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Gregg Berhalter’s Plan for American Men’s Soccer Is Working

Berhalter laid out his vision for the U.S. men’s national team when he took the head-coaching job two and a half years ago. The signs of progress are clear, with consecutive wins over Mexico in tournament finals in the past two months. But the hardest test begins next month when World Cup qualifying begins.

Aaron Dana

Some two dozen players sat in neat rows of chairs and peered at the projector screen in front of them, waiting for the tracksuited man to start the meeting. “I’m Gregg Berhalter, head coach,” he announced, as if anybody in the room didn’t already know it.

So began Berhalter’s first training camp in charge of the United States men’s national soccer team in January 2019. He paced around the room as he spoke, holding a marker in one hand and scraps of paper in the other. He smiled a lot but spoke seriously.

“What are you prepared to do?” he asked. “We’re on a mission together. What we’re looking to do is change the way the world views American soccer. I don’t mean we qualify for the next World Cup. I don’t mean we go to the second round of the next World Cup. What I’m talking about, guys, is how we play, how we act, who we are as a group. And results. That’s the whole picture. And it starts now.”

He began a slideshow detailing his vision for the team: Players would enjoy coming to camp; coaches would develop a clear style of play; together, they would create a high-performance culture. Mostly, Berhalter set his expectations for how everyone—himself included—would be held accountable. “This is the U.S. national team,” Berhalter said. “We want to put you in position to perform. We want to create high standards. We want this to be the A, no. 1 standard in the U.S. We set the benchmark.

“Sounds great, right? Here’s the problem,” Berhalter continued. “It’s going to take a [lot] of sacrifice from you guys. It’s going to be difficult.”

Berhalter has opened every training camp since with a similar speech. Next month, the 48-year-old coach will begin the biggest test of his two-and-a-half-year tenure when the USMNT opens World Cup qualifying. Failure to reach the 2018 tournament in Russia—the USMNT’s first World Cup absence since 1986—marked a nadir in American men’s soccer. There’s enormous pressure on Berhalter to guide the current team, featuring a young, decadently talented generation of players, to Qatar in 2022. There have been some notable successes, like winning the Nations League in early June and the Gold Cup on Sunday. But none of it will count for much if the United States doesn’t return to the biggest international tournament and, given the unprecedented abundance of talent, perform better than ever before.

Honduras v USMNT
Gregg Berhalter
Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images

A national team manager occupies a strange place in soccer. They embody the hopes, desires, and frustrations of an entire nation. (In the Netherlands, we like to say there are 17 million national team head coaches.) Major competitions occur once every couple of years, leaving small sample sizes to evaluate a coach’s work. Despite these intensely high stakes, there’s little actual coaching one can do. Players arrive at training camp from far-flung locations to meet for a few days a half-dozen times a year. A coach’s job consists primarily of scouting, managing people, and determining which players mesh well together in limited practice time.

For an innate X’s and O’s guy like Berhalter, that means dumbing things down. “It was something I had to get used to,” he tells me in late June. “That was one thing I had to evaluate: What can we accomplish and what is unrealistic to accomplish? We put everything under the microscope. Because all it’s about is transferring information and how much information can be transferred in such a short period of time. We have to pick and choose what information we’re giving.”

Berhalter cuts the figure of a middle-school math teacher on the sideline, albeit one with a strong sneaker game. He often dresses in a tight sweater over a dress shirt, and with his closely cropped, disappearing hair and short stubble, he looks like a man you’d trust to sell you an annuity or oversee the remodeling of your kitchen.

He takes his job seriously and, historically, does it well. If he were a politician, Berhalter wouldn’t be a populist but a technocrat. An übercompetent apparatchik with an affable, calm demeanor who deftly maneuvered his way to the top of his party. He is less Boris Johnson than Angela Merkel. Unexciting clothes. Sensible haircut. No embarrassments; no scandals.

He prepares meticulously and implements a game plan in the very first practice session to maximize every minute his players are together. The team he’s inherited boasts perhaps the greatest collection of young talent in the history of American men’s soccer. The squad he gathered for the newly conjured CONCACAF Nations League Finals in June had an average age of less than 24 years old. Nine players had just won a major trophy with their European clubs, including Christian Pulisic, who won the Champions League with Chelsea. Last season, an American finished in the top four of each of Europe’s five legacy leagues.

