The Questions That Arise with USMNT's Hiring of Gregg Berhalter
At long last, the U.S. men's national team's biggest question has been answered. Now, a whole slew of others arise.
Gregg Berhalter is the new manager of the USMNT, with the worst-kept secret made official on Sunday. Berhalter will be presented on Tuesday in New York as he takes over a national team looking to find its way and incorporate a new generation of players who hope to enjoy success in Concacaf and eventually qualify for the 2022 World Cup. Then again, that's been the case with the national team over almost the last 14 months. Dave Sarachan took over with that task in the interim, a stretch that wound up lasting more than a calendar year. Sarachan introduced 23 new players to the national team and went 3-5-4 in his 12 friendlies at the helm, but by the end, even the players were clamoring for a plan with a long-term outlook.
Berhalter is the answer U.S. Soccer has provided to those players, but with a new set of questions facing the national team and its future, some of which will be answered in Berhalter's first public remarks as national team coach, let's take look at some of the more pressing ones:
What is Berhalter's long-term plan, and will all be patient enough to see it through?
Berhalter has a number of people desiring to know the answer to that question, most notably the players now under his watch. What will his style of play be? How will he tailor his desired tactical approach to the USA's player pool? The Crew's depth chart, for instance, isn't the same as the USA's, so stylistically, he may have to adapt.
Berhalter joined Planet Fútbol TV in October to discuss his preferred style, saying, "The basic premise of our game model is that we want to disorganize our opponent to create goal scoring opportunities. We use different ways to break down the opponent, different formations, different structures, but it's all about spacing and positioning and trying to hurt the opponent."
Anyone who has watched the U.S. over the last 12 games realizes there's work to be done to achieve that goal.
Berhalter has earned the endorsement and praise from a number of former teammates, players of his and opponents for his approach to the game and his willingness to continue to learn and react. Despite the deserved criticism of U.S. Soccer's hiring process, Berhalter deserves the leeway to implement his methods and watch them take hold, but considering he's taking over a new batch of players and only has one FIFA window in which the whole pool will be available to him prior to pre-Gold Cup camp, there's actually not that much time afforded to him before his first competitive matches. Given the time crunch and festering angst surrounding the team, there's immediate pressure to put on encouraging showings in the first friendlies following January camp (one to be announced, one vs. Costa Rica).
What took so long?
U.S. Soccer should not have required over a year to examine a coach that is such a known quantity. There was the presidential election, which caused a delay through the winter, and then the hiring of Earnie Stewart as general manager, which didn't occur until the summer. Stewart didn't step into his role until August. He then set the guidelines for his desired coach and, according to U.S. Soccer, cobbled together a list of 33 candidates on his own. Of that group, 11 emerged according to Stewart's preferred qualities before he whittled it down to two finalists: Berhalter and, according to Yahoo Sports, Oscar Pareja.
Stewart also, according to U.S. Soccer, spoke with eight former U.S. men's players who each had at least 100 caps and captained the team at least five times. He was diligent, and that process takes time, but how many outside voices did Stewart heed along the way? Were there any contrarian takes to how U.S. Soccer should move forward? That such a drawn-out process resulted with a coach already on U.S. Soccer's proverbial doorstep is what has plenty up in arms–which, as stated by many, has little to do with Berhalter's actual qualifications to lead the team.
How much change does this really represent?
Berhalter is a new name on the bench and a permanent one. That's a change, by definition. But how radical will it really be? After all, he is a Bruce Arena disciple. He played under Arena with the Galaxy and was even in a rare player-coach role under Arena–all while Sarachan was the assistant coach. This isn't a clear succession plan from one to the other, but you'd be crazy to think that Arena and Sarachan's tutelage haven't played an impact in Berhalter's rise as a manager.
That's not to say that a completely radical shift to an outsider like, say, a Julen Lopetegui would have made for a slam dunk. Change for change sake doesn't always add up, and you could easily argue that Stewart's stated preference for someone familiar with the U.S. set-up and player pool is a sensible one. And Berhalter is a different kind of coach than Arena or Sarachan, one who had a different set of circumstances in Hammarby and Columbus than Arena ever had in L.A. It's not fair to Berhalter to label him as the next in a line of more of the same, but it'll be on him to prove that on and off the field.
