By John Roche ([email protected])
So the new Gregg Berhalter era begins with trepidation for most fans. We need not rehash the many reasons why – they are warranted. Amidst the lingering concerns, though, there is a unique opportunity for Berhalter to demonstrate that he has learned valuable insights from his first tenure, that he is prepared to both transform his coaching philosophy and appease the faithful – through a swift open salvo, a genuine power move that shows his evolution as a Manager. He need only unleash his inner German!
Joachim Low’s Shaming of 2019
In March of 2019, then-German National Team Manager Joachim Low individually sat down three of his aging, but still core players in Thomas Muller (aged 29), George Boateng (30), and Mats Hummels (30) – and fired them. Low was turning the page to evaluate younger players, he explained, and they were no longer under consideration. A press release from the German Football Association followed. Many German fans opposed the decision, but Low’s choice was not a referendum; the players were out.
As many readers know, Hummels and Muller returned to the team two years later under Low, so the finality of the incident is not what Berhalter needs to draw on. Rather, Low – in a very direct, perhaps excessively-Bavarian way – eradicated any ambiguity around player selection at a time when the German Football Association was mired in unprecedented disarray. Germany had exited the 2018 World Cup at the opening group stage for the first time in the history of the tournament. Fans needed clarity on the direction of the program, and Low delivered it with conviction – if not consensus.
Berhalter’s Mirrored Perspective
When he took over in 2019, Berhalter’s player selection crisis resembled Lowe’s at the time: his core players were old, and the program had also experienced historic failure in 2018. The key difference was that Berhalter could not cast-out aging, subpar performers like Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Omar Gonzalez, et al, because younger, more capable backfills did not exist – at least yet.
Fast forward to 2023, and the pool is younger, more skilled, and deeper than ever. Realistically, the only tension around current player selection is entirely of Berhalter’s own making: certain players are still under consideration not due to their superior USMNT performances, their adulation from fans, or their potential for the future.
Instead, their candidacies exist singularly out of Berhalter’s strange and frustrating allegiance to them. And unfortunately, an excessive loyalty to suboptimal players ran amok throughout his first tenure: Will Trapp, Jonathan Lewis, Gyasi Zardes, Nick Lima, Daniel Lovitz, Sebastian Lleget, and the recently-recalled Jackson Yueill are among those that were deputized for WAY too long given obvious shortcomings.
Conviction Meets Consensus: A USMNT Retirement Party
Berhalter needs to remedy his own self-inflicted wound right away by dispatching the aging, underperforming players whose callups are alienating fans – and likely players – more than ever. Put plainly: Aaron Long, Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris should be retired. With their performances at this week’s Gold Cup, their opportunity to contribute a has expired.
(To note: DeAndre Yedlin is the only other recently-selected player that could be included in this “aging meets underperforming” profile, but I think he is still too capable to be cast-out indefinitely. The USMNT’s intimacy with MLS will still mean we have silly January camps where moderately talented veteran leadership is necessary.)
For certainty, there does not need to be any shame in this process. Berhalter can have private, positive one-on-one conversations with each of them. Sure, these players will not be happy about such a decision, but none would reasonably feel aggrieved, as all three have had injury spats and are by now not even impacting games in B-team competitions. Lastly, the USSF could follow the German approach of issuing a press release, but instead could spin the announcements as player-endorsed retirements.
More important than maintaining these players’ dignity, though, the fans get a deserved win. Would any among us genuinely express concern or outrage at these three players no longer being available? (In fact, most would probably encourage firing more players!) A few MLS beat writers might throw-up some “fake rage” hit pieces on social media, but ultimately the fan base would collectively exhale.
So….Does He Do It?
Disappointingly, Berhalter will almost certainly not touch this idea. His public-facing statements on player conflicts have veered between passive-aggressive silence and irreconcilable imagination – as witnessed most awkwardly through the ongoing John Brooks saga. He will likely not change his approach now.
Without this clarity, the fan base will likely experience some needlessly nervy moments ahead of roster drops. The injuries and dips in player “form” will endure, but we can only hope that a deserving player is not omitted in favor of a quirky Berhalter selection. At least in that respect, this time should be different.