By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 7, 2018) US Soccer Players - Neither his former team nor his new one is directly involved in Saturday’s MLS Cup final. Still, Gregg Berhalter’s name was on the lips of many here in the lead-up to the big game between Atlanta United and the Portland Timbers.
With the long-awaited confirmation and introduction of the USMNT’s new coaching hire finally arriving earlier in the week, that was no surprise. There’s a great deal to unpack for everyone. That process began with the customary media blitz in New York City for the new boss.
It was hard to avoid seeing some parallels with the last such splashy introduction for a US coach, the unveiling of Jurgen Klinsmann back in 2011. At the time the German-Californian boldly pledged to cultivate a new, assertive, “proactive” style of play. Berhalter did not flinch from laying out a similar vision. The central question is whether he has better plans and methodologies for implementing it more effectively than did Klinsmann in his eventful five years on the job.
“The idea is that we're an attacking-based team that wants to create goal-scoring opportunities by disorganizing the opponent,” explained Berhalter. “We’ll do that in a number of different ways … We’ve done it through buildup, where we start the ball with the goalie in the back and when teams try to press us, we play through them to create goal-scoring opportunities, we’re making the field big.
“Another way to do that is to use pressure, whether we start in a mid-block or move into high pressure to force turnovers, win the ball and immediate create goal-scoring opportunities. The idea is it’s a fluid style, that the players are intent on breaking lines, playing through the opponent and creating goal-scoring opportunities.”
In one sense, the US Soccer Federation did Berhalter few favors with its leisurely approach to filling a post left open for what turned out to be 14 months. Fed president Carlos Cordeiro tried to push back against that on Tuesday, saying it’s “probably been the most conclusive and comprehensive search for coach in our history” and promising an “identity and approach that will be uniquely and fiercely American.”
That said, many aspects of the organization’s process for evaluating candidates have prompted concern and criticism among the soccer public. It’s no fault of Berhalter’s. Yet it probably dials up the pressure even further on a coach who will face enormous amounts of attention and expectation once his tenure opens against Panama on January 27.
“US Soccer has just put a needless amount of pressure on Gregg Berhalter now, because there wasn’t a lot of transparency throughout the entire process,” posited Taylor Twellman in an interview with Stars & Stripes FC.
Berhalter, Cordeiro, and the rest of the group sitting before the media sounded eager to turn a page and move forward. The reality is that even the most skeptical observers will eventually have to follow suit. In that regard, the type of praise that the new coach has received from counterparts and players may be noteworthy.
“When you have a manager that has a real identity, a real idea of how he wants his team to play,” said ATLUTD and USMNT goalkeeper Brad Guzan on Thursday, praising Berhalter’s work with Columbus Crew SC, “then real things can be accomplished. Clearly Columbus is a team that works on their style of play, how they want to build out of the back, how they want to keep the ball, how they want to create advantages on the field, similar to what we do here.
“I think it's going to be good. I think Gregg has it spot on in terms of changing the idea of what U.S. Soccer [is] and how we are perceived around the rest of the world. Of course when you try to change something, it's never easy, and you have to be willing to put in hard work. I think he’s someone that clearly understands the game, he works hard and his team reflects the amount of preparation that they put into it.”
Even Atlanta’s Tata Martino, the darling of many who’ve criticized the Fed’s approach and someone who dropped a few hints of his own interest in the job, left no doubts about his high regard for Berhalter.
“The only thing I'd like to say in respect to that is that I've rarely seen a person that was a better fit for a team,” he told ESPN FC this week. “Gregg has more than enough qualifications for this position and I think he'll be a really important hire for the United States. Everything else doesn't matter, the federation made their decision and I think they've made a good one.”
In two groundbreaking seasons in Atlanta, Martino’s efforts have changed much of the conventional wisdom about what’s possible in MLS, both in terms of his team and its individuals. Berhalter may take some lessons from that, though he’ll soon run into some old challenges on the road to more assertive American soccer.
Senior national-team coaches can certainly influence the big picture of a country’s soccer landscape. Yet their core mission is to get results in competitive matches. Everything else comes after that, and Berhalter’s need for a strong start will put him in a familiar bind. Building a fluid, possession-oriented side like his Crew teams takes time, focus, and technical quality. Purposeful training and film sessions, myriad repetitions together, installation of shared ideas and vocabulary and usually, hard lessons in games are part of the process. Those are all elusive quantities at international level, to say the least.
“It’s about being repetitive and going through situations, going through scenarios that happen in a game that ultimately you feel comfortable when being pressed, when playing out of tight situations,” said Guzan.
Can Berhalter and his staff implement things efficiently and get enough buy-in to inspire players to do the extra individual work outside of camps that he promised this week? Are there enough US-eligible players with the skillsets to carry out his orders? How much of a leash does he have, especially considering all the background noise around the process of hiring him?
“I’m excited to see if we can,” Berhalter told Yahoo Sports’ Doug McIntyre. “There’s nothing I can envision more than playing against a big team and unbalancing them, hurting them, making them chase the ball. If we can stick to positional principles, and we can execute in one, two touches, will be able to do some damage.”
Will players, fans, and Fed executives alike give him the time and quite possibly, the losses in match play to craft this new identity from the ground up?
It's reminiscent of something retired USMNT great Hugo Perez told me while doing his quietly influential work with the US youth national team. That group of players has grown into the talented generation of young pros like Christian Pulisic, Andrew Carleton, and Nick Taitague. It took long hours on the training ground and some humbling losses in games, but Perez gave his squads a foundation of proactive principles that has served them well on their road to bigger stages.
“The hardest thing was convincing the players that they could do it,” he once told me of his work with the USMNT U-15s from 2012 to 2014. “Not because they couldn’t do it, but convincing them that they could do it without fear of being reprimanded for making mistakes, you know? I told them look, every time you make a mistake because you’re trying to do something special, that’s my responsibility, not yours. Just be confident to do it, work to do it and you have the freedom from me to do it. And I think in youth soccer, that’s the key. We have to give our players the freedom to express themselves and play football.”
Berhalter is working at a different level in a dramatically different context. Some of the obstacles are very similar, though. The nation and the world will be watching how he navigates them.
More from Charles Boehm:
- Toronto FC’s arduous 2018
- The evolution of the MLS coaching carousel
- Growth, but in what direction? Pondering USL’s future
- Romain Gall and the latest USMNT roster
Photo by Howard C Smith - ISIPhotos.com