Sports

Don’t Trust the Process

Gregg Berhalter may be the right coach for the U.S. men’s national soccer team. But the 418 days it took to hire him were a massive missed opportunity.

Mark Kinsella of Ireland is challenged by Gregg Berhalter of the USA.
Mark Kinsella of Ireland is challenged by Gregg Berhalter of the USA during a friendly match between the Republic of Ireland and the United States on April 17, 2002.
Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Four hundred and eighteen days after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, 415 days after Bruce Arena’s resignation from the position, the U.S. men’s national team finally has a new permanent head coach: Columbus Crew manager and former U.S. national team defender Gregg Berhalter.

Berhalter’s first order of business will be stopping the wheels that have been spinning idly since the loss to Trinidad and Tobago that cost the team its qualification. The one squint-real-hard-and-you-might-see-it-if-you’re-the-insufferable-kind-of-optimist silver lining to failing to qualify was that the U.S. would have a 10-month head start on preparing for the 2022 tournament. Since the World Cup in Qatar doesn’t start until November, a promising crop of young talent would have a five-year cycle to grow into the new coach’s system.

That time is now lost. Spain hired its new coach eight days after being eliminated from the World Cup. Egypt and Tunisia, both knocked out by the end of June, made their hires by Aug. 1. (Tunisia has already fired Faouzi Benzarti, even though he won all three of his games in charge and led them to qualification at the 2019 African Cup of Nations.) Meanwhile, the U.S. has waited, first for the election of the new U.S. Soccer president, Carlos Cordeiro, in February; then for the hiring of the new men’s team general manager, Earnie Stewart, in June; then, finally, for the end of the Crew’s MLS season earlier this month. Four hundred and eighteen days. The only thing more depressing than the morass the men’s program found itself in post-Trinidad is how reluctant U.S. Soccer has seemed to pull itself out.

The nets, from what we know of the hiring process, do not appear to have been cast far and wide. New York Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch, perhaps the co-favorite along with Berhalter, took himself out of consideration by moving to RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga as an assistant. Other mooted possibilities, such as Peter Vermes of Sporting Kansas City, said they didn’t get further than preliminary talks. FC Dallas coach Óscar Pareja, who just took a job with Mexico’s Club Tijuana, told reporters in late September that he hadn’t gotten an interview. (He apparently did speak to U.S. Soccer sometime after that, according to Yahoo’s Doug McIntyre.)

Other foreign candidates such as former Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio and Atlanta United manager Tata Martino, formerly of Argentina and Barcelona, said they weren’t even contacted, the latter possibly because of an asinine requirement that the new manager speak English fluently. Earlier this month, Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl reported that former Spain and Real Madrid manager Julen Lopetegui had reached out to U.S. Soccer via an intermediary to express interest in the job, only to be told it was too close to the end of the process to bring in a new candidate.

Four hundred and eighteen days is a lot of time to spend not interviewing people. U.S. Soccer has yet to convince anyone that Berhalter didn’t have the job all along. This is a slight problem only because his brother, Jay Berhalter, already works high up in U.S. Soccer as the chief commercial and strategy officer, overseeing broadcast and corporate partnerships and event operations. In theory, hiring a new national team coach is well outside Jay’s purview, but the process has not exactly been a model of openness and transparency, and at the very least Gregg’s smooth path into the country’s most prominent job is bad optics. Some U.S. Soccer fans have already spent much of the past decade carelessly crying nepotism. You would think the federation might have an interest in trying to stave that off this go-around.

Awkward family ties or no, Berhalter is a heartening if not exhilarating hire for a program that really needs to get this one right. He comes to the job with—and almost certainly got the job because of—a clearly defined style of play that he’s instituted in Columbus over the past five years, one based on stretching the defense laterally then quickly changing the point of attack to hit the gaps that have been created. The system has coaxed career years out of three different center forwards: Kei Kamara in 2015, Ola Kamara in 2017, and Gyasi Zardes in 2018. Zardes was playing right back for the Los Angeles Galaxy a year ago, and this year he finished tied for fourth-most goals in the league.

The Crew has had up and down years both defensively and offensively since Berhalter took over before the 2014 season. This year it scored the second-fewest goals in the league, though it balanced that out with an organized defense that limited opponents’ transition opportunities. Columbus hasn’t won a trophy during Berhalter’s tenure, though it did finish as MLS Cup runner-up in 2015 and made the playoffs in four of his five years despite a salary budget that’s in the league’s bottom third.

After spending the better part of a decade wandering the tactical wilderness with only Jürgen Klinsmann’s motivational speaking and Bruce Arena’s let-the-old-guys-figure-it-out strategy as guides, literally any coherent soccering system seems like an upgrade for the U.S. Even 2018, the team’s inadvertent gap year free from the responsibilities of a major tournament or qualifying, has been spent toiling in interim head coach Dave Sarachan’s off-the-rack 4-1-4-1, which sacrificed creativity and attacking intent in favor of stability and numbers behind the ball. Same as it ever was, though in Sarachan’s defense he has missed his key source of both creativity and attacking intent for much of the year. Christian Pulisic suited up for the U.S. just three times in 2018 after being given the summer off to rest and picking up small injuries during the first two of the fall international windows.

Without a permanent head coach or the team’s best player, U.S. Soccer leaned hard into the mantra of generational change to gin up interest in its 2018 games. Sarachan trotted out some incredibly young lineups this year, giving 27 total caps to 20-and-under players Tim Weah, Josh Sargent, Weston McKennie, and Tyler Adams, then fed those lineups to the likes of France, Brazil and Colombia, where they’ve won one of their past eight. No matter. “The Future is US,” according to U.S. Soccer’s new, maddeningly vague marketing campaign. What future? When?

It’s the federation’s own “Trust the Process,” a promise that while things may have gotten bad, they are being handled by someone, somewhere. But U.S. Soccer, which drew out the program’s most important decision for 418 days and still managed to bungle its execution, has done little to prove it deserves that trust. (On the men’s side, at least. The U.S. women are rampaging through the present like a T-1000, going undefeated in 2018 ahead of their World Cup next summer.)

Instead the federation is passing the responsibility to make good on that promise—and the promise of its talented young players—on to Berhalter. U.S. Soccer is trusting that his structure will help the team succeed at the international level, and that his results will help fans forget what a shambles the hiring process ended up being.