once, in 2015. In Columbus, he created MLS’s most possession-oriented team, regularly finishing near the top of MLS in various passing statistics.
If Berhalter brings that style to the USMNT, it will mark a massive change for the Americans. Former manager Jurgen Klinsmann made a brief, half-hearted attempt to shift away from his predecessor’s direct counter-attacking style before quickly reverting to direct tactics. Bruce Arena’s attempts to dominate possession ended in disaster. A two-striker, long ball oriented system seems to be in the team’s blood, but Berhalter is going to be tasked with making better use of the program’s more technically adept players.
That’s a big enough challenge in and of itself, but Berhalter will also have to undertake it under a shadow of doubt that he got the job on merit. U.S. Soccer’s hiring process was constantly delayed, deeply flawed, and notably, included Berhalter’s brother.
14 months, for this?
Bruce Arena was fired last October, and president Sunil Gulati followed him out the door shortly afterwards. U.S. Soccer did not want to act to hire a new permanent head coach until it elected a new president, but the delays got worse and more inexplicable after that. It took six months from Carlos Cordeiro’s election for new general manager Earnie Stewart to get to work, and it took him a further four months to hire a coach.
As Grant Wahl notes, Stewart was the favorite to be named GM from the beginning of Cordeiro’s reign, so it’s not clear why it took six months to hire him. It’s also not clear why Stewart took four months to hire a coach when he only considered two candidates seriously enough to actually interview them — Berhalter and Oscar Pareja, as reported by Doug McIntyre.
The lack of serious candidates and the seemingly narrow nature of Stewart’s search won’t sit well with fans who think U.S. Soccer is in need of some outsiders to come in and bust up its insular culture. Gregg Berhalter’s older brother, Jay Berhalter, is the Chief Commercial Officer of U.S. Soccer and its second-highest paid employee. U.S. Soccer insists that Jay Berhalter was not involved in the coaching search, but he was on the GM search committee and signed off on Stewart’s hiring. While Jay Berhalter’s job title suggests a strictly commercial-side role, he spent some time as a technical-side administrator after Klinsmann’s job responsibilities were reduced, and he took on additional responsibilities after U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn underwent a heart transplant.
Multiple sources have characterized Jay Berhalter as the most influential person within U.S. Soccer — Flynn is retiring shortly and Cordeiro openly admits he doesn’t know much about the sporting side. This doesn’t disqualify his brother from the USMNT job — Gregg Berhalter is undoubtedly qualified for it — but it does mean that there needed to be more distance between Jay Berhalter and technical decisions, and that Stewart needed to seriously consider more candidates.
The only way to make this not look really bad is for Gregg Berhalter’s team to perform at a high level very quickly.
What is the USMNT getting in Berhalter?
In addition to Gregg Berhalter’s relationship to U.S. Soccer’s most influential executive, you’re likely to see a lot of people pointing to his personal relationship with Earnie Stewart as something that helped him get the gig. It’s much more likely that Berhalter and Stewart just see eye-to-eye on some key philosophical issues — namely how to structure training sessions, playing out from the back, putting a lot of stock in shot statistics, and valuing the same types of players.
Berhalter spent six seasons of his professional career playing in the Netherlands, and that’s where he developed a big chunk of his coaching philosophy. Here’s what he told Paul Tenorio in a 2017 interview:
“The positional play comes directly from Holland. When I was there in my first years, I started writing notes down and writing journals down about the training sessions, about how I saw the ideal formation, what attributes we needed in each position. And when I look back on it, it’s not necessarily what we do now, but there was a lot of discussion in Holland. That was the best part about going there early in my career. Because after training, after games, all you do is discuss with teammates about the game. That’s all you’re doing. Tactically. So it’s really interesting. That had a huge part of forming who I am.”
It’s becoming increasingly clear that U.S. Soccer is being remodeled with heavy KNVB influences. Nico Romeijn, U.S. Soccer’s director of coaching education, is Dutch and previously held the same position with the Dutch FA. He was on the committee that hired Stewart, a Dutch-American who was the technical director at Dutch clubs NAC Breda and AZ Alkmaar.
This is a broad generalization, but to give a quick understanding to the unfamiliar: Dutch soccer has a reputation as being about keeping possession with technically adept players and intelligent movement off the ball. If you were to set a heiracrchy of skills that most Dutch coaches seem to value, it goes something like:
2. Intelligence and tactical awareness
3. Creativity and flair
4. Physical skills
This is the exact inverse of what American soccer has valued for most of its existence, until very recently. Many of the youth coaches hired during the Klinsmann era started pushing U.S. Soccer in this direction, and the organization seems to be pushing all in on this philosophy under Berhalter and Cordeiro.
