The search for a new head coach for the U.S. men's national team has finally reached its conclusion. It took only 13 months from the time that Bruce Arena resigned in the wake of the team's failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Given that timeframe, one might have expected GM Earnie Stewart and the rest of the U.S. Soccer Federation hierarchy to make a big splash. Instead, the USSF chose Gregg Berhalter to be the program's 37th manager.
Berhalter was long considered the front-runner, and the rather secretive approach the USSF took to arriving at his appointment has raised eyebrows, but now that he has been chosen, here's what fans can expect from the former Columbus Crew manager.
After a year-long 'search,' is Berhalter the right hire?
In many ways, Berhalter is a safe pick. He comes from the U.S. soccer system and is a known quantity. He is unlikely to try to shake things up within the Fed in the way that Jurgen Klinsmann did. Berhalter's record with Columbus (67-58-45 over five seasons) isn't necessarily eye-catching, either. He didn't win a single trophy while with the Crew, unlike competitors like Sporting Kansas City's Peter Vermes, RB Leipzig assistant Jesse Marsch (when he was with the New York Red Bulls), former FC Dallas manager Oscar Pareja or Toronto FC's Greg Vanney.
But looked at another way, Berhalter squeezed plenty out of a Crew side that had one of the lowest payrolls in MLS, making the playoffs in four of his five seasons in Columbus. His reputation as a teacher with an almost obsessive attention to tactical detail could serve him well given that he's set to inherit a very young pool of players. There will be peaks and valleys, and it will require plenty of patience to navigate the team through those periods. The fact that he spent the bulk of his playing career overseas should give him a fair amount of street cred, as should his brief stint coaching overseas.
When asked whether he thought Berhalter was the right choice, Atlanta United defender Michael Parkhurst, who spent three seasons in Columbus under Berhalter, said, "I don't think there's only one option. I think a few guys could have been great hires. But I think everyone respects Gregg tactically and what he can do on the field with a team and how organized he is. I think that everyone thinks he's one of the best American coaches, and I agree.
"If the plan was to bring in an American, then absolutely, I think he's the right hire."
In terms of his background, Berhalter had a solid, if unspectacular, career as a player. He spent the bulk of it overseas, with his first professional stint coming in 1994 with Dutch side Zwolle, and later moving on to Sparta Rotterdam and Cambuur Leeuwarden. Berhalter then spent a solitary season with English side Crystal Palace. His longest spell came with German side Energie Cottbus, where he played for four seasons, helping them win promotion to the Bundesliga. He later moved to 1860 Munich before finishing his career in MLS with the LA Galaxy, winning the 2011 Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup double in his final season.
At the international level, Berhalter made 44 appearances and was part of the U.S. roster at the 2002 and 2006 World Cup.
After serving as a player/assistant with the Galaxy under Arena, Berhalter began his managerial career with Swedish side Hammarby prior to the 2012 campaign. He was fired midway through his second season with the club over concerns about the state of the team's attack. He joined up with Columbus prior to the 2014 campaign.
Berhalter's first task will be overseeing the January camp, with two friendlies slated for late January and early February. At that point, the process of winning over the players will begin. Ultimately his decisions in terms of personnel, tactics and man management will be what carry the day. Suffice it to say, the mountain Berhalter is being asked to scale is plenty steep. He'll need to bring a young squad together amid the backdrop of a search that is being perceived as less than robust.
What can we expect from Berhalter's USMNT?
Berhalter is known as a cerebral, tactically detailed manager who emphasizes possession. His outside backs, at least when he was in Columbus, are known to surge forward in a bid to get service into the box. (Crew SC right back Harrison Afful had six assists this year.)
"I think Gregg is one of the best tactical coaches that I've played for," said Parkhurst.
"He just knows the game very well, has his team very organized and prepared for each opponent and different tactical ways he wants to approach the game. He's just very detail oriented in that way, and sets his team up for success. Everyone knows how well Columbus play, and how difficult they are to play against. That's because of Gregg and [assistant coach Josh Wolff].
"The work that we do on the field tactically, the video that we watch ... it's intense, it's a lot. He works hard, and I think he's a great hire."
Berhalter is also capable of being flexible. During the 2017 Eastern Conference finals against Toronto FC, Berhalter toggled back and forth between three-man and four-man back lines in a bid to thwart TFC's high-powered attack. (Toronto ended up winning 1-0 on aggregate.) Parkhurst feels this is an area where Berhalter has grown as he's gotten more experience.
"I think that my first year there, it was one way to play and that was about it," he said. "My second year when we played the New York Red Bulls in the conference final [in 2015], we basically just kicked long balls up to Kei [Kamara]. That was a big adjustment and now this past year he tinkered with different formations a lot during the year. I think he's become more flexible with what the game entails, or with his team and the players available. But the overall picture stays the same, and I think that's a good thing."
Berhalter is also known as a teacher though he tended to rely on veterans in Columbus. Yet one area that will bear watching is in the area of man management and how he'll connect with the team's biggest players. Back in 2016, a feud between midfielder Federico Higuain and then-Crew forward Kei Kamara festered to the point that it burst out into the open. Kamara was traded soon thereafter, but there is a sense it could have been handled better. Berhalter has no doubt learned from that experience, and the coming months will reveal just how much.
