Gregg Berhalter, Coach of USMNT
“We put together these XIs in lineup builders and there is no humanity in them. There is always humanity in coaching.” –Will Parchman.
The internet is not the place for face-to-face or voice-to-voice conversations (for the most part). It is a place for arguing, overgeneralizing, hair-splitting, trolling, and boiling hot takes. I should know: I am just as guilty as anyone else when it comes to falling down that blackhole. But this isn’t about me. This is about the current coach of the US Men’s National Team, Gregg Berhalter.
When Gregg is asked about dual nationals and his process on recruiting, he always drops the sentence “We want to create an environment that players want to be in”. By all accounts, he is living by that. He got Sergino Dest over the line at a moment when his int’l future might’ve been up in the air and Yunus Musah went from “not interested” to starting two friendlies in a matter of months. Also, Christian Pulisic went to the most recent camp just to hang out and left the day before the Wales match when he could’ve just stayed in London.
But that’s only part of it. Another part of it is moving on from players from a previous era/regime. It doesn’t matter how long they’ve been there, either. A year, two years, or well over a decade, those are hard conversations to have. You can’t be warm and welcoming to the young players and cold as ice to the older players. A lot of these players have the same agents and it doesn’t work like that. A lot of people will read this and think/comment “That’s literally his job, he shouldn’t worry about that, his main focus is winning” etc. Of course, his main focus is winning. He’s a coach. But focusing on player management brings unity. When there’s a lack of unity, you get late 2016 and most of 2017 all over again. So, he is doing his job, but it seems like he’s not doing it the way *you* would do it.
High-level (re: professional) players want to go out on their own terms. No American wants their last game to be October 10th, 2017 v. T&T. No Englishman wants their last game to be November 21st, 2007 v. Croatia. No Italian wants their last game to be November 13th, 2017 v. Sweden. A lot of international players have it in their mind they’ll retire from competition after a major tournament (if they’re lucky). There are players who played their last USMNT match on 10/10/17: Dempsey, Howard, Besler, Villafana, and Feilhaber. Not the ending they expected and certainly not the ending a few deserved. Some players simply wake up and decide that day to walk away. Others wait for non-footy related factors to develop before they make that decision. Then there are the players who put it in the coach’s hands to not call them up. These players can’t walk away.
Gregg is going to be the coach to tell 33 yr old Michael Bradley, 151 caps, former captain, 2nd in all-time assists, that he’s no longer a part of something he’s been a part of since he was a teenager. While almost all agree this is the right call, this will still be a hard thing do to because having tough soccer conversations with someone with the last name Bradley is not easy at all. When that conversation is done, Michael will say the right things to the camera and seem like he’s moving into a different era in his life, but I guarantee you there will be a lot of human emotion behind closed doors. Age, injuries, and form all play a factor, but he can’t seem to bring himself to announce his int’l retirement. This is where Gregg will earn his man management stripes. He’s already done something similar with Omar Gonzalez.
Every USMNT fan remembers Couva. How could we forget? In Twellman’s amazing “What Are We Doing” rant, he mentioned these players are going to have nightmares about it for the rest of their lives. Which particular Couva moment was the worst of the worst? The own goal. Having watched it probably fifty times, Omar couldn’t do that again if he had another 100 tries (Howard probably moves his feet to bail him out if he had another chance, too). But it still happened and that’s his lasting USMNT moment to almost all fans. Berhalter, his former LAG travel roomie, brought him in for a friendly in early 2019 to give him one more match. Then Brooks had a twisted knee in spring/summer 2019, so he took Omar to the Gold Cup as a backup CB. Gregg Berhalter gave him two friendlies, the throwaway group game, and moved on. Yes, Brooks’ injury is the only reason this happened. Yes, the fact they were roomies helped Gregg feel more sympathy towards Omar’s Couva moment when compared to others. But a lot of people don’t remember Omar getting a game in the Berhalter era at this point. So, Gregg giving a player one more MNT experience so his last memory isn’t the lowest moment in this county’s history goes a long way and should be commended from a mental health standpoint. Players and the agents of players talk. They can all appreciate things like this, even when a player is clearly “past it”. Even knowing he was an injury replacement in 2019, Omar has now moved on with as much peace as he can possibly have.
One thing Gregg Berhalter doesn’t do is drop players without explanation. From his first camp in January 2019 to his most recent camp, he is not shy in answering questions on why Player X wasn’t called up. You might not agree with it, but I might not agree with why you think Player Y should have been called up.
Kellyn Acosta was let go early from camp in Jan. ’19 but not before Gregg told him exactly what he had to do and improve upon to be called back into the fold. Aron Johannsson, despite having double-digit goals for the first time since 2014, was contacted by Gregg Berhalter and they had a talk as to why he wasn’t called in for November camp and what his plans are for Aron. Gregg could’ve ignored him but didn’t. He communicated his exact thought at that exact time. Russell Canouse’s quote of “I didn’t feel like I got a complete shot” in January ’19 camp is a fair critique coming from a player. Players want to play, and he didn’t get to play. I can relate. He probably should’ve gotten a game. But Gregg Berhalter chose to play Bradley then Trapp at the 6. But now? None of those players are in serious MNT contention. That’s a tough impression Canouse is left with, but that gets into the area of coach’s preferences and who is the closest to fitting whatever particular role.
