Berhalter won’t elec­trify fans, but he could be just what team needs

The News Tribune - - Sports - BY STEVEN GOFF Wash­ing­ton Post

NEW YORK

If U.S. soc­cer fans were hop­ing for a swash­buck­ling coach to shake up the dam­aged men’s na­tional pro­gram, an out­sider to in­tro­duce a magic for­mula tested over­seas and im­me­di­ately ex­or­cise the post­trau­matic stress of miss­ing the World Cup, Gregg Berhalter is not their man.

He doesn’t have Jur­gen Klins­mann’s gung-ho per­son­al­ity or Bruce Arena’s aura. He hasn’t coached in the Pre­mier League or World Cup. He won’t elec­trify the masses.

He won’t pi­lot a he­li­copter to prac­tice, like Klins­mann did.

Berhalter, in­tro­duced Tues­day at a news con­fer­ence a lit­tle down the Hud­son from his home­town of Te­nafly, New Jersey, is in­tense and metic­u­lous. His coach­ing style em­pha­sizes ball pos­ses­sion, or­ga­ni­za­tion and tac­ti­cal acu­men, not high­fly­ing at­tacks.

At this low point in U.S. soc­cer, how­ever, maybe this is what the pro­gram needs: back to ba­sics, foun­da­tion-build­ing, sim­ple start­ing points. Maybe, dare we say, a tad dull.

In de­scrib­ing how he will im­ple­ment his plans, Berhalter said: “My job is to make it as sim­ple as pos­si­ble. Our game is based on very sim­ple prin­ci­ples. They’re not com­pli­cated prin­ci­ples. To ex­e­cute it on a very high level does take some time, but it’s based on sim­ple prin­ci­ples.”

Per­haps it was that sim­plic­ity, along with fa­mil­iar­ity and comfort, that led the U.S. Soc­cer Fed­er­a­tion to Berhalter, 45, a for­mer na­tional team de­fender who has guided MLS’s Colum­bus Crew for five sea­sons.

COV­ETED PO­SI­TION

Soc­cer is a global sport and, de­spite the team’s short­falls of late, the U.S. job is a cov­eted po­si­tion. Fed­er­a­tion of­fi­cials said they compiled a list of 33 can­di­dates, do­mes­ti­cally and in­ter­na­tion­ally, be­fore nar­row­ing the search to 11, then two. (We don’t know for sure who the other was; it might’ve been FC Dal­las’ Os­car Pareja, who took the Ti­juana post in Liga MX, or maybe 2018 Mex­i­can World Cup boss Juan Car­los Os­o­rio, who is now lead­ing Paraguay.)

There was an over­rid­ing feel­ing for months, though, that Berhalter was go­ing to get the job, sooner or later. Although he has never worked for the USSF, he is an in­sider in the sense he has coached in the top-flight do­mes­tic league and been tied to MLS since join­ing the Los An­ge­les Galaxy in 2009 after a 15-year Euro­pean ca­reer.

He played for youth na­tional teams 25 years ago and is the first for­mer U.S. World Cup player to guide the se­nior squad.

Earnie Ste­wart, the gen­eral man­ager who over­saw the coach­ing hunt, was Berhalter’s team­mate on the Amer­i­cans’ run to the 2002 World Cup quar­ter­fi­nals. Berhalter has coached – and coached against – many of those in the cur­rent player pool.

In other words, Berhalter knows Amer­i­can soc­cer: the play­ers, the power struc­ture, the path­way to the World Cup, which, un­til this year, the United States had not missed since 1986.

“Gregg isn’t just the right choice,” USSF Pres­i­dent Car­los Cordeiro said. “Gregg is the best choice.”

Cordeiro should have elab­o­rated: Berhalter was prob­a­bly the right and best choice given the sit­u­a­tion and given the fed­er­a­tion’s hir­ing phi­los­o­phy. More pre­cisely, he was the right fit.

Over the years, the

USSF has been in­su­lar in its se­lec­tions. Since Bora Mi­luti­novic, a quirky man of many coun­tries and lan­guages, over­saw the 1994 World Cup squad, the fed­er­a­tion has hired in­di­vid­u­als with Amer­i­can back­grounds and port­fo­lios, men with deep ties to the U.S. sys­tem.