Much of Berhalter’s earliest work with the USMNT involved creating a positive environment, like a decorator trying to achieve feng shui. In the latter stages of former USMNT head coach Jürgen Klinsmann’s tenure, many players didn’t enjoy coming to camp, several sources told me. Klinsmann, they said, preferred a tense environment, believing that players and staff needed to be on edge to produce their best performances. Berhalter wanted training camp to be fun again, a time that players looked forward to.

That atmosphere has been a selling point to the dual-nationals Berhalter has recruited to the USMNT. It’s how he convinced FC Barcelona’s Sergiño Dest to choose the United States over the Netherlands, the country he was born in and grew up in, and it’s how he talked Yunus Musah, an 18-year-old Valencia midfielder who was born in New York City but was also eligible to play for Ghana, Italy, and England, and possibly could have played for Spain down the line, into donning a U.S. jersey.

“They know when they come into camp it’s gonna be a good experience,” midfielder Sebastian Lletget says. “One of the first things Yunus said when he first got called up was, ‘Wow, this really feels like a brotherhood and I feel part of the group already.’ And it was only a few days of playing with each other.”

“When I tell a guy he has the opportunity to play with Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie and Gio Reyna, that’s appealing,” Berhalter says. “Because they’re peers with these guys. The potential of these guys playing together for 10, 12 years and what you can build on that is pretty appealing.”

There is no obvious ceiling on this team. All of that effervescent talent already playing for major clubs around Europe could indeed spend a decade sprouting and growing and blossoming. But this introduces a new challenge: living up to those expectations. And it’s on Berhalter to deliver an achievement that feels worthy.

Which is to say changing the way the world views American soccer is a very real possibility. But there is no consensus on what shape it should take. The team’s former workaday, bunker-and-counter style feels anachronistic and antithetical to a current generation of lithe technicians. The glut of world-class prospects offers soaring hope and vexing questions alike. What is the appropriate expectation for this team? Is it eclipsing the modern high-water mark of the 2002 World Cup quarterfinal run? Is it something more, especially when the 2026 World Cup comes to the United States?

“The job hasn’t changed. It’s just that the resources have,” says two-time national team head coach Bruce Arena. “What that job has lacked is human resources, meaning talent. I think there’s a better pool of talent now. They do have better players to choose from. … And it might even be a problem.”

A golden generation is supposed to win something big, or at least leave a mark. Is this group capable of taking the USMNT to the next level? And is Gregg Berhalter the guy to take it there?

It’s Gregg, not Greg, because his mother, Dolores, wanted to leave no doubt that his name was not Gregory. He grew up a Red Sox fan in Yankees territory because Dolores’s first cousin was Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, who became Berhalter’s godfather and took him fishing during the offseason. Berhalter was a serious soccer player growing up when it was still a niche sport; he played on the same New Jersey high school team as future national team star Claudio Reyna. He left the University of North Carolina after his junior year to try his luck as a professional in Europe, long before that was a common path for American players.

“At the time, I thought he was a player that didn’t have the pedigree to do that and he went on to have a lengthy career,” says Arena, who coached at the University of Virginia when Berhalter was at UNC. “Pretty remarkable. He really positioned himself quite well in the game.”

A savvy and stout defender, Berhalter played for smaller clubs in the Netherlands for six years, spent a year in England’s second tier with Crystal Palace, and then went to Germany for seven seasons. He finished up his career with two years on the Los Angeles Galaxy in Major League Soccer. He was a prototypical American player—disciplined, reliable, and industrious, the type who will usually earn a place on a team’s roster. But even then, he prepared for a career in coaching, taking meticulous notes on his coaches’ practice regimens and tactics.

He earned the majority of his 44 national team appearances under Arena, making the 2002 and 2006 World Cup teams. After a year in a dual role as a player–assistant coach under Arena with the Galaxy, Berhalter became the first American head coach to work in Europe when he was hired by Hammarby, an unremarkable team in Sweden’s second division owned by AEG, like the Galaxy.

Baggio Husidic, a midfielder whom Berhalter plucked from the Chicago Fire’s bench and brought with him to Sweden, remembers Berhalter’s fastidious preparation for practice. “Every single day you would walk on the field and everything was set up perfect, all the lines were perfect lines,” Husidic said. “Nothing was out of place.”

Berhalter, who was 38 at the time, remembers his Hammarby experience very differently. “I wasn’t really prepared,” he says. “I didn’t really have a way to play, I certainly didn’t have a way to teach it and I didn’t have a way to train it. They weren’t closely linked. And on top of that, I wasn’t really being myself.”