Player selections are tough because every single one comes down to that person’s biases about the game and individual players. If you talk to a person long enough about enough players, you will eventually hear them contradict themselves in how they rate players. And that’s fine. Everyone does that. I do it. Anyone who has ever picked a team or roster knows the criticisms they open themselves up to. Gregg has known Wil Trapp for a while and knew he was the de facto captain under Dave Sarachan. But his minutes outside of the 2019 January camp under Berhalter don’t lead one to believe he is a Gregg favorite, despite the “he still called him in” argument. Tyler Adams, who played right back under Gregg only once, was injured for most of 2019. If you look at Trapp’s MNT minutes on Transfermarkt, you can see exactly where Gregg stopped with Trapp. I think Trapp gets shown the door a bit sooner if it weren’t for Tyler’s injury problems. Gregg, a coach, called in a player who was familiar with what he wanted, even though he didn’t see a second in the Nations League. Gregg brought him along in that last bit of 2019 but as the year wound down and Tyler got healthy, it was clear Trapp’s time, outside of a random January camp, was over.
Then, there’s Jozy Altidore. Third all-time leading scorer. All-time leader in Hex goals. Tied in overall WCQ goals (18; tied with Dempsey). The only attacker from the Lost Generation who came anywhere close to reaching their potential. The persistent health problems he’s endured since 2014 aren’t something I would wish on anyone. ANYONE!! Bob Bradley, Jurgen Klinsmann, and Bruce Arena 2.0 all knew how important he was to the USMNT attack. So much so that all three convinced him to play hurt at some point in their NT coaching tenure. 2013 Jozy was peak Jozy. His club manager and country manager greatly benefitted from it. I wouldn’t be shocked if Jozy has a final run of goals in him. But that’s only if he can stay healthy. If he can’t, Gregg will eventually have to pick up the phone and tell 31 or 32 yr old Jozy that he’s going with a 19 or 20 yr old instead. As previously discussed, that will be hard on a player.
Like Bradley, Altidore was starting for the national team as a teenager. Both have been a part of the highs like making it out of consecutive groups in the WC and beating Spain, and the lows of Couva. According to Herc Gomez’s interview with Aaron Long, after the USMNT beat Jamaica in the Gold Cup semifinal Long said both Jozy and Bradley were very excited about playing Mexico in the final. They were getting the rest of the locker room as pumped as they were about it. Being the coach that takes potential moments like that away is something Berhalter will have to confront soon if Jozy can’t stay healthy.
All of this isn’t to say other national team coaches haven’t done something like this. Arena took Brian Ching to the 2006 World Cup because Landon’s depression was getting hard to control at the time and Ching was a very close friend of Landon’s. Everyone watching then knew Twellman should’ve been in Germany instead. Klinsmann dropped then-captain Carlos Bocanegra the day of the WCQ in Honduras. Flying him to Honduras and doing it the day of the match seems like weird timing, but at least Jurgen looked him in the eye and told him the deal, according to Bocanegra’s official Facebook post. Did Jurgen or Bruce ever do something like that again? Not as far as I know. But more autobiographies will be written, and we’ll find out one way or the other.
By no means am I saying Gregg Berhalter is a big pile of mush. He’s a competitor. He’s started a World Cup quarterfinal. Only eleven Americans can say that. As a manager, he has a player “doghouse”. Yes, there are players currently in said doghouse and there are those who were in it but have gotten out. This shows there absolutely are ways out and it’s by no means a permanent placement, unlike previous coaches. Seeing how he’s true to his player management word, these players currently frozen out could have a chance to thaw and be in the environment he’s created.
Dealing with personalities of players who have sacrificed a lot to get to where they are is hard. Everyone who’s coached a team, from the u14 rec level to the top 5 leagues, knows mistakes in player management are unavoidable. I guarantee more mistakes will be made from Gregg’s player management department. But if the biggest strike against Gregg Berhalter is Canouse being upset he didn’t dress for either game in January camp, that’s pretty good all things considered. Berhalter is practicing what he’s saying in that he’s bringing players in the door while making it harder for the older players to walk away. I fully support this because I personally felt like the togetherness and comradery the USMNT was known for slowly but surely eroded through the 2010s and Berhalter is trying to rebuild this cornerstone of the MNT while still dealing with the fallout of Couva and the Lost Generation. It’s a tall order along with everything else on his plate, but I think he should get tons of credit for the great job he’s done so far in building this aspect. No one is saying forgive all his mistakes, but also don’t berate him for not being undefeated.