Analysis

Why the USMNT needs Gregg Berhalter as its next head coach

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Big international names will be interviewed, but Berhalter's unique understanding of the U.S. system makes him the ideal candidate, Sam Stejskal argues.

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The morning after hysterics have passed, the damning think-pieces have slowed and the anger, at least for some, has subsided. The U.S. men’s national team is now well into its post-Trinidad new normal, doing its best to cope with the shattering failure of missing out on the 2018 World Cup.

Unfortunately for those who follow the program, there isn’t exactly a ton to get excited about. The U.S. men won’t play another official match until the 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Until then, it’ll be all training camp drudgery and relatively meaningless friendlies.

Apart from the potential intrigue of seeing a few fresh faces collect their first caps, there is pretty much only one thing to look forward to: Finding a new manager.

Former Bruce Arena assistant Dave Sarachan is currently at the helm on a caretaker basis, but he won’t continue in the full-time role. That’ll fall to someone new, someone who won’t be hired until after the U.S. Soccer presidential election in February and likely not until after the World Cup this summer.

U.S. Soccer will search the globe for the next men’s national team manager, but it need not look far for the best choice. The team needs someone who understands but isn’t completely of the U.S. soccer ecosystem, someone who can rebuild trust within the locker room and fanbase, communicate clear tactical ideas and establish a true core and identity.

The U.S. men’s national team needs Gregg Berhalter.

The Columbus Crew SC manager and sporting director is at the forefront of a new generation of American coaches. Unlike Arena and his peers, who didn’t have the same types of playing opportunities as younger generations, Berhalter has spent a lifetime learning at the top levels of the sport.

He earned 44 career caps with the U.S. and played for 15 years in Holland, England and Germany before returning to MLS with the LA Galaxy in 2009. His time in Europe broadened his perspective and fed into his natural intellectual curiosity. He knows enough to understand the issues affecting the game in the U.S., and he has the experience to see American problems through a global lens. He’s never dogmatic with his approach, is open to new ideas, interpretations and techniques and is willing to admit mistakes and be introspective. Those qualities weren’t exactly in abundance when Arena and Jurgen Klinsmann ran things, but they’re traits that make Berhalter stand out. They’d be exceedingly welcome for the U.S. men.

And that’s before we dive into his tactics. Berhalter’s Crew SC is one of the more attractive teams in MLS. Despite spending significantly less on its roster than most of the league, Columbus plays a fluid, flowing, possession-based system featuring overlapping fullbacks, inverted wingers and tempo-setting center midfielders. At times, Columbus looks like it plays position-less soccer, with fullbacks popping up as No. 10s, holding midfielders bouncing out wide and wingers cutting in and leading the forward line.

Crew SC can kill you through intricate passing movements, on the counter or via the long ball. Regardless of how Columbus comes at you, the team is always extremely well-coordinated and has well-structured attacking movement and spacing. That sort of play is incredibly rare in MLS, and not seen all that often in the best leagues in the world. It has Crew SC players swearing by Berhalter, too.

“He’s a tactical genius at times,” Columbus center back Josh Williams told me during Crew SC’s run to the 2017 Eastern Conference Championship. “I saw it when he first signed on with Crew SC in 2014 and that first preseason, even the first game against D.C. at the start of the season, I had guys coming up to me and they were just like, ‘You guys are playing amazing, what are you guys doing, we couldn’t figure it out.’ There are still times like that, like during this streak we’re on where you can tell a team has no idea how to process what’s going on. It’s amazing.”

Berhalter consistently gets career years out of individual players and usually coaxes more out of his rosters than the sum of their parts. Kei Kamara had the best year of his career in Columbus and hasn’t been the same since he left Berhalter. Ola Kamara followed and instantly became one of the best strikers in MLS; we’ll see if he can maintain his excellent goal rate now that he’s with the Galaxy.

Despite his comparatively low budget, Berhalter isn’t afraid to be bold. Under Klinsmann and Arena, the U.S. too often set up like an underdog. Apart from a select few occasions, they struggled to go out and take the game to weaker opposition and largely failed to mount much of anything against stronger teams. Berhalter’s proactive philosophy and his tactical and communication skills would ensure the insipid, defensive performances we’ve seen too often from the U.S. over the last seven years would become far less frequent.

While he’ll no doubt be viewed by some as too status quo, Berhalter seems like he’d be a solid choice to help U.S. Soccer fix some of its problems in boys’ youth development. Through working in MLS and observing U.S. Soccer (where, it should be noted, his brother, Jay, is a high-powered executive), Berhalter likely has an idea of where some of the holes are and has an idea of how he’d like to correct them. At the same time, he’s not in too deep. He didn’t work to build the current system, and I doubt he’d have any compunction about making necessary changes. An international hire wouldn’t have the same feel for the issues, and would have a longer learning curve on how to solve them. Either way, this shouldn’t be seen as a problem for the head coach. Ideally, the person will be involved in helping to create best practices, but these issues are more for the new USSF president and potential new GM to resolve.

Berhalter would be a great fit for the U.S. men’s national team head-coaching job, but it’s not clear if he would want to leave Crew SC to jump into the international game. The 44-year-old said after the U.S. failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup that he’d want to manage the national team, but that he didn’t think he was ready. He wants more reps on the club level, where he can have his hand in leading a team daily. That’s often a more attractive option for a coach than managing a national team, which only meet for a few days every few months.

The uncertainty surrounding Crew SC’s potential move to Austin does throw a bit of a wrench in things, however. Berhalter seems to have a readymade replacement on hand at Crew SC in assistant Josh Wolff should he ever want to leave the club. Even if U.S. Soccer makes its hire in the middle of the MLS season, that’s not a bad succession plan for Columbus.

Regardless of if he has serious interest in taking the gig, U.S. Soccer needs to at least inquire with Berhalter. The Crew SC manager is one of the best in MLS, and is at the vanguard of the new and improved wave of American coaches. He’d be a great pick to lead the U.S. men into a new era.

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