The sort-of ex­cep­tion was Klins­mann, a na­tive of Ger­many but a beachlov­ing free spirit with an Amer­i­can fam­ily who lived in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and worked at times in U.S. cir­cles.

Berhalter’s deep ties did cre­ate per­cep­tion is­sues. His brother, Jay, is a top busi­ness ex­ec­u­tive at the Chicago-based USSF.

Jay Berhalter had a say in Ste­wart’s hir­ing but, Cordeiro re­it­er­ated Tues­day, had no role in the coach­ing de­ci­sion.

“The process and se­lec­tion of the coach was in­cred­i­bly thor­ough, very hon­est, very fair,” Cordeiro said. “Jay had noth­ing to do with that. . . . We wanted to keep things very sep­a­rate and we were in­cred­i­bly care­ful about that. . . . Gregg comes out on top (in the search).

Why would we dis­crim­i­nate against Gregg be­cause his brother hap­pens to work at the fed­er­a­tion?”

TAK­ING A CHANCE

That said, at no time has the USSF taken a chance on an ac­com­plished Euro­pean or South Amer­i­can coach with no prior con­nec­tions to the U.S. game. The ar­gu­ment against such a se­lec­tion has al­ways been that Amer­i­can soc­cer is uniquely dif­fer­ent from the sport found around the world, one re­quir­ing spe­cial in­sight and un­der­stand­ing into its com­plex­i­ties and di­ver­sity.

Some would ar­gue that’s nar­row-minded, that an es­teemed coach, re­gard­less of back­ground and na­tive tongue, would take the pro­gram to new heights.

An­other ar­gu­ment, though, is that MLS coaches have be­come more so­phis­ti­cated and shouldn’t be dis­counted just be­cause the league re­mains in­fe­rior to the top cir­cuits abroad.

Ger­ardo Martino was al­ready well-re­spected after guid­ing FC Barcelona and the Ar­gen­tine na­tional team, but after two ter­rific sea­sons at At­lanta United, he is ex­pected to be­come the Mex­i­can na­tional team coach soon.

Pareja’s move to Ti­juana was fa­cil­i­tated by his work in Dal­las. Jesse Marsch moved mid­sea­son from the New York Red Bulls’ top spot to an as­sis­tant’s gig with Bun­desliga side RB Leipzig. Bob Bradley has gone from MLS to the U.S. na­tional team to Egypt, Nor­way, France, the Pre­mier League and back to MLS this year.

In forg­ing a coach­ing style, Berhalter drew not just from his Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ences but from his play­ing days in the Nether­lands, a coun­try renowned for pos­ses­sion and style. That un­doubt­edly ap­pealed to Ste­wart, a Dutch Amer­i­can who spent the bulk of his play­ing ca­reer – and part of his ex­ec­u­tive work – in the Nether­lands.

Also, Nico Romeijn, a key fig­ure in the USSF’s coach­ing ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment, came from the Dutch fed­er­a­tion three years ago.

Berhalter’s work will be­gin by reach­ing out to the tal­ent pool; he’ll at­tend MLS Cup this week­end and visit play­ers in Europe soon. Train­ing camp, fea­tur­ing mostly MLS play­ers be­cause most can­di­dates are un­avail­able, will open Jan. 7 in Chula Vista, Cal­i­for­nia. That’s a few hours south from the usual win­ter site in Car­son. The rea­son for the move, he said, is a more iso­lated and con­cen­trated ex­pe­ri­ence for the pur­pose of team-build­ing.

“It’s a process,” he said when asked about his mes­sage to fans. “I don’t want to use that as an ex­cuse and say eight years from now we’re go­ing to be good. The process has to ac­cel­er­ate and, when you have qual­ity play­ers, when you have play­ers that have the abil­ity to learn, you can ac­cel­er­ate that process a lit­tle bit. We want to see progress. With each and every camp, you should ex­pect to see de­vel­op­ment. That’s my job.”

MARK LEN­NI­HAN AP

Gregg Berhalter, the re­cently named head coach of the U.S. men’s na­tional soc­cer team, has a coach­ing style that stresses ball pos­ses­sion, or­ga­ni­za­tion and tac­ti­cal acu­men, not high-fly­ing at­tacks.

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