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Two Years of Gregg Berhalter: Dual Nationals

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It’s been two years since Gregg Berhalter took charge and one of the big differences is how players with multiple nationalities have been emphasized. So we dug into it to find out more.

SD Huesca v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by Eric Alonso/Getty Images

We just hit the two year point for Gregg Berhalter’s term in charge of the United States Men’s National team, and to mark the occasion, I’m doing a comprehensive review of the team since he took charge. This is part two of that series, and, today, we will be talking about dual nationals on the team. If you want to check out the first part, a review of who’s in and who’s out of the roster, you can find it here. The series will also continue next week, with discussions on tactics and the player pool. With that, let’s get started.


Passport Please

Probably the subject that is plagued with the most grandstanding, anxiety, and haranguing in the USMNT fandom is that of dual nationals. Personally, I don’t get too worked up about it. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m a dual national myself. I personally don’t find myself all too breathless about the constant churn of players, often young with little-to-no first division experience, who could potentially switch to the United States or be poached away from the national team.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love how multinational the player pool is. It’s something I can personally identify with. But the conversation about dual nationals is so often lacking in nuance and respect for the player and their background.

Which makes the understated manner in which Berhalter (along with USMNT general manager Brian McBride and Sporting Director and dual national Earnie Stewart) have gone about recruiting dual nationals so refreshing. Berhalter and company have managed to push the recruiting to the backstage, while still achieving wildly successful results. At this point, I have given up trying to keep track of all the dual nationals that have played in the last two years. If you include both the high profile cases and the less-well known ones (Altidore is Haitian American, for example), the list goes up into the dozens, somewhere around half the players featured up to this point. Which is a stiff contrast to the image the team’s had in the past.

This approach to recruiting and fielding dual nationals is also markedly different from the previous two coaches. Klinsmann was similarly aggressive with recruiting, with a very impressive list of successes. But the former Germany striker did so very publicly. Take the saga with Julian Green and his spot on the 2014 World Cup, for example. And, perhaps because Klinsmann himself was German American, Klinsmann is most remembered for his recruiting of German Americans. And the apparent locker room divisions that fell along those lines. (I feel the need to add that Klinsmann also recruited a lot of Mexican American dual nationals, though none stood out as much as the likes of John Brooks or Fabian Johnson).

In contrast, Bruce Arena took a more —let’s say restrained —view. While it is wrong to say that Bruce Arena completely ignored or froze out dual nationals (he continued to play the likes of John Brooks and he brought in Mexican American Jorge Villafaña to the senior team), Arena most definitely did not make recruiting dual nationals (or anyone else, really) a priority. The most visible loss was with Jonathon Gonzalez who, despite having gone through the U.S. youth program from the U-17s through to the U-20s, switched to Mexico after an incident where the U.S. program failed to keep good communication with him. While Gonzalez’s young international career has yet to really materialize, losing him in the middle of a transition period hurt. Berhalter’s tenure naturally started under the shadow of Arena’s faults and failings. As a result, many fans carried an anxiety that MLS-man Berhalter would similarly leave prospects raised outside the U.S. out in the cold. That has proven not to be the case.

A Heart in Two Places

The first major success was the recruiting of Kiwi-American Tyler Boyd. At the time, Boyd was playing regularly in Turkey’s Süper Lig and represented a potential upgrade at winger. Because he had started his career in New Zealand and had represented the Kiwis in a handful of friendlies, he wasn’t much on anyone’s radar...except that of Berhalter and his staff. For most of us, the switch came suddenly and quietly. And it marked a welcome return of courting players developed abroad.

