USMNT failure under Berhalter left U.S. Soccer no choice, but next steps aren't easy

During Gregg Berhalter’s tenure as manager of the U.S. men’s national soccer team, he always seemed to do just enough to meet modest expectations. But he also never exceeded them in a way that could galvanize the fan base and the game’s other stakeholders.

That kind of form was enough to keep Berhalter in charge for a time. He was even set to be rehired after the 2022 World Cup, before the feud involving U.S. midfielder Gio Reyna and his family burst into public view. (Instead, Berhalter’s contract expired at the end of that year, before he was again named coach less than six months later.) But when expectations are met, and not exceeded, it limits the political capital inside the U.S. Soccer Federation and goodwill outside it.

So, when a significant stumble came along — and failing to get out of the group stage at the U.S.-hosted Copa América counts as a big one — it left Berhalter with little to fall back on. Now, Berhalter finds himself out of a job.

Berhalter was fired Wednesday, and U.S. Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker said during a conference call with reporters the decision was his and that he didn’t broadly canvass for other opinions. That was because, he said, “We had a clear plan and some clear measures of what success looked like in the last 12 months but also in the tournament itself. Some of those measures we didn’t hit.”

Crocker spoke of a lack of chance creation and not enough scoring from set pieces but also about concerns “just around the general evolution of the group.” That included looking at not just Copa América but at 14 games over the past 12 months.

“That gave me a really strong steer on the direction I believe we will take going forward,” Crocker said.

Berhalter’s firing will be met with joy by some segments of the USMNT fan base. Given recent results, the decision by Crocker to cut Berhalter loose needed to be made. But this is not a day of celebration for U.S. Soccer. It lays bare the mistake that the federation made in rehiring Berhalter in June 2023 when there were several compelling reasons not to.

Those reasons included the airing of dirty laundry by Berhalter — however veiled it might have been — as he shared the story of almost sending Reyna home from the World Cup. There was also the domestic violence incident from over 30 years ago that came to light in an act of retaliation from Reyna’s family. Then there is the poor performance history of U.S. managers when they come back for a second term: The message becomes stale, and the team stagnates.

Yet Crocker, with a considerable push from the players, brought Berhalter back last year. Crocker was only two months into his tenure as the head of U.S. Soccer’s technical operations when he made the decision, and he cited a battery of tests that he put the candidates through.

But after Berhalter’s return, instead of the team taking the next step up the international ladder, signs of decay showed in the form of uneven performances with opponents that the U.S. usually finds success against.

During Wednesday’s conference call, Crocker said he wouldn’t necessarily change his approach in selecting the next coach, though he feels better prepared to make a decision. Parting ways with U.S. women’s national team coach Vlatko Andonovski last year after the team’s worst World Cup in history also will help Crocker navigate Berhalter’s exit, he said.

“I think I’m a lot clearer and a lot more confident in what I see,” Crocker said. “And also doing the reviews both with Gregg and, obviously, with Vlatko, I’m a lot clearer on what I think we need going forward. I think [I’m] now in a better place to have much more of a targeted search where I’ll be more inclined to go hard and go early with specific candidates that I feel meet the criteria that we’re looking for.”

Berhalter’s tenure wasn’t devoid of positives. He took over a program that had failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and rebuilt it around a core of exciting young players. They won the first three editions of the Concacaf Nations League, though the second triumph occurred while Berhalter’s status was being examined by U.S. Soccer and with B.J. Callaghan managing the team on an interim basis.

The 2022 World Cup saw the U.S. progress from a navigable group before losing to a more talented Netherlands side in the round of 16. While expected, the defeat created impatience over when the USMNT was going to secure a statement win that would represent a more tangible sign of the team’s progress.

Not only did a marquee win never arrive, the U.S. seemed to be going backward ever since the World Cup, struggling to earn even the expected results and putting in inconsistent performances. That is on Berhalter and the players. It’s also on Crocker.

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There is already grumbling from some U.S. Soccer board members that Crocker should have been fired too. But it would seem, after he missed the mark so badly on rehiring Berhalter, that Crocker won’t get too many more cracks at hiring a USMNT manager, and he needs to strike gold for the 2026 World Cup, which the U.S. is co-hosting with Canada and Mexico.

Crocker said he wants to have a coach in place prior to the September international window, though there is a contingency plan in place if he doesn’t. He also isn’t daunted by the money that it might take to land a top-quality coach or the federation’s emphasis on equality. (USWNT manager Emma Hayes makes around the same amount that Berhalter did.)

“I know it’s a really competitive market out there salarywise, and we have to be competitive to get the level of coach that I believe can take the program forward in terms of achieving the results that we need to do on the field,” he said. “But I’m also really conscious that we need to continue to drive for higher standards and equality. I don’t think that’s going be a stumbling block in terms of our investment; our national team is a priority. It’s something we’re prepared to invest in and something that we will be investing in.”

Crocker also said “communication is critical” in getting the message across to players. That would seem to rule out a non-English-speaking coach. But Crocker said he’ll cast a wide net, both domestically and abroad.

“I just want to get the best coach possible that can help the team win, and whether they’re from the U.S. or elsewhere, they’ve got to fit the profile, which is a serial winning coach, somebody that can continue to develop this potential group of players,” he said. “Somebody that’s got a huge interest and a passion for player development.”

That way, perhaps the USMNT can again begin climbing the ladder in the international soccer world, instead of going backward.

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