NEW YORK (AP) — Gregg Berhalter promises to transform the U.S. national team into a pressing, attack-minded group the Americans rarely have been.
“We want to see ball circulation, breaking lines, creating goal-scoring opportunities,” he said at his introduction Tuesday. “That should be the DNA of this team.”
The 45-year-old is the first American to coach the national team after playing for it at a World Cup. He spent the last five years coaching Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew, which reached the playoffs four times despite a small payroll but failed to win any titles.
“Greg isn’t just the right choice, Greg is the best choice,” U.S. Soccer Federation President Carlos Cordeiro said. “He will push our men’s team forward and with an identity and approach that will be uniquely and fiercely American.”
The job had been held by Dave Sarachan on an interim basis for 14 months since Bruce Arena quit after the shocking failure to qualify for this year’s World Cup. Sunil Gulati made the decisions to hire Bob Bradley in 2006, Jurgen Klinsmann in 2011 and Arena in 2016 after consulting within the USSF, but the federation established new procedures after Cordeiro replaced Gulati last February.
Former midfielder Earnie Stewart, who played alongside Berhalter on the national team, was hired in June for the new position of men’s national team general manager. Stewart started his job in August and picked Berhalter, a decision ratified Saturday by the USSF board.
“Today for us is another example of the change that we’re bringing to U.S. Soccer. That includes making sure that soccer operations are run by soccer experts,” Cordeiro said.
The U.S. often has resorted to counterattacking to go along with a never-give-up attitude and superior conditioning. Persistence and perseverance dissipated among an aging core in the last four-year cycle.
Sarachan gave debuts to 23 players in 12 matches, and Berhalter will decide what veterans to integrate among the team’s emerging core of Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie, all 20 and younger, and even rawer players such Tim Weah and Josh Sargent, both 18.
Stewart said part of success will be “making sure that the way we play, that it’s identified to our fans so that what they see on the field is what they want to see.”
“The idea is that we’re an attacking-based team that want to create goal-scoring scoring opportunities by disorganizing the opponent,” Berhalter said. “Consistently over my time in Columbus, we’ve done it through build up, right, where we start the ball with the goalie in the back. Teams try to press us, we play through them.”
Columbus captain Wil Trapp, who captained the U.S. eight times this year, said Berhalter was remarkable for his nonstop eye contact with his players.
“At first he can be a very intimidating person for a young player like myself when I started at 19, 20 years old with him,” said Trapp, now 26. “But getting to know him and how much he cares for his players was something that I was really, really shocked about.”
Only two candidates were interviewed: Berhalter and Oscar Pareja, who left FC Dallas last month for Mexico’s Tijuana. Stewart said a third finalist was unavailable.
Some American fans have criticized the lack of a larger pool of interviewees.
“A lot of it is actually because they don’t feel that Greg is necessarily the right person of the best person,” said former American defender Alexi Lalas, now a Fox analyst. “It puts certainly baggage and challenges on Greg that he understands.”
Jay Berhalter, the coach’s 47-year-old brother, was part of that search for GM in his role as the USSF’s chief commercial and strategy officer. He did not participate in the coaching search but could succeed Dan Flynn as the federation’s CEO, perhaps in the next year.
“We will have a selection committee,” Cordeiro said. “We’ll have internal candidates. Jay could be one of them. We’ll have external candidates.”
Stewart said he first contacted Berhalter in late August or early September. He wanted Berhalter to explain his October 2017 statement that “I’ve got a lot of coaching to do before I’m ready” for the national team job.
Berhalter said he now felt prepared, and Stewart traveled to Columbus for an interview. Berhalter went to Chicago and spoke with Stewart, USSF chief sport development officer Nico Romeijn and chief soccer officer Ryan Mooney. Berhalter then spoke with former U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra, who in April became co-chairman of the federation’s new technical development committee, and Flynn.
“I think Greg’s biggest challenge is to build a culture that fosters a winning environment against,” said former American midfielder Stu Holden, now a Fox commentator. “I think that the most important thing is building a team on and off the field, a group of players that want to come in and want to be a part of this. The national team, it’s a privilege and an honor. It’s not a chore.”
Berhalter’s first two games will be with mostly MLS-based players against Panama on Jan. 27 at Glendale, Arizona, and versus Costa Rica on Feb. 2 at San Jose, California. There likely will be a pair of March home friendlies with the full group and an exhibition ahead of the Americans’ CONCACAF Gold Cup opener on June 18 at St. Paul, Minnesota.
Berhalter hasn’t decided whether to retain Sarachan — his first regional coach as a 15-year-old. He will also have to pick a captain and decide whether to play Pulisic centrally or wide.
Pulisic wore the armband for the first time last month in Sarachan’s final match.
“A lot of times that onus falls on the best player of the team. We’ll see how Christian reacts to that, if that brings out the best in him,” Holden said. “If it puts too much pressure on him maybe someone else emerges.”
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