The extent to which he'll adopt his preferred style with the U.S. is an open question. While there are outside backs like DeAndre Yedlin, and even Shaq Moore, who seem to fit his desired profile, the left back position has been notoriously difficult to fill. Keeping the ball has also been a weakness for the U.S., especially against high-caliber opponents.
Next summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup will be his first major test.
How did U.S. Soccer end up picking him over everyone else?
Much of the search for a new U.S. men's manager has been shrouded in secrecy, with details only coming out in dribs and drabs. This conveyed the impression that Berhalter was the choice from the beginning and that the search was largely for show and not at all thorough. Yet the USSF is denying this assertion.
In a statement, USSF indicated that it compiled an initial list of about 33 candidates. These included the usual suspects both foreign and domestic, such as Vermes, Marsch, Atlanta United's Tata Martino, U.S. U-20 manager Tab Ramos and then-Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio. Of course, this is the bare minimum of what one would expect in the early stages. It doesn't guarantee a robust search.
Upon being hired as USMNT general manager, Stewart developed a profile of his ideal coach. These requirements included fluency in English, experience managing a professional club or senior national team, use of analytics, as well as "added value qualifications" like familiarity with MLS and the U.S. player pool, a willingness to work collaboratively and not focus solely on the national team.
"It's very important to have a coach that can actually implement a playing style that takes into account the players that you have," said Stewart. "Within that style, it's trying to find a formation and a way of playing to get results. I was looking for someone that demonstrated a clear ability to implement a style of play where the players knew their roles and it showed in the results his team attained on the field."
Once the profile was applied, the list shrank to 11 candidates, a group that included multiple coaches from abroad. Martino was out because of his lack of proficiency in English. Vermes was eliminated because of his desire to control every aspect of the program down to youth level, much like he does at SKC (which is also similar to how Klinsmann managed the U.S. national team). The fact that Ramos had managed only at youth level, and never a professional or senior national team, proved to be a fatal blow to his candidacy. Why Marsch didn't get more consideration remains an unknown.
One coach who made the cut was Osorio, and a source familiar with the process indicated that Osorio did have informal discussions with Stewart about the job. But his timeline for accepting a new post didn't align with Stewart's, and the Colombian opted to move on quickly and sign with Paraguay. (Osorio was asked whether this was true, but in a series of voice mail exchanges with ESPN FC colleague Tom Marshall, he did not address the question.)
The list was eventually culled to five candidates, a group that included Pareja, who at the time was managing FC Dallas but has since moved on to Club Tijuana. Two of the candidates dropped out of the running at their own choosing. Pareja and Berhalter were deemed the two finalists.
Should it have taken this long? No, although the election of a new USSF president in Carlos Cordeiro and Stewart's hiring are understandable factors, it shouldn't have taken another six months after Stewart was named to reach this point. The process has also done little to dispel the notion that the USSF remains insular in its ways given that some obvious candidates such as Vermes and Marsch weren't spoken to. The three other candidates aside from Pareja and Berhalter remain a mystery. That said, Stewart, who insisted he would take his time in finding the right coach, now has his man, and the U.S. program can at least begin to move forward.
"Gregg has the background as a person, successful coach and former player," Stewart said. "When it comes to the base and added value qualifications, he scored extremely high. His willingness, work ethic and ideas about developing this player pool and influencing these players in and outside of camp and the thought process he has about that -- constantly seeking new things -- set him apart.
"He is a coach that is learning at all times. Every single day he tries to develop himself so he can be a better leader for the team that he has. That is something that really stood out with Gregg and went a long way in the decision to offer him the job."
The elephant in the room: Berhalter's brother
The USSF has been at pains to insist that Berhalter's brother Jay, who serves as the USSF's chief commercial officer, has played no part in the search for a new manager. But the fact that Jay Berhalter was involved in the hiring of Stewart invites skepticism.
Simply put, the USSF executive should have never been involved in any aspect of Stewart's hiring and didn't need to be given Stewart's obvious qualifications. Do I think Stewart rolled over and cruised through the process? No. But the USSF didn't help itself by allowing Jay to be involved in Stewart's hiring. It has only served to undermine Gregg Berhalter's tenure and add considerable pressure before he's so much as picked up a whistle, even though he is qualified for the job. That is on the USSF, not Berhalter.
With Dan Flynn set to retire as the USSF's secretary general and CEO, Jay Berhalter has been suggested as a candidate to replace him. While the responsibilities of the position are primarily on the business side, the role involves overseeing the day-to-day operations of the entire federation. Stewart's role as GM sees him report to the secretary general.
Given Gregg Berhalter's hiring, if Jay Berhalter were named to the post, the mere appearance of a conflict of interest would be gargantuan. And if things go sideways with the U.S. men's national team under Gregg Berhalter's stewardship, his brother would be far from a disinterested observer.
The USSF has stated that unlike under previous president Sunil Gulati, any change in manager would be made at the behest of the board of directors, but the secretary general still wields immense influence within the organization. The USSF should look elsewhere to find Flynn's successor.