By Tom Bodell, Football Whispers
The saying goes that good things come to those who wait. If there is anything to that mantra then the US Soccer Federation should be in luck after waiting 14 months to appoint Gregg Berhalter as its head coach.
Bruce Arena resigned three days after the US Men’s National Team failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia after a humiliating 2-1 defeat to Trinidad and Tobago in CONCACAF qualification.
Since then, Arena’s No.2, Dave Sarachan, has taken interim charge of the USMNT, overseeing 12 games (3-5-4) and handing caps to 50 players – including 23 debutants – in that period.
In truth, it has gone on too long. There are mitigating circumstances, such as the election of Earnie Stewart as General Manager. But he has been in place since August while President Carlos Cordeiro assumed office in February.
All of which led Borussia Dortmund star Christian Pulisic to say all he wanted was “a guy with a real plan” to lead the USMNT. In Berhalter, most recently coach of Columbus Crew, the Stars and Stripes finally have that.
Berhalter becomes the first USMNT veteran to lead the national team and we’ve profiled the 45-year-old.
Born in Englewood, NJ, on August 1, 1973, Berhalter is the godson of former Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski.
He grew up in nearby Tenafly where he played at Union County Sport Club and, later, at Saint Benedict’s Preparatory School In Newark, alongside former Sunderland and Manchester City midfielder Claudio Reyna – a future USMNT captain.
Berhalter went on to play for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels where he was team-mates with two more future US internationals in Eddie Pope and Kerry Zavagnin. His talent as a defender clear, Berhalter captained the USA at the 1993 FIFA World Youth Championships. A leader had been born.
Moving to Europe
After his junior year at UNC Berhalter left to pursue a professional career in the European game, joining Dutch side PEC Zwolle. Spells with Sparta Rotterdam and Cambuur Leeuwarden followed and, while he wasn’t always a regular, his time in the Netherlands provided a foundation for his coaching principles.
“When I was there in my first years, I started writing notes down and writing journals down about the training sessions, about how I saw the ideal formation, what attributes we needed in each position,” he told FourFourTwo in 2017.
“That was the best part about going there early in my career. Because after training, after games, all you do is discuss with teammates about the game. That’s all you’re doing. Tactically. So it’s really interesting. That had a huge part of forming who I am.”
Berhalter left the Netherlands for the Premier League and Crystal Palace in February 2001, making 21 appearances for the Eagles. Shortly before departing, he became the first Palace player to feature at a World Cup as the USMNT reached the quarter-finals of the 2002 tournament in South Korea and Japan.
His next stop was Germany with Energie Cottbus for whom he made more than 100 appearances in four years with the Brandenburg-based outfit, captaining them back to the Bundesliga.
In 2006 he moved onto 1860 Munich of the 2.Bundesliga, the second tier of German football, where he was again named captain. He stayed for two-and-a-half-seasons and took his first steps on the technical side by helping scout upcoming opponents.
Having spent 15 years in Europe Berhalter finally moved to Major League Soccer, signing for Arena’s LA Galaxy. They reached the MLS Cup final in his first season, only to lose out to Real Salt Lake on penalties. The following year the Carson-based side lifted the Supporters’ Shield before Berhalter became player-assistant to Arena.
Ahead of the 2012/13 season, Berhalter struck out on his own for the first time, returning to Europe to take up the head coach’s role at Swedish side Hammarby IF, becoming the first American to coach a team in Europe.
He lasted 18 months in the Allsvenskan, posting an 18-12-16 record, but received criticism for his team being too negative. But the 45-year-old is realistic about his time in Scandinavia.
“I didn’t really know how to solve it, to be honest,” he said last year in the same interview with FourFourTwo. “And then, as I had the time off after I got fired, I started studying more and more about how I wanted it to be, how I wanted it to look, and then I started defining it more clearly.”
However, that disappointment does not define Berhalter. Far from it. In November 2013 he returned to Major League Soccer to become sporting director and head coach of Columbus Crew.
In five seasons with the Crew, he took them to the post-season four occasions, reaching the 2015 MLS Columbus Cup only to be beaten 2-1 by the Portland Timbers on their home field.
This season they reached the Eastern Conference semifinals before losing to the New York Red Bulls. No MLS side averaged more crosses (20.67) or accurate crosses (5.51) per 90 than the Crew last season while they were fifth for accurate passes (402.18). Furthermore, an average of 14.35 shots per 90 place the Crew sixth in MLS. Clearly entertaining is no longer an issue for Berhalter.
As head coach, Berhalter has also handed debuts to plenty of young players – not least USMNT goalkeeper Zack Steffen who is reportedly wanted by Manchester City. That is doubtless something which will have made him an attractive proposition to the US Soccer Federation, given the abundance of young talent coming through the ranks.
“This is a tremendous honor,” Berhalter told the US Soccer website following his appointment on Sunday.
“Having played for the National Team I know what it means to represent our country. I believe in our players and our program, and together we will work to build something special and develop a team that will make our supporters proud.”