Just as soon as the final whistle blew in the Khalifa International Stadium, ending the United States men’s national team’s 2022 World Cup in Qatar with a 3-1 loss to the Netherlands, the speculation kicked off: Who would coach the U.S. men heading into the 2026 World Cup? Who would guide a talented young team that should be in its prime when the sport’s quadrennial mega-event lands on American shores for a second time?
The December 31 expiration date on the contract of incumbent head coach Gregg Berhalter came and went without a word. While Berhalter and the U.S. Soccer Federation made the usual noises about taking “time to reflect,” the two sides appeared likely to continue together for a second term. Federation officials said they were happy with Berhalter’s performance. He more or less from scratch rebuilt a team that had missed the 2018 World Cup, then fashioned it into an exciting and cohesive outfit that matched up against juggernauts like England at the big dance. That made Berhalter the presumptive national team manager for another cycle. Until, just three days after December 31, he was enveloped by a rollicking scandal that cast doubt on the future. Fearing what he considered a thinly veiled blackmail threat, Berhalter issued a statement admitting that he kicked the woman who he’d later marry during an argument in 1991, prompting an ongoing investigation from U.S. Soccer.
In the absence of clarity from the federation, which has said nothing of consequence beyond confirming that Berhalter remains a candidate and that U.S. Soccer is conducting the head coach search “broadly,” conjecture has run wild. In the void, all the top managers in the sport—from Jürgen Klopp to Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, whose supposed pursuit by U.S. Soccer was reported by The Sun—have been invoked by U.S. fans eager to see an ambitious appointment. The wish-casting was only amplified when word got out that two-time Real Madrid manager and three-time Champions League–winning coach Zinedine Zidane had been approached, without success. Perhaps U.S. Soccer really was going after a big hitter.
Berhalter delivered a competent World Cup performance and reconstructed a national team culture that his players regularly cite as a competitive advantage. And even though he’s now enveloped by the controversy of his past, he remains a leading candidate to assume his old job. If he isn’t brought back, finding a new manager for the U.S. men’s national team is more complicated than it might seem. On its face, coaching the abundantly talented home team at a World Cup seems appealing, but several factors conspire to make the pool of alternatives desperately shallow.
The job is unlikely to go to a Major League Soccer coach without experience at the international level—they would face the same steep learning curve that Berhalter has already navigated—which only leaves retreads like Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley, neither of whom appear to be in the conversation. (Arena famously failed to salvage Jürgen Klinsmann’s 2018 World Cup–qualifying campaign.) The only American working abroad at a high level, Jesse Marsch, already has a job at the summit of the club game, in the Premier League. And even if Leeds United fires him, it seems unlikely to happen before the national team vacancy is filled in the coming weeks or months; besides, Marsch will have struck out in two consecutive positions. Almost all the other names bandied about—Klopp, Guardiola, and Mourinho, to name a few—are gainfully employed as well.
You can hire only who is available. In the best of times, that tends to leave fewer than a dozen candidates who fall into the Venn diagram of those who are qualified and those who are interested. And December and January, right in the middle of the European club season, are not the best of times. There are few experienced managers available, and fewer still who have hinted that they might be enticed by international management.
U.S. Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart keeps a running shortlist of potential managers, because it would be malpractice not to. That means testing the waters, every now and again, on who might be gettable. That’s why Zidane, who has flirted with the French national team job for years, was likely queried—and there’s no downside to getting caught trying to land such a big name. But the diminished attractiveness of coaching a national team makes recruitment harder. The unemployed Mauricio Pochettino and Thomas Tuchel, lately of Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea, respectively, are long shots to leave the club game anytime soon.
Quick bit of trivia. How many head coaches at the 2022 World Cup had recently managed an elite club team?
Answer: only Germany’s Hansi Flick, who left Bayern Munich at the end of the 2020-21 season. Brazil’s Tite had never worked outside of his home country and the Middle East. Ditto for Croatia’s Zlatko Dalic, albeit with a short excursion to Albania. England’s Gareth Southgate last managed a club in 2009, getting Middlesbrough relegated from the Premier League. France’s Didier Deschamps has been out of the club game for a decade. The list goes on and on: the likes of Portugal, Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands all employed managers who haven’t coached a club in at least five years. Argentina’s Lionel Scaloni, now a World Cup winner, landed his first senior team head coaching job largely because Lionel Messi likes him.