Bringing in a promising player is always exciting, but bringing in Tyler Boyd was nothing like securing Sergiño Dest. Boyd had spent his childhood living in the United States, and playing for the USMNT is frankly a more career savvy move than playing for New Zealand. But Dest grew up in the Netherlands and developed at Ajax, the club that’s most identified with the Dutch national team. In terms of soccer pedigree, there’s few countries with as storied a history (tragic though it may be). And, unlike past American players with ties to, say, Germany, the Dutch national team program publicly showed that they wanted him. Up to the point where Dest made his decision, Berhalter and USSF kept their involvement quiet, talking to the player, but not making public displays. In the end, Dest stuck with the U.S. program, saying

I have played there [with the US program] through all the youth teams and they have embraced me from an early age on. ... In the end it was a decision based on feelings and emotions and therefore, I chose team USA.

I think that quote is actually really quite revealing about how the current set of administrators are approaching dual nationals. It suggests that, at least as far as the USMNT goes, Dest was given time to reflect on his own personal identity and make a decision based on that. In the scenario presented to him, Dest was forced by the rules of FIFA to pick a single identity, but that time allowed him to reconcile his identity and make a decision that best reflected the whole of himself. His quotes suggest that the way he made his decision allowed him to make a choice that let him be both Dutch and American, and that the USMNT would accept him as both Dutch AND American.

And let’s be real, being a dual national (being an immigrant specifically) has been fraught in the United States for a little while, particularly for those of us who are black or brown. So when the news broke that a promising English Ghanaian American teenager with a Muslim sounding name had decided to give the senior USMNT a try, it carried a bit of a loaded message. We don’t know if Yunus Musah will choose to represent the United States, but it is my hope (and expectation) that Musah gets the kind of respectful treatment as Dest did. Musah should be treated as an American with open arms before he’s part of the program, and that shoudl continue even if he decides to represent another country. Ahead of the Wales friendly (and Musah’s debut), Tyler Adams was asked about dual nationals and recruiting and he had this to say:

I would hope that a lot of players that choose to come into camp that can play for multiple countries come to represent the US because they really, really want to. And I think that’s super important; that when they put the jersey on, it means something to them.

Adams’ words betray a kind of quiet confidence about the identity of the national team, that what really binds together the players isn’t a notion of where they are from, but that they all want to be in this together, wearing the same shirt, representing the same thing. I hope that’s really the case. It says something really meaningful about what the national team — and, by extension, the nation — really is. If that truly is the case, I am pretty optimistic about the national team’s ability to continue to recruit promising players.

Poll

Here’s a list of dual nationals capped under Berhalter and what other nation they could have played for. One of the pairings is wrong; can you tell which? I’ll give the answer in part four, at the end of the series.

This poll is closed

  • 15%
    Mark McKenzie: Jamaica
    (65 votes)
  • 25%
    Gio Reyna: England
    (107 votes)
  • 36%
    Kellyn Acosta: Japan
    (152 votes)
  • 19%
    Sebastian Lletget: Argentina
    (82 votes)
  • 3%
    Jesus Ferreira: Colombia
    (16 votes)
422 votes total Vote Now

I want to close with something of a reality check. As of late, dual national decisions have gone in the USMNT’s favor. It’s not just the likes of Boyd or Dest here. Andrés Perea swapped to the US after performing really well for Colombia with their youth teams. Jesús Ferreira joined the USMNT immediately after getting his citizenship, even though his dad, David Ferreira, played with the Colombian national team almost 40 times. To the best of my ability, I can’t think of a single high-profile case where a player decided to leave the US program in the last two years. That kind of a streak is not going to last. I mentioned in the previous article that Berhalter’s played almost 70 different players. And not all of those players are going to have robust futures with the national team. Maybe Daryl Dike decides his future is with Nigeria (I mean, he has both a brother and a sister who have already played with the Super Eagles). Or maybe Ayo Akinola decides his heart lies with Canada. Not everyone is going to stick around; that’s just how it works. And that’s Ok.

Wit that said, I’m still feeling good about how Gregg Berhalter, Earnie Stewart, and the rest of the technical staff are approaching dual nationals. But what do you think? Let’s talk about it down in the comments. Next week, we will continue the series with a look at how tactics have changed over the last two years.

Stay safe out there.