USSF continues string of mistakes with Gregg Berhalter hiring

On October 10, 2017, the US Men’s National Team lost to Trinidad and Tobago 2-1 on the darkest day in American soccer history, thus failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

It capped off what had been, for the most part, a miserable four year qualifying cycle. It saw the US finish 4th at the 2015 Gold Cup and then lose the ensuing CONCACAF Cup to arch-rival Mexico (thus failing to qualify for the 2017 Confederations Cup). It saw a 4-0 humiliation at the hands of Argentina in the Copa America Centenario. It saw the first-ever loss by the US at Mapfre Stadium in Columbus (to arch-rival Mexico, which ended the famous Dos a Cero scoreline), which led to the dismissal of Jurgen Klinsmann as manager after a heavy defeat to Costa Rica a few days later. And it saw the U-23 team fail to qualify for the Olympics for the second straight time The blowback on social media and in the actual media was intense, the likes of which had never been seen in the American soccer community with even major sports talk figures like Scott Van Pelt and Colin Cowherd discussing the disaster. Most infamously, it gave the world Taylor Twellman’s “What are we doing?!?!” rant on SportsCenter that very night. Demands for change were loud. Changes definitely happened, but those changes have not quite been what fans had hoped for. With the appointment of Gregg Berhalter as the new USMNT coach, it proves that despite missing a World Cup nothing has changed with US Soccer.

On the face of it, the changes made seemed to be quite substantial. Bruce Arena resigned as the manager three days after the debacle down in Trinidad. Sunil Gulati said that he would not seek reelection as the president of US Soccer. It was announced that a new GM position would be created to help scout talent and name a new coach, and in October 2018 it was reported that CEO Dan Flynn would be stepping down sometime in 2019. That seemed like quite a bit of upheaval. And in the wake of missing a World Cup, it was certainly justified. Most of the top soccer countries in the world would not let such a failure go without massive ramifications, so the US wasn’t going to either. However, digging a little bit deeper into all of it, very little has actually changed, which can be summed up by a great line from the movie Goldeneye where James Bond opines to M, “Governments change. The lies stay the same.”

Yes, Bruce Arena resigned but he was never going to be around after the 2018 World Cup anyway, so that isn’t much more than a token offering. Sunil Gulati may not have run for reelection, but the new US Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro was Gulati’s right hand man for a number of years, thus lending credence to the notion of US Soccer being nothing more than a Good ‘Ol Boys Club. Furthermore, Cordeiro’s credentials for running US Soccer have been called into question, as he has only been around the game of soccer for roughly ten years and prior to that had been an executive with Goldman Sachs for the majority of his career. That’s right folks, US Soccer’s new president is a lifelong banker. His lack of soccer knowledge is such a problem that the handlers at US Soccer have gone to extraordinary lengths to shield him from doing many interviews. Think about it. Prior to Gregg Berhalter’s introductory press conference, when was the last time anybody heard him answer a question about anything? He has done some good such as securing the US the right to co-host the 2026 World Cup (along with Mexico and Canada), but outside of that it’s been all quiet on the western front. The changes he spoke of during his election campaign have yet to materialize. Ticket prices remain obscenely high (cheapest seats for the recent home game against Mexico in Nashville on a Tuesday night were $55 in the upper bowl, while seats in the lower bowl were going for as much as $400). The product on the field has not gotten visibly better. The hire of the new GM has been kind of a dud, and the new coaching hire may prove to be disastrous.

The new GM of US Soccer is Earnie Stewart. Unlike Cordeiro, Stewart’s credentials cannot be questioned. He played for the US at three World Cups, and scored at one of them (against Colombia at the Rose Bowl in 1994). After retiring as a player, he took on various front office roles at several different clubs. From 2006-2010 he was the Technical Director at NAC Breda in the Netherlands. In 2010, he left NAC Breda to take the position of Director of Football Affairs at AZ Alkmaar, also in the Eredivisie. In his time at Alkmaar, several US players came through the club with great success such as Jozy Altidore and Aron Johannsson. In late 2015, Stewart left AZ Alkmaar to become the Sporting Director of the Philadelphia Union in MLS, a post he held until his appointment as USMNT GM earlier this year.

