DOHA, Qatar -- About two hours after the final whistle blew and their World Cup ended, the players of the United States men's national team arrived back at the Kempinski Hotel in Doha, their home for the previous three weeks. They came through the back entrance and went to their meal room as a unit for one last time.
The postgame meals during the tournament were typically presented in a food-hall style, with different cuisines set up at stations around the large ballroom, and this one was heavy on Americana. While the players dug in on wings, burgers and fries, US coach Gregg Berhalter stood up at the front of the room and gave a short speech. He thanked the players and staff. He told them how proud he was. Then he asked everyone to take a moment and look around.
"This group -- this exact group," he said, "will never be together like this again."
His message was clear: Yes, there will be other big moments in the future, but not with this specific collection of people. Berhalter wanted everyone to appreciate that meaning of that moment.
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The players scattered within a day of the tournament ending for them, and their next steps are fairly clear as club football resumes in earnest almost immediately. For Berhalter, though, what comes next is more murky. His contract with US Soccer is up at the end of the year. Does the federation want him to return? Does he want to return?
Sources have told ESPN that negotiations are set to begin between US Soccer and Berhalter, and there are some early indications that he'll stay if offered. There's a sentiment that this team was his project -- he literally brought several of its key players into the US Soccer fold -- and that seeing it out to its natural conclusion at the 2026 World Cup, which the United States is co-hosting with Canada and Mexico, is appealing.
But one source acknowledged it's still very early in the process, and other sources have indicated that there is an interest on Berhalter's part in exploring European club options as his coaching stock is likely at a high. That juxtaposition -- what Berhalter wants, and how it compares to what is best for this team of young, talented players -- is now the biggest question facing the federation.
Additional reporting by Kyle Bonagura.
The case for keeping Berhalter
From the perspective of both the federation and the average USMNT fan, the potential for the American team has never been higher. Many of the top players who featured in Qatar will be in what should be the primes of their careers at the 2026 World Cup, and so finding a coach who is able to bring out the absolute best from them in that moment is the biggest qualification any candidate needs.
The fact that there is likely to be no World Cup qualifying -- and therefore few genuinely competitive games -- during this cycle might make the job less attractive, and given Berhalter's established relationships with players, that could help keep the momentum going.
The way Berhalter led his team at this World Cup certainly supports the idea that he knows how to unlock the best of his players and motivate a young group. In Qatar, he fixated on doing whatever he could to make everyone feel comfortable. Sometimes, it was through rhetoric: before the opening game, he brought in a popular motivational speaker, Eric Thomas, whose personal story is about the power of belief. Sometimes he used more active measures to encourage team bonding: the players' lounge was filled with all manner of distractions, including a barber's chair for players to get their haircuts while they hung out, and a barista who arrived each afternoon.
Berhalter also made family time a priority, knowing it would be important to keeping his young players at ease. Even though this was the most compressed a World Cup has ever been, with all 48 group stage games taking place over 13 days, the US team had hours of open time during which players could go to the beach or pool with their families. There was a barbecue and even a Thanksgiving dinner (at which ugly sweaters that FOX had made with the faces of the players on them were given out to much laughter).
Berhalter also scored points with his team by making a change that had never been done before: postgame family time. Berhalter thought it was important players share the postgame excitement with those who supported them the most, so after each match, the bus to the hotel was delayed -- sometimes for more than hour -- and everyone went up into the empty stands to be with their loved ones.
At a typical game, the team gets out of the stadium and back to the hotel as quickly as possible; at this tournament, it was sometimes almost two hours after the match before they'd get back, and the players appreciated being able to share those moments with their families.
All of that team-building, as well as the results he has delivered, makes a strong case for Berhalter. But the support for Berhalter coming back for a second cycle isn't universal within the federation.
Some think that, barring some crazy level of over-achievement, a manager shouldn't get a second cycle. Bringing back a manager for a return engagement hasn't worked out well in the past, either. Neither Bob Bradley nor Jurgen Klinsmann lasted the full World Cup cycle when brought back for another go-round, and while Bruce Arena did last through a second cycle in 2006, that tournament ended with the disappointment of a group stage exit. Then there was Arena's second tenure, replacing Klinsmann in the attempt to qualify for 2018, and obviously that went poorly, too.
There are also questions about Berhalter's decision-making in terms of his in-game adjustments and roster decisions. More than once, the US failed to build on a dominating opening period to put their stamp on the game in the second half, and there are fair questions about his player usage/rotation, too.
Making the decision on Berhalter's future
Shortly after talking to the players that night following the loss to the Netherlands, Berhalter left the room where he was watching the Argentina-Australia match and considered his own experience in Qatar.
For months leading up to the tournament, he told ESPN, he and his coaches had laboriously gone over every single tactical scenario they could imagine for each group stage game -- up a goal vs. Wales, down a man vs. Iran, and so on. The process had been exhausting, and Berhalter said he was looking forward to "decompressing" with his family.
When asked to evaluate his work, though, he demurred "I don't think it's time for me to evaluate my own performance," he said. "What I would say is that a measuring stick is: Can Americans watch what they saw and be proud of it? Can they be proud of the team? And a lot of the answers come back: 'Yes.' So I'm proud of this group. I'm proud of how they stuck together and what they showed the outside world."
That is certainly one factor to consider, but there are obviously others. Sources have told ESPN that the decision on the whether to retain Berhalter involves at least five people: USSF president Cindy Parlow Cone, USSF sporting director Earnie Stewart, US men's national team general manager Brian McBride, USSF board of directors member Juan Uro and USSF CEO JT Batson.
Stewart, a stalwart defender of Berhalter during this cycle, will have the most say, although any hire must ultimately be approved by the board of directors.
"As we always do after a major tournament, we are taking time to reflect," Stewart said in a statement. "We will conduct a full review with everyone involved as we determine our next steps. We look forward to building off the performance in Qatar and preparing for the journey towards 2026."
There isn't necessarily a rush to make a decision, either, although there are short-term considerations in that there is a January training camp scheduled that will likely involve mostly US-based players and conclude with games against Serbia and Colombia. While it wouldn't be disastrous to have an interim head coach in charge, the federation would likely prefer a solution sooner than later.
If Berhalter doesn't return either through his choice or that of the federation, there would be no shortage of other candidates. The list likely begins with two managers who were considered last time there was an opening: Orlando City SC coach Oscar Pareja and former Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio. Leeds United manager Jesse Marsch is also an obvious target, though it would take some doing to pry Marsch away from the Premier League club.
Herc Gomez feels Louis van Gaal tactically outmanaged Gregg Berhalter in USA's exit from the Qatar World Cup at the last 16 stage.
As appealing as those names might be, it's also apparent Berhalter has built a solid base of support for himself. He's viewed as having a "great mentality" for uniting players from MLS and Europe, one source said, which is "a complex thing to deal with" given that it can be a source of friction in the team if not managed well. The players clearly respect him, too.
"He's done great. I think the hardest thing as a coach is to get everybody going in the same direction," US defender DeAndre Yedlin told Fox Sports. "I think he's done that very well. He's gotten everybody bought into the culture, and that's the most important thing. You hear a lot of talk about vibes with this team, and people like to joke about it. But at the end of the day, I think that could be the team's biggest quality."
At a World Cup, where the expectations greatly outsize the sample size on which a coach is judged, Yedlin might be right.
At one point early in the tournament, Berhalter was asked about that reality -- the notion that being an international manager means having relatively few matches to prove your worth. He considered the question and nodded.
"That's what you signed up for," he said. "It's the job, and the way I look at it is as an opportunity."
Time will tell if he gets another one.