May 27, 2024


Like All Trades

USMNT’s Gregg Berhalter deserves a lot of credit… and the exit door

Is the USMNT in need of a new manager to get over the hump?

Is the USMNT in need of a new manager to get over the hump?
Image: Getty Images

At the top, we should refresh the list of things Gregg Berhalter can’t help. Everyone knows this list by now, but it deserves reinforcing. He can’t help that the US doesn’t have a genuine striker. He’s hardly the only international manager affected by such a thing. They’re just not that common. Spain and Germany don’t have one relative to the talent on the rest of their team (after this many years it’s worth asking if Spain even want one). Countries more on the US’s level are similarly bereft. Denmark’s whole tournament could have looked different with one. Japan don’t have one either, but just found temporary accuracy from a host of players. Mexico had one, he got injured two years ago and hasn’t been the same. On the flip side, South Korea have one of the best in the world. Does that mean Korea are better at producing one, or that’s just how the waterfall of genetics ran there 25 to 30 years ago?

Gregg Berhalter can’t do anything about a lack of depth at the top level. The top of the US roster is better than it’s ever been, but that doesn’t mean it drags the next level or two along with it. Especially with the lack of a generation ahead of this one, there just wasn’t that layer of 25-28 year olds (other than Walker Zimmerman) to back up the kids who had taken over the starting 11. It’s why it was the roster was so easily taken over by players so young. Who really stood in their way? The player pool is the player pool.

These are big obstacles, and ones common to the second tier of international teams. So what did Berhalter do with all that?

There are things that Berhalter did very well, things that have set the USMNT program up for the next cycle or two. I’m usually in the crowd of dismissing intangibles or creating a culture, but for this team and where this program is at the moment, it was vital. Yunus Musah and Sergino Dest opted to play for the US partly because of the comfort and joy they felt joining up with the team. The next young superstar who has a choice may do the same because of the atmosphere around this team. That is a very big deal.

Berhalter turned playing for the national team into something these players actively looked forward to, instead of dreading. The latter was the usual atmosphere around Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure, even though Klinsmann was so concerned with the next training fad to make himself look like a genius. Players hated playing for the national team by the time he was shitcanned. Look at the difference in energy within and around the program now. That’s Berhalter.

On the field, Berhalter is not without his wins too. Given that lack of depth, it is worth plaudits that he was able to get his team to flip between approaches, basically with the same 11 guys, from being on the front foot and having the ball against Wales and Iran, while playing a counter-and-defend game against England in between, all in the span of eight days with barely a week’s prep before. Some of that speaks to the uniquely talented make up of the US’s best 11, especially the midfield of Adams-Musah-McKennie, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum.

He was able to blend Tim Ream into this team seamlessly, and he was probably the US’s best player next to Adams. Same goes for Josh Sargent, who’s contributions against Iran and Wales were vital. Tim Weah came in from injury most of the season and looked like a star.

Berhalter benefitted from the brashness that is automatic with a team this young, but the swagger and belief this team carried itself with, looking like it was sure it would win every game, didn’t happen without him being involved. He harnessed that. For this group, he might have been the perfect hand, at least for that part of the job.

But at the end of the day, these are all Point A to Point B accomplishments, and if 2026 is about Point B to C, then Berhalter hasn’t proven he’s that guy. And if US Soccer is putting as much on the 2026 World Cup that it’s hosting as everyone indicates they are, they can’t take a chance that Berhalter will develop into that guy, or he can maintain his hold on this squad and whoever else joins it for another four years. The next four years are a time for the least amount of maybes possible.

Because Berhalter had his problems in this tournament. You have to manage the tournament as well as the game in front of you. The US looked absolutely gassed against the Dutch. Some of that is attributed to the lack of depth, but some of it is due to how hard they had to work in the group stage.

Would they have had to work as hard if they didn’t back up against Wales in the second half? You have to kill these games off, and the US stopped trying to do so after an hour. Again, the lack of depth was a problem and would cause that, but maybe substitutions meant to find a second goal instead of holding onto the one should have been the order of the day. You could say the same thing about the Iran game.

