NEW YORK — If U.S. soccer fans were hoping for a swashbuckling coach to shake up the damaged men’s national program, an outsider to introduce a magic formula tested overseas and immediately exorcise the post-traumatic stress of missing the World Cup, Gregg Berhalter is not their man.
He doesn’t have Jurgen Klinsmann’s gung-ho personality or Bruce Arena’s aura. He hasn’t coached in the Premier League or World Cup. He won’t electrify the masses.
He won’t pilot a helicopter to practice, like Klinsmann did.
Berhalter, introduced Tuesday at a news conference a little down the Hudson from his hometown of Tenafly, N.J., is intense and meticulous. His coaching style emphasizes ball possession, organization and tactical acumen, not highflying attacks.
At this low point in U.S. soccer, however, maybe this is exactly what the program needs: back to basics, foundation-building, simple starting points. Maybe, dare we say, a tad dull.
In describing how he will implement his plans, Berhalter said: “My job is to make it as simple as possible. Our game is based on very simple principles. They’re not complicated principles. To execute it on a very high level does take some time, but it’s based on simple principles.”
Perhaps it was that simplicity, along with familiarity and comfort, that led the U.S. Soccer Federation to Berhalter, 45, a former national team defender who has guided MLS’s Columbus Crew for five seasons.
Soccer is a global sport and, despite the team’s shortfalls of late, the U.S. job is a coveted position. Federation officials said they compiled a list of 33 candidates, domestically and internationally, before narrowing the search to 11, then two. (We don’t know for sure who the other was; it might’ve been FC Dallas’s Oscar Pareja, who took the Tijuana post in Liga MX, or maybe 2018 Mexican World Cup boss Juan Carlos Osorio, who is now leading Paraguay.)
There was an overriding feeling for months, though, that Berhalter was going to get the job, sooner or later. Although he has never worked for the USSF, he is an insider in the sense he has coached in the top-flight domestic league and been tied to MLS since joining the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2009 after a 15-year European career.
He played for youth national teams some 25 years ago and is the first former U.S. World Cup player to guide the senior squad.
Earnie Stewart, the general manager who oversaw the coaching hunt, was Berhalter’s teammate on the Americans' run to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. Berhalter has coached — and coached against — many of those in the current player pool.
In other words, Berhalter knows American soccer: the players, the power structure, the pathway to the World Cup, which, until this year, the United States had not missed since 1986.
“Gregg isn’t just the right choice,” USSF President Carlos Cordeiro said. “Gregg is the best choice."
Cordeiro should have elaborated: Berhalter was probably the right and best choice given the situation and given the federation’s hiring philosophy. More precisely, he was the right fit.
Over the years, the USSF has been insular in its selections. Since Bora Milutinovic, a quirky man of many countries and languages, oversaw the 1994 World Cup squad, the federation has hired individuals with American backgrounds and portfolios, men with deep ties to the U.S. system.
The sort-of exception was Klinsmann, a native of Germany but a beach-loving free spirit with an American family who lived in Southern California and worked at times in U.S. circles.
Berhalter’s deep ties did create perception issues. His brother, Jay, is a top business executive at the Chicago-based USSF.
Jay Berhalter had a say in Stewart’s hiring but, Cordeiro reiterated Tuesday, had no role in the coaching decision.
“The process and selection of the coach was incredibly thorough, very honest, very fair,” Cordeiro said. “Jay had nothing to do with that. . . . We wanted to keep things very separate and we were incredibly careful about that. . . . Gregg comes out on top [in the search]. Why would we discriminate against Gregg because his brother happens to work at the federation?”
That said, at no time has the USSF taken a chance on an accomplished European or South American coach with no prior connections to the U.S. game. The argument against such a selection has always been that American soccer is uniquely different from the sport found around the world, one requiring special insight and understanding into its complexities and diversity.
Some would argue that’s narrow-minded, that an esteemed coach, regardless of background and native tongue, would take the program to new heights.
Another argument, though, is that MLS coaches have become more sophisticated and shouldn’t be discounted just because the league remains inferior to the top circuits abroad.
Gerardo Martino was already well-respected after guiding FC Barcelona and the Argentine national team, but after two terrific seasons at Atlanta United, he is expected to become the Mexican national team coach soon.
Pareja’s move to Tijuana was facilitated by his work in Dallas. Jesse Marsch moved midseason from the New York Red Bulls' top spot to an assistant’s gig with Bundesliga side RB Leipzig. Bob Bradley has gone from MLS to the U.S. national team to Egypt, Norway, France, the Premier League and back to MLS this year.
In forging a coaching style, Berhalter drew not just from his American experiences but from his playing days in the Netherlands, a country renowned for possession and style. That undoubtedly appealed to Stewart, a Dutch American who spent the bulk of his playing career — and part of his executive work — in the Netherlands.
Also, Nico Romeijn, a key figure in the USSF’s coaching education department, came from the Dutch federation three years ago.
Berhalter’s work will begin by reaching out to the talent pool; he’ll attend MLS Cup this weekend and visit players in Europe soon. Training camp, featuring mostly MLS players because most candidates are unavailable, will open Jan. 7 in Chula Vista, Calif. That’s a few hours south from the usual winter site in Carson. The reason for the move, he said, is a more isolated and concentrated experience for the purpose of team-building.
“It’s a process,” he said when asked about his message to fans. “I don’t want to use that as an excuse and say eight years from now we’re going to be good. The process has to accelerate and, when you have quality players, when you have players that have the ability to learn, you can accelerate that process a little bit. We want to see progress. With each and every camp, you should expect to see development. That’s my job.”
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