The reason so few of the game’s elite managers work at the international level is that it’s not where the cutting-edge coaching is being done. There just isn’t time with national teams to do anything other than figure out who is fit, who plays well together, and how to make it all loosely coalesce. Outside of a few days or weeks with your team every two months, the job mostly consists of scouting and logistics. This was a constant struggle for Berhalter, a coach very much made in the ideologue mold. And it is likely to put off all those big-name managers who are treated as tactical oracles for their daily work in fine-tuning their teams. This is why, whenever future national team jobs are brought up, your Klopps and Guardiolas and Mourinhos reliably respond, “In the future, maybe. Now? No.” They see it as a kind of semi-retirement gig. Because it sort of is, compared to the intensity of an all-consuming Champions League and domestic campaign.
While the USMNT’s automatic berth to the World Cup as one of the three North American hosts offers a guarantee to a new coach, it also reduces the number of competitive games even further. Mostly, the next three and a half years will consist of playing friendlies against the same old CONCACAF teams because the game’s global powers, continually tied up with more competitive games, have become increasingly hard to book. Meaningful competition, then, will come primarily in the form of the CONCACAF Nations League and the Gold Cup. The Americans might participate in the 2024 Copa América, possibly relocating the South American championship to the U.S., as in 2016, but even that will entail no more than a half-dozen high-level games.
“This cycle presents plenty of problems for those who may be interested,” says Herculez Gomez, a U.S. national team veteran and cohost of Fútbol Americas on ESPN. “No qualifying games; just friendlies, and low-level ones at that. The good managers are taken. International managers are older. And it’s not attractive enough, unless what you’re looking for is the American life experience.”
For an elite coach, spending more than three years—an absolute eon in soccer time—on the periphery of the game is a big ask. And working for U.S. Soccer, which has never paid a manager more than the $3.3 million Klinsmann made in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2018, would likely mean a hefty pay cut. The five highest-paid managers in the Premier League all make north of $10 million per year. Mourinho, for his part, reportedly earns about three times the $1.3 million Berhalter did as USMNT head coach, and that’s before the bonuses that can lift Mourinho’s salary as high as $8.5 million. Just a few years ago, at Manchester United, Mourinho reportedly earned some $25 million annually.
“A lot of these guys are tied up in contracts already,” says former USMNT player and Fox Sports and CBS analyst Mo Edu. “So to get them out of those contracts, either you’re looking at some kind of buyout or you’re going to have to pay a crazy amount of money to sway them to leave those positions. That’s where the difficulty lies. But the biggest challenge is a couple of other international jobs that are currently vacant without a manager, so now you’re competing against those as well.” That would be no. 1–ranked Brazil and no. 4–ranked Belgium, among others.
And while there is certainly upside in this American team, how much is there, exactly? The USMNT is already the defending Nations League and Gold Cup champion, so there isn’t much glory to be won there. A deep run at a would-be Copa América is a possibility, but participation might also result in the kind of 4-0 spanking the Americans took from Argentina in the 2016 semifinals. And so it would all come down to a handful of games at the World Cup, where expectations will tower over reason. Berhalter, for his part, has already declared that the Yanks should be targeting the semifinals—a stage that Brazil, Germany, Spain, England, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Belgium all failed to reach in 2022.
Then there are the extracurricular demands made of the U.S. men’s head coach, which exceed those at other federations. The American manager is expected to take a very public role, to do a great deal of marketing and hearts-and-minds work in a nation with a vast media landscape and perpetual competition from other sports.
“I still think it would be looked at as a plum job because there is such room for growth,” says former national teamer and Fox soccer analyst Alexi Lalas. “But the head coach of the U.S., in particular, is a very different type of role. It goes well beyond the X’s and O’s and the game day and ultimately the wins and the losses. We tend, and I think rightfully so, to put this person as a visual representation of who we are as a soccer-playing nation. Maybe there is value to that, but I guess it takes the right person to recognize that and, more importantly, to see that as something that they want to be a part of. And maybe there are many people who just say, ‘I don’t need that or want that right now.’”
This expectation is one of the reasons why the federation prefers that its head coach speak English and live in Chicago, by its headquarters. This was reportedly why Tata Martino was not considered for the U.S. job before Berhalter’s hire in 2018 and took the Mexico job instead, to the consternation of many U.S. fans. That would likely also rule out Marcelo Bielsa, Marsch’s predecessor at Leeds and the front-runner to succeed Martino with Mexico, who has a wealth of international experience but speaks little English and is nicknamed “El Loco” for his intensity and controlling nature.
Ironically, that promotional work is where Klinsmann, the last European big-name manager the U.S. hired, really shined. But he lacked the wherewithal to deliver his lofty vision on the field. Finding a manager who can do both is rare. Rarer still is the one who actually wants to. And is available. And affordable. And doesn’t mind the lack of meaningful games. Or the risk of taking charge of a team that has won a single knockout game at a World Cup in more than 92 years but is now expected to do so several times over.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a regular contributor on soccer to The Ringer. He is writing a book about the United States men’s national team. He teaches at Marist College.