Now, while Stewart’s credentials cannot be questioned, the way he has gone about running the show since being named GM absolutely can. First, while he was named GM in June, he didn’t officially begin his job until August, which was a major red flag given that US Soccer’s originally stated goal was to hire a coach immediately after the conclusion of the World Cup (though during Berhalter’s introductory press conference, both Cordeiro and Stewart said that there was no deadline for hiring a coach). Furthermore, the way Stewart went about looking for a coach was ludicrous. He spent four months dragging his feet, and allegedly only conducted four interviews (though US Soccer claims they had an initial list of 33 candidates). But he did give an interview to several media outlets trying to explain the method to his madness, which only made things look worse. While the rival FMF in Mexico had reportedly conducted 15 interviews before eventually getting Tata Martino (whom many US fans wanted, and whom this writer advocated hiring on this very site a mere three days after the Trinidad and Tobago debacle), Stewart did nothing. He has gone as far as to adopt the new slogan of every garbage sports team in America: Trust the Process (which has worked out okay for the Philadelphia 76’ers in the NBA as they’ve gone from awful to also-ran, but for everybody else is just a cool slogan to deflect attention from the fact that they’re not very good at all). Some of his responses to the rare tough questions were quite telling though in terms of who he was going after and who he wasn’t going to look at. The most asinine of these was saying that fluency in English would be a requirement (thus clearly ruling Martino out without actually saying his name because why would the US want a guy who has been successful everywhere he’s ever coached, both internationally and at the club level). When interim coach Dave Sarachan’s contract was extended through the end of 2018, Stewart explained that a hire would be made “by December, and perhaps as early as November.” It didn’t take a genius to put two and two together and realize that November and December is when the MLS Cup Playoffs are over, which could only mean one thing: the hire was going to be Gregg Berhalter.

Berhalter is the last person many US fans wanted to be the new coach of the USMNT. It’s not just that he’s a terrible coach, but hiring him doesn’t change anything or give the US something it hasn’t already had: an American hired from the coaching ranks of MLS who got his first assistant coaching job on a staff with the last two US managers (Arena and Sarachan). One of the big selling points is that he played for the US as well, though in 44 appearances he registered zero goals and zero assists. The only thing that might set him apart from his predecessors is that he did coach in Europe for two years with Hammarby in Sweden from December of 2011 to July of 2013. However his record there was not good: 18-11-17 (W-L-D) for a win percentage of 57% and 0 trophies.

The reason he was fired should be of grave concern to US fans as well. Per a club release, Berhalter was fired for a “lack of attacking play,” which US fans are going to be thrilled with going forward. He was then named the manager of the Columbus Crew for the 2014 season. Now, the argument could be made that he was worse in Columbus than he was in Sweden. The raw numbers bear that out. His record with the Crew over five seasons was 75-71-47 for a win percentage of 51% (those figures include MLS regular season, MLS Cup Playoffs and US Open Cup). The only reason anybody can say that he wasn’t awful is that he did get the Crew to the 2015 MLS Cup Final, which they lost at home to the Portland Timbers (conceding two goals in the first seven minutes of the game). But outside of that, he did not accomplish much of anything in Columbus. He never won a Supporters Shield (never finishing in the top 3 and having a worst finish of 18th out of 20 in 2016). He never won MLS Cup (and only got there one time). He never won a US Open Cup (and in fact never won more than one game in any given year in that tournament), and never qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League (because to get to the CCL you actually have to win something). He also finished with a negative goal difference in two of his five seasons in charge (-8 in 2016 and -2 in 2018). But this is the guy that Earnie Stewart and US Soccer are convinced is going to not only get the US back to the World Cup, but take the US to much bigger and better things.

The TV network FOX Sports even went as far as to have Grant Wahl do a segment from the field before the USA-Colombia friendly in early October where he called Berhalter “alluring.” Can somebody please explain what is alluring about a 50% win percentage and an empty trophy case? (And by the way, does anybody out there think it is a coincidence that FOX Soccer does nothing but cheerlead for US Soccer and wound up with 24 competitive games during the last cycle, while ESPN, who has pundits critical of US Soccer, wound up with only 4 competitive games?).

Former USMNT player Landon Donovan chimed in on the issue saying that what Berhalter had done in Columbus was “remarkable.” Again, can somebody please explain what is so remarkable about an empty trophy case and being just four games over .500? No doubt that many of his supporters will point and scream, “But he had the lowest payroll in the league.” So he had no budget, which led to lesser players which led to few wins and no trophies (though it’s worth noting that Peter Vermes and Oscar Pareja won a combined six trophies with similar budgets). Well, what in the world do you think the US job is? It’s not chock full of UEFA Champions League starters. But Berhalter will somehow miraculously get lesser players to win lots of trophies at the international level? He has also been lauded for launching or relaunching the national team careers of a number of the Crew’s players in recent years. So the Crew’s coach and the Crew’s players can’t win in MLS, but the Crew’s coach and the Crew’s players can win at the international level. Got it. Some might also decry the use of win percentage over points per game as a metric for success. Looking at it that way, just about every other name that popped up had a better PPG than Berhalter, who checked in a 1.44. Tata Martino averaged 1.8, Peter Vermes averages 1.58, Oscar Pareja averaged 1.53, Greg Vanney averages 1.52, and Caleb Porter averaged 1.5. All better than Berhalter. So by a variety of metrics (trophy count, win percentage, points per game), Berhalter is vastly inferior to five or six other MLS managers. But he is somehow more qualified than all of them to be the next US manager?