That doesn’t mean going hell-bent for leather to find a finishing goal, but you can see out games by doing other things than bunkering in your own 18-yard box. You can control the ball, you can still press up high, at least until the last five minutes. You can pick your spots to counter. The US didn’t do that against either Wales or Iran. They were cautious or misguided on the counters they did have.

The US plays in a way predicated on high-energy and high-pace, and it’s not Berhalter’s fault that there isn’t another fullback on the squad that can do the things Dest and Antonee Robinson can. But then they have to be conserved where possible, as Robinson especially got worse every game due to the weight on his legs.

And there’s little question Berhalter got pantsed by Louis van Gaal on Saturday. Berhalter may not have expected the Dutch to cede possession so easily, but failed to react quickly. He may not have expected the Dutch to go to a man-marking system in midfield, but the US didn’t adjust to that either by trying to move that midfield into other spaces and either push their fullbacks higher to make them available for the ball or playing more directly. It was the Canada game in Hamilton all over again, where the US had one vision of what they wanted to do with the ball and didn’t change it based on the looks they were getting from their opponents. McKennie, Tim Weah, and Pulisic were all attempting runs in behind, and rarely if ever did the US try to hit them. Yes, that involves your centerbacks pinging those balls and it’s certainly not what you want Walker Zimmerman doing if you can help it, but those were the cards on the table.

If Gio Reyna could have been brought on as a false nine when trailing by two goals, then that means it was even more of an option to start the game instead of the clearly overmatched and out of form Jesus Ferreira. Josh Sargent’s injury throws Plan A into the blender. Reyna or Weah up front should have been the option instead of just trying to jam the normal plan through with a player who couldn’t carry it out.

Yes, all of this is different if Pulisic buries his chance in the third minute. Or if Weah’s rocket half-volley is a foot more to the side or higher. On such margins are games in the World Cup knockout round decided. The US’s three killer mistakes could all be attributed to tired minds and tired legs though, and at least some of that fatigue has to be pinned on Berhalter and the way the group stage was negotiated.

That doesn’t mean the group stage was a failure, and it was far from that. Berhalter’s shortcomings were on the margins. But 2026 is only about results. It won’t be about ethos or atmosphere or style. It will only be about how far they go. And how far the US goes will be decided on small decisions that become big, small margins that look canyonlike after. The US has to make sure they have someone they can be as sure as possible will get those right.

Perhaps if US Soccer was as ruthless and forward thinking as they like to tell people they are, they would have already sounded out Pep Guardiola about the job, before he started in on talks with an extension with Man City. He’s remarked about wanting the job before. That’s the dream scenario obviously, but he’s not the only solution. Would Joachim Low be interested? He actually did all the things that Klinsmann took credit for. Another manager who leaves his post after this tournament? Whoever, US Soccer needs someone who has coached at this level before.

The job will change in four years. The squad won’t be made up of excitable kids doing all of this for the first time while their club careers are just beginning to blossom. They’ll be established vets, and the next crop will probably also be breaking through at big clubs in Europe too. They’re not as likely to be quite as receptive to the ideas and charges of someone they’ve never heard of or don’t have innovative ideas as this bunch was with Berhalter. A reputation that immediately snaps the players to attention is most likely required.

US Soccer also needs to help whoever is next by doing whatever it takes to be in Copa America 2024, whether it’s hosting the tourney or finding a way to accept an invitation, one that the tournament has always wanted to extend to the US but rarely has been able to. This team needs tournament experience, otherwise it’ll go four years without playing a game that means anything. With the Nations League model, it’s nearly impossible to play the top European teams as practice. A new manager will need a dry run like Copa America 2024 can provide.

The national team needed a complete reboot after 2018. That means on the field and off the field. Berhalter did great work in a lot of that, relaying a foundation for what this team can be in four years time. But that work is done, and now it’s only about on the field. 2026 is just not a time to leave to any chance you don’t have to. Berhalter deserves applause and appreciation. But his watch should be over.