I hate talking about firing coaches. I’m naturally a trigger-shy person and I value continuity. And, as a result, I tend to view the culture of short leashes in soccer around the world as a tradition of cynical self-sabbotage. But this reluctance towards discussing firings goes beyond a valuation of continuity. I naturally want to give people the benefit of the doubt and talking about firing someone feels mean-spirited and cruel, even when I think they should be fired. When it became clear that Arsene Wenger should leave Arsenal, I shut up and sulked for a year, mostly keeping my opinions to myself. Hell, when I wrote an article explaining why Klinsmann should be fired after losing to Mexico in Columbus, it took me almost 1300 words to say that I thought he should be sacked. And that was only after painstakingly breaking down how the many good things Klinsmann was doing had slipped away. I really, really don’t like talking about this sort of thing.
However, I think we need to talk about Gregg Berhalter’s future. Let’s be clear, I’m not saying necessarily saying that Berhalter should be axed if the USMNT lose to Canada (or Cuba, I guess) in the Nations League. I’m sitting here imagining a slew of asterisks over such a decision (Why does anyone care about Nations League? It’s a glorified set of friendlies for us; What if things get better when Tyler Adams is healthy?; I think Berhalter is a smart guy — what if losing forces him to simplify and actually address the underlying issues in midfield and make things better?) Does Berhalter deserve to be fired if the USMNT lose to Canada? I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about it. Don’t ask me.*
* I’m a professional soccer writer. You can 100% ask me.
In any case, we already know Berhalter’s not going anywhere, regardless of what happens in the next two years.
Is anyone really surprised by this? This program has had five (5) head coaches **in this century**. The execs hate turnover. They hate even the appearance of being reactive. And they definitely aren't asking for fans' opinions. https://t.co/kxu2K6ivE3— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) November 12, 2019
You could have guessed their view just by their history, but USSF have made it explicit that Berhalter’s position is currently safe and has never been in question.
So, if that’s the case, what am I doing here? Why have I spent all this time dithering about?
It’s because when I look at the USMNT’s schedule for the next year and the rest of the cycle, I get nervous.
Let’s take a look at the upcoming schedule.
- There’s the upcoming two games against Canada and Cuba.
- There’s January camp and the two games that go with it.
- Per the FIFA calendar, there’s an international break for two games at the end of March.
- There’s a 2-game tie in the Nations League at the start of June if the USMNT tops the group. If they win that, they get another two games. If the team loses the group, there are 2 friendlies.
- And then World Cup Qualifying starts on the last day of August and the start of September.
- Two qualifiers in October
- Two qualifiers in November
That’s it. That’s the whole schedule. If the USMNT does not beat Canada and Cuba and top the group, there aren’t competitive matches until August of next year. And those matches happen to be the ones that the USMNT MUST perform well in.
So what does that mean? It means that the USMNT must perform well against Canada (and Cuba) if they want competitive matches to test themselves and see if they are ready for the Hexagonal. (The Nations League final stage matches would actually be fantastic practice for the Hex, with a two-game tie for each round against two of Honduras (officially qualified), Mexico (unofficially qualified), Curaçao (leading Group D), and Costa Rica (can qualify with a win v. Curaçao). The USMNT has had few opportunities to play on the road, especially to CONCACAF opponents, so that practice would be extremely valuable. But it goes away if the USMNT can’t beat Canada (and Cuba).
If the USMNT does not beat Canada (and Cuba), they will essentially go a year without competitive experience and feedback, right before the Hex. That means that we won’t know if any changes or adjustments that have been made are really working until the most risky time. Essentially, the USMNT will be locked into a set path for a year. That means that this is the last half-way decent opportunity to make a coaching change. If this round of games goes poorly, there won’t be opportunities to really learn more. There won’t be time to make adjustments later. If a change is necessary, now’s the best time to do it.
In a lot of ways, Berhalter inherited a bad hand. He got a demoralized team that had mostly been underperforming since around 2015. The program had to undergo a culture change to excise the toxicity from two managers, all while shepherding in an entire new set of players, with the pool skewing exceedingly young. It was always a hard job. But the work still had to be done. And the truth of the matter is, this was largely a poor year. While the US performed somewhere between fine and good during the Gold Cup, the rest has largely ranged from uninspiring to dire. I am tired of writing again and again about how the squad struggles to win the ball back in midfield. I am tired of writing again and again about how these players, players who perform week-in and week-out for first division teams in top European leagues, underperform and underwhelm in international play. I am tired of the pessimism and the cynicism. Things must get better.
If the federation chooses to back Berhalter following a bad result, it means that they will have to stick with him for almost a full year, until qualifying starts up again. And, without any competitive fixtures to vindicate any changes that may be made until then, keeping him will be a choice built almost entirely on faith. Faith that Berhalter won’t be a repeat of the last two full coaches. With the federation already saying that the match against Canada (and Cuba) won’t push them to fire Berhalter, it seems they’ve already decided that they do, in fact, have that faith. I just hope they’ve done their due diligence for that decision.
What would I do if I were the one calling the shots? I think it’s a hard decision. Unlike others, I haven’t completely lost faith that things could improve with Berhalter in charge. I genuinely don’t know whether Berhalter deserves to lose his job. That brings up all sorts of questions about whether he’s had a fair shot with the team in just a year and whether any realistic alternatives would be clear improvements. But that’s the wrong question. This is not a choice over what is fair or just. This needs to be a decision based on risk analysis. While I have some faith in Berhalter, I don’t have enough to say that he should get another year without competitive matches to prove the changes. I don’t have that much confidence. The truth of the matter is, there is no good time to fire Gregg Berhalter. But, following a defeat to Canada (or Cuba), now would be the least-worst time.