Unsurprisingly, the hire was met with scorn and ridicule from those not in the pocket of MLS and Soccer United Marketing. Berhalter has never won anything and in his career only wins about 50% of his games (posting a career record of 93-82-64 across two clubs). In contrast, the USMNT (poor as they’ve been) have won exactly 63% of its games in each of the last three cycles: 38-20-8 from 2006-2010, 37-18-13 from 2010-2014 and then 33-16-13 from 2014-2017. Understandably, most fans are confused as to how a career 50% winner is going to take a regular 63% winner and make them better. It’s especially dispiriting when you realize that Berhalter has managed 239 games in his career and won just 93 of them. Add in the fact that his introductory press conference was dreadful: lifeless, boring, unemotional, no personality, no real answers to any questions, and a heavy dose of clichés. It was just a milquetoast press conference for a milquetoast manager (not only that but the first half of it was spent as a 15 minute PSA for MLS clubs and their front office execs). And if the belief among the fans that Berhalter will not continue to overhaul the roster the way Dave Sarachan has been doing for the last 13 months (hello again Gyasi Zardes, Wil Trapp, Brad Guzan, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley) is factored in, it all adds up to despair.

Here are three more final tawdry but unsurprising factoids about the US “coaching search.” Prior to the October friendlies against Colombia and Peru, US Soccer announced that Josh Wolff would be joining Dave Sarachan’s staff as an assistant. The explanation given was that the US had been without the full number of assistants since August when John Hackworth left to take the open Louisville City job (where he went on to win the club’s second straight USL title). Wolff is a former USMNT player and at the time of this announcement was an assistant with … the Columbus Crew. And by amazing coincidence, Wolff’s first game on the US staff saw the team switch to the preferred formation of the Columbus Crew. Again, it didn’t take a genius to put two and two together to figure out that Berhalter was going to be the guy, despite everything US Soccer said about this move being made to get younger assistants more experience and had nothing to do with the “search” for a manager.

Another shock was that on October 25 of this year, US Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro took to Twitter and retweeted a post from FOX Soccer pundit Alexi Lalas saying that Pep Guardiola is not a better manager than Gregg Berhalter (the RT has since been deleted). Setting aside the insane premise that Berhalter is even in the same galaxy as Pep (who has won multiple trophies at clubs like Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City), how absurd is it that the head of US Soccer, an organization trying to tell everybody that there was a real search going on, is out there retweeting ridiculous hot takes that make it look like their pick for USMNT manager is better than the best manager in the world? Scary, sad, and unsurprising.

But the most damning and shocking thing of all was that in the aftermath of the US’ defeat to Italy in November, Grant Wahl reported that former Spain and Real Madrid manager Julen Lopetegui reached out to US Soccer and asked them if he could manage the team … and US Soccer told the go-between that they weren’t interested (Lopetegui’s agent tried to dismiss this the next day, but Wahl laid out that an intermediary from Spain had contacted Jay Berhalter at US Soccer who then contacted Earnie Stewart). What kind of world are we living in where US Soccer has the former Real Madrid manager banging on its door and they turn him away? Think about living in a world where the manager of one of the biggest clubs in the world and a manager who has literally never lost a single game at the international level (Lopetegui went 14-0-6 in two years as the Spanish boss), reaches out to the US to ask if he can coach them (not the US reaching out to him, but the other way around) and US Soccer is so determined to keep it a Good ‘Ol Boys Club that they say they’re too far along with their “process” to consider him. Sheer lunacy. But one supposes that it’s hard to interview Real Madrid’s former manager when his brother (Jay Berhalter) isn’t the third most powerful man at US Soccer. It seems like not even managing one of the biggest clubs on the planet is good enough to get you into the Good Ole Boys Club.

So that’s the background on the major players in this sad situation, now it’s time to take stock of it. This hire is a slap in the face to the American soccer public. The entire process, from missing the World Cup, to waiting 14 months to make a permanent hire, to making a bad hire was just one giant bad joke. It borders on negligence to have let it drag out as long as it did, especially considering that they knew who they were going after from day one.

Most fans were clever enough to see through the charade. Nobody ever seriously believed that the hire was going to be anybody but Berhalter. Why would they? He’s an American MLS coach whose brother Jay is the third most powerful man at US Soccer.