He had tried to emulate his former coach Arena, a very different personality with a singular coaching style. After Hammarby fired Berhalter halfway into his second season, he went to find himself, traveling Europe to visit major clubs, immersing himself, learning how they worked. “I realized you need to be structured and detailed in what your game model looks like,” Berhalter said. Next, Berhalter returned to MLS to manage the Columbus Crew. Leaning on analytics and every other edge he could glean, he took the team to four playoff appearances and one MLS Cup final in five years.

If Berhalter’s playing career surprised Arena, his success as a coach didn’t. “He was very probing,” he says of Berhalter. “He examines [soccer] in detail. We had some interesting conversations along the way regarding how he looked at things. He was always very thorough, looking at training and games and video. He knew what he wanted to do when he finished playing, there was no question about that.”

All that time spent in Europe not only gave Berhalter an improbable career but a few other things as well. Fluency in German and Dutch, and some rudimentary Spanish. Exposure to different playing styles and cultures. And, above all, a means of connecting with his young players signed overseas. “I think whenever you can show empathy towards the players and come with a real point of view and background and understanding of what they’re going through, it’s really important,” Berhalter says.

Berhalter’s management style is so structured that during national team camps, nobody sees much of the coaching staff outside of training and meals. They are holed up in their office, preparing, drawing up plans. “He’s very detailed,” says goalkeeper Zack Steffen. “He’s very particular. He’s always thinking about tactics and making it easier for us players to understand our roles on the field.”

It’s a single-mindedness that mimics that of Pep Guardiola, Manchester City manager and Steffen’s club coach. Steffen, who played under Berhalter with the Crew as well, sees similarities between them. “Pep is a role model for Gregg,” Steffen says. “He tries to see what Pep does and loves the way that Pep plays. Our training sessions are definitely similar in tactical ways and the way that we want to move the ball and move off the ball.”

Lletget had played under a fair few managers before he became a Berhalter mainstay, but he says he’s never encountered anyone quite like him. “He really opened my eyes as far as how he sees the game,” he says. “I never really had a manager like that. He has a very philosophical but also a very intentional way of coaching. I’ve never seen structure like that.”

Trinidad & Tobago v United States - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier
Michael Bradley after the U.S. lost to Trinidad and Tobago
Photo by Ashley Allen/Getty Images

Say the word Couva—for the town in Trinidad where the USMNT’s fraying 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign finally disintegrated—and USMNT fans will let out a collective sigh of frustration, anger, or perhaps despondency.

Arena had returned to the head job the day after Klinsmann’s dismissal in November 2016, but he was unable to turn around what had become a lost cause. Arena resigned after the loss to Trinidad and Tobago; U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati departed soon after, but amid the turmoil it took over a year for Berhalter to be announced as the new head coach. He was the front-runner for the job all along and had impeccable qualifications, but a lot of American fans hoped for a bigger name. Tata Martino, for instance, who at the time had recently ended a successful run with Atlanta United, was reportedly interested in the job before running out of patience and filling the Mexico coaching vacancy instead. It also didn’t sit well with the federation’s critics that Berhalter’s brother Jay was its chief commercial officer. (Jay left his role in early 2020.)

The state of the team gave Berhalter pause about accepting the job. “There was some part of me that was cautious about it,” he says. “But when I started to dig deeper, I realized that we had this huge talent bed underneath the senior team. The second thing was that, having represented the United States in World Cups and for 12 years, it’s really close to me.”

The one benefit was that Berhalter essentially inherited a clean slate. The program was in such disrepair that there was no choice but to clean house and start ushering in a raft of young players. Soon after he started in December 2018, he flew out to Europe to meet more than a dozen of his new players in just over a week, hitting two cities a day.

“What I realized is that the fan base was deeply, deeply hurt that we didn’t qualify for the World Cup,” says Berhalter. “That’s a process that’s ongoing and we know that we have work to do from that standpoint. All we can do is give them something to be proud of every time we’re on the field. When you change the way the world views American soccer, you change the view internally as well.”

After two and a half years in charge, Berhalter has the highest winning percentage (78.6) of any full-time manager in men’s national team history by some distance His teams score more goals (2.4 per game) and concede fewer (0.66) than any previous coach.

Will that do?

