In Praise of Gregg Berhalter

When Gregg Berhalter was announced as the head coach of the US Men’s National Team in 2018 that decision was not greeted with a lot of enthusiasm. Gregg’s managerial career consisted of a couple of non-descript years in Sweden followed by a solid run in charge of the Columbus Crew, losing MLS Cup in 2015 (at home) to the Portland Timbers. There were other big, international names that were allegedly in the mix, so this pick seemed underwhelming. It didn’t help that Gregg’s brother Jay was one of the higher ups in US Soccer at the time, leading to lazy charges of nepotism in Gregg’s hire. That Gregg had appeared 44 times for the USMT as a player, but never made the field during the World Cup where he was on the roster kind of said it all.

Gregg’s hire came in the shadow of the USMNT failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. His ultimate success will be judged solely on whether we qualify for the 2022 tournament in Qatar and, if we do, how well we do there. Up to this summer there hadn’t been a lot of meaningful games for Gregg to show fans what he can do at the helm. But, oh boy, has he had a very good summer.

Like everything else, the pandemic wreaked havoc with the international soccer calendar. League seasons that were suspended in early 2020 finished up later than usual that year, leading to the cancellation of major 2020 national competitions and the late start of the next club season. That season then got compressed so the delayed summer competitions could happen. So this summer has been packed solid with the Copa America and European Championships taking place on a year delay, not to mention the Olympics. And then there’s World Cup qualifying, which gets underway in September and will include schedules with three games played in two weeks (usually it’s only two).

For CONCACAF, the regional federation to which the United States and the rest of North and Central American and the Caribbean belong, its championship, the Gold Cup, was already scheduled for 2021. But the inaugural finals of the Nations League, a new tournament meant to fill in the gaps between World Cups and Gold Cups, was supposed to have taken place in 2020, but got pushed back. So, for Gregg and the USMNT this summer meant two games in the Nations League final, the Gold Cup, and then the start of World Cup qualifying, all with players who have been at it pretty much nonstop for the past year or so. Oh, and CONCACAF moved the Gold Cup back a month so as to not compete with Copa America and the Euros, pushing it into the preseason for a lot of European clubs.

Thankfully, Gregg had a plan. Step 1 – take the best team possible into the Nations League finals with the intent of winning a trophy. This would bet the core players, most of whom play in Europe. It would be the first meaningful chance to see them play together, in anticipation of a meeting with full-strength Mexico in the final. Step 2 – take a younger, mostly MLS-based team into the Gold Cup, with the intent of discovering roster depth that will help us when World Cup qualification begins, while giving the first-team guys some rest and letting them start preseason work with their club teams. Go as far as you can in the tournament, but don’t expect to win it, especially if we came up against Mexico, again. Step 3 – start World Cup qualifying with the strongest team possible and, hopefully, some momentum.

Well, as for Step 1 – this happened:

After a less than impressive semifinal win against Honduras, the US beat Mexico 3-2 in extra time to lift the first Nations League trophy. It didn’t go completely to plan – injuries kept the preferred Best 11 from playing together much – but you can’t argue with the results. Off to some vacation for most of those guys, on to the Gold Cup.

The Gold Cup was never going to be beautiful. The only real holdover from the Nations League roster was midfielder Kelly Acosta. More than a dozen players had appeared less than ten times for the USMNT. The guys called in from Europe were basically trying to make moves to new clubs. How much talent did this group have?

Enough to blow through the group stage, at least. By which I mean we won all three games, even if two of them were a lot closer than you’d like them to be. Rosters were rotated, players were given chances to sink or swim. Nothing convincing but, again, the results were coming. We were probably outplayed for large parts of the quarterfinal against Jamaica and the semi against Qatar (here as guests and reigning champions of Asia), but the result in the end was the same: 1-0 to the US.

But remember, the goal here isn’t necessarily to win, but to learn. What did we learn in all those games? That New England goalkeeper Matt Turner should be in the running for the top job when qualifying starts. That defender Miles Robinson and midfielder/defender James Sands are both worthy of the qualifying roster. The defensive depth we were worried about is here and it’s pretty good. The attack not so much (Matthew Hoppe’s enthusiasm aside), but we’re top heavy with attacking talent with the first-choice team. We’ve also learned that Gregg can make great use of substitutes – keeping in mind that FIFA is keeping 5 substitutes (as opposed the usual three) until at least the next World Cup is over.

But we want to win this thing, right? Over Mexico for the second time this summer? You’re damned right we did:

It should be noted that, due to injuries and Olympic duty, Mexico was missing a few first-teamers, but they had a lot more of their “A” team on the field in the Gold Cup final than we did. We won anyway. Was is pretty? No. Was is great fun to watch? Absolutely.

I’d like to say I was a Gregg booster from the beginning, but that would be a lie. I wasn’t as down on him as some other folks, but I wasn’t thrilled. As we waded through lots of friendlies with questionable roster selections and what not I wondered if he was up to it. Now I’m ready to buy in completely. Gregg might not do it the way I want him to, but his job is to get us back to the World Cup and regain are spot on top of CONCACAF.

We’re halfway there!

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