Should USMNT retain Gregg Berhalter as coach? After World Cup exit, another question might be more pressing

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DOHA, Qatar — On the fourth day of the fifth month of his fourth year as U.S. men’s national team head coach, Gregg Berhalter sank into a chair far removed from a soccer field. In between two flights in a span of roughly 24 hours, he sat on a panel at the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Summit, then in a quiet meeting room in Washington, D.C. He spent the day as he did countless others, less as the coach of American men’s soccer and more so as the face and voice of it.

So I asked him that day, with the World Cup still months away: Did he like this side of the job?

“I like to coach,” he said.

He tolerated that other side — the interviews, the functions, the meetings — and perhaps even embraced it. He took to the long days of obsessive planning, the film watching and the player tracking. But he is in his element on a soccer pitch, teaching, managing and instructing.

And as the USMNT boss, he’d go months without doing that. It was the biggest difference between the club game, where he’d spent the first eight years of his coaching career, and his current job. And it’s the biggest reason why the question currently on the tips of American soccer tongues isn’t the only crucial one.

The masses are wondering, after a World Cup Round of 16 exit: Will U.S. Soccer bring Berhalter back for another four years?

But an equally relevant question is: Does Berhalter even want another four years?

At the end of them is a World Cup on home soil. Throughout them is a chance to work with players whom he knows and loves. One of his favorite parts of the job has been witnessing and nurturing their growth. One of the most alluring aspects of four more years is their potential.

But throughout those four years, until the World Cup, there is relatively little of consequence. And over the coming year, there could be other attractive opportunities that arise. There is a huge divide between Average Joe opinions of Berhalter and those within the sport. There would, almost certainly, be mid-level clubs in Europe who’d welcome him with open arms in 2023.

So his continuity with the national team is not only U.S. Soccer’s (and primarily sporting director Earnie Stewart’s) decision; it’s Berhalter’s.

Stewart would, probably, and with good reason, want Berhalter back. So the decision on Gregg Berhalter’s future, in the end, might be Gregg Berhalter’s.

DOHA, QATAR - DECEMBER 03:  Christian Pulisic of USA is consoled by Head Coach Gregg Berhalter after defeat in  the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 match between Netherlands and USA at Khalifa International Stadium on December 03, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)
Christian Pulisic is consoled by Gregg Berhalter after defeat in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 match between Netherlands. (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)

How do the players feel about Berhalter?

The public discourse around Berhalter was as toxic as ever in the aftermath of the USMNT’s 3-1 loss to the Netherlands on Saturday, and it truly boggles the mind.

Berhalter, in a nutshell, guided the youngest team at the tournament to a result almost exactly in line with expectations, and schemed up gameplans that very easily could have yielded more. Critics will point to roster and lineup decisions, and specifically to his underuse of Gio Reyna, but every single player starting ahead of Reyna was superb. The oft-fantasized solution, with Reyna as a false-9, did not work when finally called upon in Saturday’s second-half emergency. Other big decisions did, and proved that Berhalter was less rigidly committed to his guys than many believed.

His in-game management was faulty, but would’ve felt a lot less faulty if players had simply finished off Wales and Iran on the break. More importantly, from a coaching perspective, his system was sound, his teachings of the past four years bore fruit, his recruits were essential, and his opponent-specific tweaks were fantastic.

And perhaps most importantly, the vibes were seemingly immaculate.

“I think the hardest thing as a coach is to get everybody going in the same direction,” veteran defender DeAndre Yedlin, who’s played under four USMNT coaches, said Saturday. “I think he's done that very well. He's got everybody bought into the culture, and that's the most important thing. You hear a lot of talk about vibes with this team, and people like to joke about it, but at the end of the day, I think that could be this team's biggest quality.”

It has certainly been Berhalter’s most underrated quality. A large chunk of the anti-Berhalter crowd would subscribe to the theory that in international soccer, tactics often succumb to culture — which is ironic, because Berhalter, for all his questionable tactics, went to great lengths to cultivate culture. And he succeeded.

“He’s the type of manager that players just want to fight for,” Christian Pulisic told ESPN this past summer.

And at this World Cup, they absolutely did.

Who are the alternatives?

The fundamental question of the discussions that now surround Berhalter will center on the concept of continuity. To retain him would be to conclude that there is value in the on-field habits and the off-field culture that he crafted. To discard him would be to decide that the value of continuity pales in comparison to the value that a gettable coach who’s significantly better than Berhalter would add.

And here’s the thing: If you lean toward that latter conclusion, you might as well wait another two years to finalize it.

If you don’t want a system coach who needs four-plus years to implement the system, you don’t need to give this hypothetical new coach more than one or two years.

Plus, there is no obviously gettable coach who would represent an obvious upgrade on Berhalter. There are international journeymen like Roberto Martinez, and perhaps others who’ll become available post-World Cup, but are we sure he and they are any good? And then there is Jesse Marsch, but why would he leave Leeds United?

The USMNT gig, for all its clout, is far more attractive on paper than in practice. The next two years will largely be insignificant. There will be Nations League matches in the spring of 2023, and a Gold Cup this summer, but no intercontinental competition nor World Cup qualifying cycle to scratch elite competitive itches. The bulk of the job, as Berhalter found, is an office job that requires relatively infrequent actual coaching.

And by the same token, for any new coach, there would be very few measuring sticks by which to measure progress — and for U.S. Soccer to assess whether a supposed upgrade is, in fact, an upgrade.

So the optimal play, for now, would be to lean into continuity. The next two years will be what the last three haven’t been, an ideal, low-pressure, non-pandemic time to fine-tune a cohesive system. They are the time to let the Berhalter experiment run its course, not to give up based on incomplete evidence and start anew.

What U.S. Soccer must do is create some measuring sticks. It must snag an invite to, or even host the 2024 Copa America. It must use its resources and influence to create an international tournament in 2025 to give the USMNT meaningful World Cup-caliber competition.

And if Berhalter fails at those? By then, perhaps, a more appealing replacement will have identified him or herself.

What does Gregg Berhalter want?

But there is not, despite public pressure, a need to make final decisions for the next four years right now.

The greater time pressure, in a way, will be on Berhalter, if another offer comes soon. The greater question is: what does he want?

U.S. Soccer can offer him a seven-figure salary — he made $1.3 million in the financial year ending March 31, 2021 — and the chance of a lifetime, to lead the United States into a stateside World Cup.

Dozens of clubs can offer him a chance, day after day, to coach.

His answer, for now, is that he doesn’t know.

“For the last month, month and a half, I've just been only focused on the World Cup,” Berhalter said Saturday night with disappointment still fresh. He’ll soon fly home to Chicago, and re-settle at his home on the north side. “And the next couple weeks,” he said, “I'll clear my head, I'll sit down, and I'll think about what's next.”