Who will join Berhalter on his staff?
Under Sarachan, a rotating group of assistants enjoyed their time on the bench, including fellow U.S. assistant Matt Reis, former MLS defender C.J. Brown, former U.S. right back great Steve Cherundolo, former MLS and U.S. youth coach Richie Williams and former MLS forward and current Columbus Crew assistant Josh Wolff. That last one is the most eye-opening of the bunch. Was Wolff, who was a deputy for Berhalter at Mapfre Stadium, actually getting an early introduction into life on the U.S. bench?
Berhalter will likely surround himself with those who share his vision and can help him execute it, but will he go–or be permitted to go–outside of the box for a more complementary set of eyes and coaching skills?
International assistants can range from incredibly important (i.e. Joachim Low to Jurgen Klinsmann) to not really all that impactful, but it will be telling to see how Berhalter fills out his staff.
When Berhalter was sporting director of the Crew, was he (reportedly) selling Zack Steffen to Man City in the Crew's best interest? The national team's? Steffen's? All of the above?
It is a bit curious that for Berhalter–whose appointment wasn't, shall we say, sudden–his last major act as Crew sporting director was reportedly selling Steffen to Manchester City. Of course that's not an autocratic decision, especially for a club like the Crew that has a bunch of moving pieces at the moment. But as sporting director, that's under Berhalter's purview, and it's not like he didn't know he was taking the national team job in the coming days. Imagine if Sunil Gulati had hired Berhalter in the days or even weeks before the U.S. Soccer election. Should an outgoing officer have been able to be part of such a big decision?
The sale represents a good bit of business for the Crew, but if Steffen doesn't play at Man City or is forced into loan purgatory and loses the rhythm and status he's developed in Columbus, it might not be a move that Gregg Berhalter, the national team coach, comes to approve in hindsight.
Every coach has player preferences; What will Berhalter's be?
The nucelus of the new USMNT is pretty clearly defined. Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent and Steffen lead the rising generation, and any incoming coach would have to agree. World Cup veterans (the number of those still hanging around is dwindling...) DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks, despite their struggles in recent friendlies, figure to be among the core group of defenders who stand to grow under a former star and internationally experienced defender like Berhalter.
But who will round out the squad on a regular basis? Will the likes of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore return? Will Berhalter favor some of the Crew players with whom he's more familiar–but who haven't thoroughly impressed with previous national team opportunities–such as Wil Trapp and Gyasi Zardes? We'll get a first look at Berhalter's preferences at the upcoming January training camp, which will consist of MLS-based players, per usual, given the timing on the club calendar.
How will U.S. Soccer navigate any appearance of a conflict of interest?
It is not Gregg Berhalter's fault that his brother happens to wield power within U.S. Soccer, while he has independently found success as a club manager. But the fact that Jay Berhalter is U.S. Soccer's chief commercial officer, was involved in the hiring process for the general manager that, in turn, hired Gregg Berhalter and has been mentioned as a potential successor to U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn now puts those two entities firmly overlapping.
U.S. Soccer maintains that Jay had no part in the hiring of Gregg (though if he had a part in hiring Stewart, that's technically not the case), but it's the future of their dynamic that is of more concern. U.S. Soccer has a very clear conflict of interest policy that begins by stating:
"No Person shall act in any manner which causes him or her to have a direct or indirect interest in or relationship with any outside organization or person that might affect (or that might reasonably be understood or misunderstood by others as affecting) the objectivity or independence of his or her judgment or conduct in carrying out the duties and responsibilities he or she has in connection with the USSF's activities."
It goes on to continue with:
"Anything which could constitute a conflict of interest (or the appearance or perception of a conflict of interest) or unethical conduct on the part of a Person is also a conflict of interest if knowingly engaged in by such Person through a third party such as a spouse, a family member or other persons or organizations with whom such Person is closely identified or in which such Person has any direct or indirect legal or equitable ownership or financial interest or position."
That alone doesn't disqualify Gregg Berhalter from being hired, but it should, in practice, marginalize Jay Berhalter's doings with the men's national team, especially when it comes to matters of salary, eventual contract talks and other areas where the two mesh. It's entirely possible both will do what it takes to carry on their duties independently of one another, but it's another area that will draw an otherwise unnecessary level of scrutiny going forward.