A possession-oriented style is often associated with attacking soccer, possession does not inherently equal attack or ambition. Possession can be used as a defensive mechanism too. Berhalter’s Columbus Crew certainly did that — they allowed the fewest shots in MLS in 2018.
“If you have the ball, you’re forcing the opponent to move, which is taking energy from the opponent,” Berhalter tells SB Nation. “The second thing is that if you have the ball, your opponent can’t score.”
But Berhalter, like most coaches, would like to be categorized as someone who’s trying to play attractive, attacking soccer. He’s probably especially sensitive about this since he got fired from Hammarby for a lack of goals, something that Columbus had a problem with in 2018 as well.
When asked to summarize his possession-based philosophy, Berhalter said “we want to use the ball to disorganize the opponent to create goal-scoring opportunities.”
The Crew were sixth in MLS in possession in 2018, and third in passing percentage, suggesting that they turned the ball over in ways other than misplaced passes, and they weren’t terrific at winning the ball back either.
Berhalter, a fan of the expected goals statistic, will not have been thrilled with his team’s shot selection either. While the Crew were great at creating tap-ins for Gyasi Zardes — he scored 19 goals, and the team as a whole was fourth in MLS at shots from inside the six-yard box — they weren’t good at creating other quality shots. They were fifth in shots outside the box and only 13th in shots inside the penalty area.
But despite the poor shot selection, the Crew still should have been much better than their minus-2 goal differential this season. They were the biggest underperformers in the league on xG by far. Their bad luck is partially explained by some poor performances by goalkeeper Zack Steffen who, despite winning goalkeeper of the year on the back of his great distribution and sensational highlight plays, was actually a totally average player this season.
Columbus also couldn’t get shots on target to save its life. Winger Pedro Santos, box-to-box midfielder Artur and right back Harrison Afful were the biggest bad shot culprits — they combined for 171 shots, but just three goals. The Crew had an incredibly low shots on target rate, putting fewer shots on frame than the next nine teams below them that took fewer total shots.
All of the numbers suggest that the Crew were a philosophically sound team that had a lot of poor individual performers. At club level, that’s easy to fix. Had Berhalter stayed with the Crew, he likely would have sold or traded a half-dozen players, brought in new ones, and improved in 2019. But he doesn’t have that luxury at national team level. He can drop some players and try out new ones, but for the most part, he’s stuck with the squad he’s handed.
Does Berhalter’s style fit the USMNT?
The players in Tab Ramos’ CONCACAF title-winning Under-20 team are probably better suited to Berhalter’s style than many of the players in the senior team, and the players coming up through the Under-17s are largely even more technically adept. But Berhalter will have to get players who are in their 20s right now playing a new style, against tougher opposition than Berhalter faced in MLS, and with fewer training sessions to get his ideas across.
For better or worse, this is likely where Columbus captain Wil Trapp will play a massive role. The defensive midfielder is the pivotal (soccer puns!) player in Berhalter’s system. The key to getting the USMNT playing out of the back and dominating possession will be a DM who understands exactly how Berhalter wants him to progress the ball up the pitch, as well as the positioning of all of his teammates. Trapp is physically limited and poor at winning the ball compared to the players he’s in competition with, but Berhalter is likely to turn to him to establish his system until someone else proves they can run the show as well as Trapp.
The American center backs have also been turnover machines as of late. Berhalter has turned technically average defenders into decent passers at Columbus, but that’s easier to do with a team you coach full time. Berhalter won’t exactly have the luxury of completely retraining players. He’ll likely have to pick good passers that he knows aren’t the best available defenders, or make changes to his style.
But the biggest problem that Berhalter has to solve for is the lack of a true attacking midfield maestro. Federico Higuain was the key player in Berhalter’s Crew teams — he was a versatile threat who could play one-twos with his striker, dribble past a defender, play a through ball, switch the ball out wide, or score from long distance. His complete game attracted attention from defenses and opened up space for other players. The USMNT does not currently have a Pipa Higuain.
Bruce Arena tried using Christian Pulisic in that role to mixed results. In some games, Pulisic was unplayable. In others, he was invisible. This is fairly normal for an exceptionally talented teenager. But Pulisic has only played on the wings at club level, so there are still a lot of questions to be answered about whether he can play as a No. 10 regularly for the national team.
Julian Green has filled in at that role recently, also with mixed results. Weston McKennie has shown flashes of brilliance in his limited time as an attacking midfielder for Schalke, but isn’t a particularly creative passer, and is probably better suited for a box-to-box role. Berhalter and his staff have a tough decision to make about who can fill that role well, and if the answer is “no one,” how he can effectively execute his philosophy with a completely different formation and type of player in attack.
There’s no doubt that Gregg Berhalter is a good coach, and that he has a more cohesive tactical plan than any of his recent predecessors. But the USMNT does not obviously fit that plan at the moment, so he has a very difficult job ahead of him.