United States v Mexico: Final - 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup
Berhalter and his players celebrate their Gold Cup win
Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images

Before he agreed to an interview, Berhalter wanted to talk to me about this story. Fresh off winning the Nations League, but before the start of the Gold Cup, he worried that I would depict his team as the finished product and, by extension, him as the man who finished the job.

I assured him that I wouldn’t, because I didn’t believe either of those things were true. I told him I wanted to understand how he viewed success for the USMNT—what benchmarks he had identified and how they fit into the larger picture of American soccer.

“Goals are always tricky,” he says. “If you reach a goal, then what? For me it was more about a vision of what we want this program to look like, what we want American soccer to look like, how we want to be viewed around the world and what it’s going to take to get there.”

He says results are, ultimately, what will change the USMNT’s reputation.

“I put up with a lot of shitty conversation about what American soccer is—I’ve had enough,” Berhalter says. “We’re coming from a place where we just didn’t qualify for the World Cup and we want to change all that.”

After Couva, World Cup qualification can’t be taken for granted. But it’s clear that’s the bare minimum requirement. At the management level of U.S. Soccer, however, the expectations for Berhalter and the USMNT at Qatar 2022 are clear.

“When you go to a World Cup, you want to do well,” says Earnie Stewart, the federation’s sporting director. “Expectations at a World Cup are going past the first round and playing in a way that is consistent with the way we think about soccer.”

It’s not breaking new ground to make it beyond the group stage—Bob Bradley and Klinsmann managed it in 2010 and 2014, respectively—but there’s perhaps a greater emphasis placed on how the team plays than under past regimes. It needs to look good as well, with a distinctive, authoritative style.

Stewart’s boss, U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone, expects more still.

“A lot of the focus prior has been to be competitive in CONCACAF. Obviously, that’s still a focus,” she says. “But taking a broader view of it, finding ways to be competitive with the best teams in the world, our goal is to be in the top eight. And consistently in the top eight. Look at them now, they’re such an exciting group of players. And talented—so talented. For an outsider looking in it might look like crazy expectations, but if you’re on the inside and experiencing what we all are experiencing, we really think our goals are achievable, to be top eight in the world.”

On June 6, the national team flashed glimpses of its potential by winning the Nations League in a 3-2, extra-time adrenaline-shot of a game against archnemesis Mexico. When the USMNT beat Mexico again on Sunday, this time to win the Gold Cup, it marked the third time in nine attempts that the U.S. had beaten El Tri in a final. Both tournament wins featured young American squads: The starting 11 of the Nations League final had an average age of 24 years and 206 days; the Gold Cup–winning lineup was only slightly older at 24 years and 236 days.

A newer, bouncier Berhalter emerged during the Nations League and Gold Cup, as though he was filled with helium to counteract the gravity of the occasion. Rather than standing on the sideline, arms crossed in his typically stoic posture, he hopped and skipped about, scurrying to feed his players loose balls for throw-ins, yelling at fourth officials, and needing to apologize to a Mexico player for getting in his way.

Each tournament offered a different glimpse of the work Berhalter has done. The Nations League win came courtesy of two American comebacks and a game-winning penalty, by Pulisic, of course, turning the corporate contrivance of the tournament into something meaningful, a stepping stone, evidence of his team’s mettle. For the Gold Cup, Berhalter selected a B-team shorn of its stars and still managed to beat a full-strength Mexico in the final, seemingly confirming that there’s a deeper well of American talent for him to choose from. Taken together, it became a proof of concept, of a generation’s gifts and maybe also of Berhalter and his methods.

But this kind of reaction is exactly what makes Berhalter nervous. Because he wants to take this team further than yet another piece of CONCACAF silverware, stuffed into a trophy case now containing seven Gold Cups. “A lot of young players have come up and have gotten experience,” Berhalter says. “The players are familiar with our playing style and how we want to play, our approach. But to be international elite, we need more time, we need more experience. But we’re working on it. I’d say we’re probably 50 percent there.”

Halfway to creating a men’s national team that would be unrecognizable when held up against any of its predecessors. It’s the other half of the job that will be the hard part.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a longtime national soccer writer who has worked for ESPN, Yahoo Sports, and Fox Sports. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times. Three of his stories were notable selections in the Best American Sports Writing anthology. He was born in the Netherlands and remains an Ajax and Oranje fan, but he doesn’t really feel like talking about either right now. He teaches at Marist College.

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