Gregg Berhalter did everything he could to establish himself as a desirable candidate for the coaching job of the United States men’s national team, except to somehow arrange to be born and raised in Europe. He played professionally in England and Germany and was a key player in America’s biggest World Cup career. He got a job running one of the best clubs in Sweden.
Granted, he grew up in New Jersey and was a coach for half a dozen years in Major League Soccer. Did we mention all those European stamps in your passport?
This is how it is for an American to coach this American team, how it has been for most of the three decades that soccer has been relevant in this country. Bruce Arena led the USA to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, Bob Bradley to win a 2010 World Cup group in spectacular fashion, but the desire to inject foreign influence led to the Wild inconsistency of Jurgen Klinsmann’s too long term. Maybe that made it clear to US Soccer that the best coach for the job might be in the neighborhood, but Berhalter has never been a popular choice.
MORE: Here’s what happened in the Gold Cup final
What do you think now?
On Sunday night, Berhalter led the USMNT to a victory over rival Mexico in a championship game for the second time in the past three months, with a Miles Robinson header following a Kellyn Acosta free throw in overtime that provided the margin in a 1-0 victory in the Gold Cup Final. US players were able to lift a trophy again as Mexico players watched, the first in June in the CONCACAF Nations League.
“When you watch today’s game, we didn’t stop. It was relentless on our part, ”Berhalter said at his press conference. And that is the mark of a good team. We thought we had enough quality in the team to do it. And sometimes it looks a little different, and sometimes the form changes and the staff changes, but we have guys who are committed to winning and they take great pride when they come onto the field to represent the country. “
That’s something many saw was missing in the fall of 2017, as the USA lost twice in their last four qualifying matches for the 2018 World Cup and missed the tournament for the first time since 1986. The Authors Steven Mandiss and Sarah Parsons Wolter, in a academic but fascinating immersion in the history of the national team, referred to that kind of commitment as the “Spirit of 76,” an underdog mentality that Americans have valued since the Revolutionary War and that saw its sporting apotheosis with the American hockey team defeating Russia in the 1980 Olympics.
They claim that the spirit was lost as the United States became more successful and the momentum to make the national team more European accelerated. Berhalter had positioned himself as capable of training the style of building from the back that is most commonly associated with Barcelona and Spain, albeit from an American perspective, but critics of his appointment often pointed to the fact that his brother, Jay, was the commercial manager. official US Soccer at the time. The federation stated that Jay was excluded from a role in the hiring process, and has since left that position, but the presumption persists.
I’m not going to say it was my idea to hire Berhalter as a USMNT coach, but you are free to give me credit or blame. I think I was the first person in the US sports media to publicly suggest that I would be an excellent candidate for the position, albeit in a simple reply tweet sent to veteran soccer journalist Andrea Canales in the fall of 2015.
Berhalter was nearing the end of his second year as head coach of the Columbus Crew, a season that would end with a loss to the Portland Timbers in the MLS Cup final. The team was nowhere near the top of the league on payroll and yet they won a lot and scored goals with an attack that looked different from most MLS teams.
Canales was asked on Twitter if there were any MLS coaches he might consider to replace Jurgen Klinsmann after the United States collapsed in that summer’s Gold Cup. She named four, including, prophetically, Jesse Marsch, who went on to coach in the Champions League with Red Bull Salzburg and is now in charge of RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga.
“Watch out for Berhalter,” I wrote. “New to the job, but his team plays football very well.”
In fact, the United States has played attractively with Berhalter at times. However, that is not what happened during the three weeks of the Gold Cup. The Americans were ugly. With nearly all of their best players preparing in Europe for major club seasons and needing to stay relatively fresh for this fall’s World Cup playoffs, they lacked the talent and experience to regularly generate artistic statements on the field.
The thing was, no one who lined up against them had any fun at all. Haiti, Canada, Jamaica, Qatar and Mexico scored a combined – well, they didn’t score at all. Mexico, long considered the region’s dominant powerhouse and presenting the best team it could muster, had 120 minutes to try, including overtime, and never succeeded. The USMNT opposition in this tournament scored no goals during the race in 570 minutes.
Much of that was the brilliance of goalkeeper Matt Turner’s development, but the most important component was that “Spirit of 76” mentality that the players brought into camp and that Berhalter fostered. Together for a shorter period, the USA team that won the Nations League behind stars Christian Pulisic, Geo Reyna and Weston McKennie also showed that same fight.
The USMNT will play 14 games against seven CONCACAF opponents between September 2 and March 30. The top three teams out of eight will qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Nothing Berhalter has accomplished will matter much if Americans are not among those three, and he is fully aware of it, no matter how good he feels at the moment.
However, the Gold Cup allowed coaches to discover Turner, who could be their best goalkeeper, Robinson (above) is a legitimate choice as a central defender, Acosta could play multiple roles in midfield when needed and the overall depth of the program. it’s as good as it’s been in a while, even with most players still in their 20s.
“We had a fantastic group in the Nations League who were able to win a trophy, and turning around and doing it again with this group is a great achievement,” said Berhalter. “I cannot say enough about his spirit, his hard work and his dedication.”
Your work is now almost done, but what is done is fine.