Inside the mind of one of MLS' best tacticians
In the final minute of a half-hour interview with Columbus Crew coach Gregg Berhalter earlier this spring, a tactical detail came up in a conversation about how Columbus played Orlando City in a 2-0 win early in the season.
Berhalter’s voice got more excited as he started to delve into the tweak – why exactly right back Harrison Afful stayed so deep when he’s so often bombing up the right side – and the Crew coach’s delivery sped up as he ran through his thinking in how that change helped his team get a result.
It was a glimpse of Berhalter a notch above his usual restrained state. The 43-year-old former U.S. national team defender’s press conference have a deliberate, almost academic feel to them at times, always detailed and informative, yet with a protective bubble around each answer. Just enough to provide you some insight, but never giving away too much.
But Berhalter can’t mask his love for the beautiful game and his passion for learning and teaching it. He gets lost in his appetite for the tactical nuances and on-field chess matches. It is what drove him as a player to fill notebooks with details of training sessions and team composition over stops in Holland, England and Germany, and it’s the same thing that motivates him to get Columbus back to where he took the team two years ago, an MLS Cup final, only this time to lift the trophy.
It is also what shaped Berhalter into one of the very best tactical coaches in MLS. Talking to the veteran coach about his evolution, it’s clear he isn’t afraid of introspection and self-improvement to push that ambition forward.
“Anyone in any profession, the more you do it, the more experience you have, the more you develop,” Berhalter said. “Especially if you’re open to developing. That’s something I like to think I am. I read a lot of books, I watch a lot of soccer and I continuously want to progress and get better.”
In his fourth season as manager in Columbus, Berhalter has established himself as a coach with a clear identity of how he wants his teams to play. The Crew is often one of the more attractive teams to watch in MLS. Its possession-based system features overlapping fullbacks, in-cutting wingers and players in the middle of the park that can control the tempo. They are capable of killing you through passing, but also hitting the long ball and allowing direct runs and off-the-ball movement to slash your back line if you overcommit to win the ball higher up the field.
There was a lot of discussion in Holland. That was the best part about going there early in my career ... all you do is discuss with teammates about the game. That’s all you’re doing. Tactically.
THE NOTES AND JOURNALS OF HOLLAND
It is a system that first sprouted when Berhalter headed overseas. The center back spent six years in Holland playing with Zwolle, Sparta Rotterdam and Cambuur Leeuwarden. It would be an important period in forming his ideas about the game.
“The positional play comes directly from Holland,” Berhalter said. “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.”
Later stops would add different aspects. In England, Berhalter zoned in on defensive structure when he played for Crystal Palace in a strict 4-4-2. In Germany with Energie Cottbus and 1860 Munich, Berhalter saw the “power and precision” of the German game and the counterattacking and finishing that came in a very technical, fast league.
In 2009, after 15 years abroad, Berhalter returned to MLS to play for the LA Galaxy. He spent the last season as a player-coach, serving as an assistant under Bruce Arena. In December of that year, Berhalter got his first head job as coach of Hammarby in Sweden, becoming the first American to manage a team in Europe.
Berhalter was fired after a year and a half with an 18-12-16 record. Some reports said Berhalter was dismissed because the team was too defensive in nature. The tag is a surprising one if only because Berhalter’s MLS teams in Columbus have been known as just the opposite, an attack-oriented team that likes to push the game forward.
The final product, finishing the attacks, was extremely difficult. I didn’t really know how to solve it ... I started studying more and more about how I wanted it to be, how I wanted it to look, and then I started defining it more clearly.
Not surprisingly, Berhalter said that time in charge at Hammarby proved crucial in forming the identity of the teams we now see in Columbus.
“We were the big team in the league,” Berhalter said. “So every team we played against had 11 guys behind the ball, and to be honest I didn’t know how to figure it out. We still had more possession, more shots on goal, all that was there. It was still a possession-based game, but the final product, finishing the attacks, was extremely difficult. I didn’t really know how to solve it, to be honest. And then, as I had the time off after I got fired, I started studying more and more about how I wanted it to be, how I wanted it to look, and then I started defining it more clearly. When I was at Hammarby I was going on what I felt it should look like, and now it’s much more defined.”
THE PURSUIT OF MORE INFORMATION
That defined style, though, isn’t entirely concrete. What stands out about Berhalter is his openness to new ideas. In a game that still breeds plenty of old-school thinking and a resistance to analytics, Berhalter has gone the opposite way. He cites expected goals as a reason he felt confident in his system and the core of his team after a disappointing 2016 season. (Columbus finished with the highest expected goals of any team, he said.) He is a reader of Spielverlagerung, an analytics site, and if you cite an idea or trend when discussing MLS, you better have the stats to back it up.
Berhalter is also willing to admit mistakes, another unique quality in a coach. In multiple interviews over the past year, Berhalter has said he put too much on the plate of certain players and didn’t do a good enough job of adding competition to the roster in the offseason between the MLS Cup finalist 2015 season and the missed playoffs season of 2016.
He has Columbus back in contention this year. Even after a midweek loss to Toronto FC at home this week, the Crew still sits in fourth place in the East with 16 points through 11 games. A stretch of five of the next six games on the road will be a huge challenge to maintain that position.
If Berhalter can get Columbus back into the playoffs this year, however, especially in a season where the balance of power has started to shift to teams that spend high on players, it will again have many ranking him among the top American coaches in MLS. It may also lead to speculation about what’s next – whether that is the U.S. national team after the 2018 World Cup or a bigger market in MLS. His time in Los Angeles already had some wondering if he would head to the Galaxy this past offseason.
On that question, Berhalter is not quite as revealing as when talking about specific tactics.
“I don’t know, it’s hard to tell,” he said. “I want to be the best possible coach I can be and I want my teams to play good soccer, the way I see the game. I want that to be represented on the field. And then wherever that takes me, it takes me.”
A coach that has taken so much from every stop isn’t ready for reflection. He needs to get everything out of where he is now., That dedication is as much a part of his development as anything else.
Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.