Perhaps even more insulting to the fans were the numerous reports of the US expressing interest in other more legitimate managers. Reports flew around that former Chicago Fire, New York Red Bulls, and Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio was being considered. He is now the coach of Paraguay. Reports flew that former Paraguay, Argentina, Barcelona, and Atlanta United manager Tata Martino was being considered. He is now the coach of Mexico (and not only is he the coach of the US’ biggest rival, but he recently stated that the reason he never expressed interest in the US job is that nobody from US Soccer reached out to him and he felt it would be a waste of time to think about possibilities that didn’t seem realistic or likely. Several weeks later he also said that when he is linked to multiple jobs, the first thing he does is think about all of the places that didn’t want him). Reports flew that a number of Dutch managers were under consideration such as Louis van Gaal, Gus Hiddink, and Frank de Boer. None of them were ever contacted.

Reports flew that former Everton, Manchester United, and West Ham manager David Moyes was being considered after a picture surfaced of him riding a bus to the US/Brazil game in September. He is still unemployed. Tab Ramos’ name popped up as a “serious candidate” in the days after the game against Peru, in a weak attempt to make it look like Earnie Stewart and US Soccer were actually not zeroed in on Berhalter from the start. Peter Vermes’ name had been bandied about but in an interview on Sirius XM with Tony Meola the week after the Peru game, Vermes said that despite being promised an interview by CEO Dan Flynn, nobody from US Soccer ever reached out to him. Reports flew that Oscar Pareja formerly of the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas, and now with Club Tijuana was in the running. He refuted that point blank the very next day saying nobody from US Soccer had met with him, though it was later confirmed that he had indeed been interviewed. But where was Earnie Stewart when the Pareja report came out? In Columbus, Ohio (which Gregg Berhalter hilariously tried to explain away by saying there were four or five USMNT quality players on the field, and that was why Earnie Stewart was there). It is also worth noting that while Earnie Stewart said he would cast a wide net in the coaching search, a report in November by Doug McIntyre of Yahoo Sports deduced that a mere four people had been interviewed for the job (though the identity of two of those four is unknown at this time).

US Soccer took over a year to make a hire they could have made at the end of 2017. So why wait the whole extra year? Did Gregg Berhalter really become that much better of a manager from December of 2017 to December of 2018? He sure didn’t produce results that would suggest that he had: no Supporters Shield this year, no US Open Cup this year, and no MLS Cup this year (and in fact came perilously close to blowing the Crew’s spot in the playoffs with a late season meltdown, winning just two of their last ten games during the regular season). And by waiting a whole extra year, they have done a disservice to the team and fans because instead of having 18 months to get the US ready for the next slate of competitive games at the Gold Cup next summer, US Soccer has now given the team just 6 months to prepare for it. The lack of consistent message and direction was very obvious in the two November friendlies.

It could be possible that US Soccer was trying to be clever. One has to wonder if waiting so long to make the hire was a deliberate part of the “process” where they got everybody so fed up waiting that the hire of a bad coach was met with open arms simply because a coach had been named. A quick perusal of social media after the 3-0 beatdown at the hands of England in November gives that thought a little weight. But while that may be possible, it gives a little bit more credit to US Soccer than they deserve because quite frankly nothing they have done in the last five years would lead anybody to believe that they’re that clever. At one point during Gregg Berhalter’s introductory press conference, Earnie Stewart went as far as to complain that one of the coaches he wanted to interview for the job had already moved on and taken another job (which could have been avoided if Stewart had moved a little bit faster than a glacier). As has been the case with just about everything in this “coaching search,” that is both hilarious and sad.

The whole “coaching search” Stewart and US Soccer conducted was so obviously disingenuous. They were never going to look at anybody other than Berhalter. Not only has nothing changed with US Soccer, but they’ve taken a step backwards. All of those reports were just designed to make it look like they were actually conducting a search. They made a bad hire in Berhalter and along the way tried harder than ever to pull the wool over the eyes of an increasingly angry American soccer public.

And because of that anger, fans are checking out at an astonishing rate: TV ratings are down for a second consecutive year. And attendance is down for a third consecutive year. But US Soccer doesn’t care because they have to keep it a Good Ole Boys Club. And until that changes, fans will get more of the same. It is so incredibly galling and insulting that US Soccer kept misleading the American soccer public over and over again that they were conducting a legitimate search and were casting a wide net and were considering international managers. It’s even more of a slap in the face that when one of Berhalter’s assistants became a USMNT assistant, US Soccer had the gall to come out and say it had nothing to do with the coaching “search.” It’s still more infuriating to sit here and watch all of this happen and realize that US Soccer seriously believes they were fooling everybody into thinking they were conducting a legitimate search.

US Soccer has been letting down the US fanbase for years. In the wake of missing the World Cup for the first time in 32 years, nothing has changed.

 

Note: the win percentage in this article is calculated by dividing the number of draws by two (assuming that a draw is half of a win), adding that figure to the number of wins, and then dividing that figure by the total number of games.

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