Do the Right Thing!
As a decades long fan of the United States Men’s National team I was heartbroken watching the loss to Trinidad & Tobago in late 2017 meaning the US would miss out on the World Cup that next summer. Whether not qualifying was Jurgen Klinsmann’s fault or that of his replacement Bruce Arena or US Soccer for hiring Bruce Arena is certainly open for debate. Why a Premier League defender in Geoff Cameron sat on the bench all game was a headscratcher.
I enjoyed watching the USMNT the next year as Dave Sarachan stayed on as interim manager until US Soccer found their permanent head coach for the next cycle. It was an exciting year as we got introduced to many young players like Jedi Robinson, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Shaq Moore, Tim Weah, Josh Sargent, Zach Steffen, Erik Palmer Brown, Walker Zimmerman, Matt Miazga and Cameron Carter Vickers. Only Erik, Matt, and Zach didn’t make this 2022 World Cup roster.
The highlight of this stretch were victories over Mexico, draws against Portugal and just prior to the World Cup in June 2018 a draw against the eventual winners, a Kylian Mbappe led France. I’d strongly urge you to go watch that game as you can likely still find both halves on YouTube. Sarachan set up the team in a very defensive 5-4-1 (or 5-3-2) with the intention of absorbing as much pressure as possible and simply hoping for an opportunity for our squad to maybe capitalize on a counterattack. We had few opportunities, but Julian Green struck a wonderful half volley near post rocket past France’s goalkeeper Hugo Lloris just before half time. I exploded with a huge scream almost in disbelief that we were leading one of the world’s best teams just before the World Cup that we didn’t qualify for with a whole new group of young players.
It was a high like I honestly don’t think I had felt in such a long time since perhaps the Ghana World Cup match in 2014 when Clint Dempsey scored in the first few minutes. I was PROUD to be a USMNT fan and coming off the extreme low of losing in Couva in 2017 sealing our fate, it felt amazing. If CCV doesn’t slip as the cross comes into the box, Mbappe doesn’t score, and we could likely have won. Arguably it would have been an extraordinary accomplishment considering our youth and inexperience and their extreme prowess. It was a true David & Goliath matchup. Ultimately the game ended in a tie, but the French crowd threw boos and jeers at their beloved squad not impressed they couldn’t handily beat their far weaker American opponents.
Sarachan’s 3 Win, 5 Losses, and 4 ties wasn’t impressive on the surface but given the very high quality of the opponents we faced during this year (some of the best in USMNT history) and our extremely young group of players it was quite a successful year with context.
In late 2018 US Soccer announced after only having formal interviews with Oscar Pareja (although disputed) and Gregg Berhalter, they chose the brother of then current US Soccer Chief Commercial Officer Jay Berhalter to head the USMNT. While Jay wasn’t directly involved in Gregg’s hiring there was clearly an air of impropriety around it. Lacking any major accomplishments as a coach with many others even within MLS with more experience raised some eyebrows. Forget that other top candidates ranging from Roberto Martinez (then Belgium’s manager), Tata Martino (Barcelona/Argentina former manager), and Julen Lopetegui (Spain’s former National Team Coach who explicitly expressed interest in the job) were never formally interviewed as well as other top domestic coaches. Rumors even floated around that US Soccer didn’t want a non-English speaking coach at the helm; hypocritical and ironic given US Soccer’s social justice, tolerance and inclusivity push the past several years.
Earnie Stewart, US Soccer’s General Manager reported by Grant Wahl’s article U.S. Soccer's Process Adds Pressure, Colors Perspective of Gregg Berhalter's Hiring , in a September 2018 media roundtable interview said "he had taken time to construct what he called "a profile" for what he was looking for in a coach, a desired playing style and an idea of what he wants the USMNT to be."
Now that the USMNT’s 2022 World Cup is over and Gregg’s almost 4-year stint at the helm has completed can Earnie justify or explain if Gregg really accomplished what he envisioned for this team? Yes, we qualified barely escaping a 4th place inter-federation playoff to get into the World Cup in Qatar. Yes Canada was better than its ever been but Jamaica, Costa Rica and most importantly Mexico were amongst the weakest they’ve been in years. Yes, Gregg has a significant winning record, but in context that is against arguably the worst average FIFA ranked opponents a USMNT coach has ever had to face. (Sidenote: this is due in large part to UEFA Nations League consuming the international fixture calendar of most of the top European opponents. The chances now of a US coach getting to play the likes of France, Italy, and Portugal again like Sarachan did are slim. Seeking top Asian, African and South American teams will be critical to preparation for 2026).
Yes we won CONCACAF Nations League with a largely European based group of US players beating Mexico in the final as we did in the Gold Cup later that summer in 2021 with a B team of sorts. Frankly had it not been for Matt Turner and Miles Robinson we would not have won the Gold Cup as they were obvious standouts defensively. We never dominated in most of these tournaments and struggled to score goals. Coincidentally, Gregg was fired in part from his coaching job at Swedish team Hammarby because his team couldn’t produce enough offense. We barely scored in the Gold Cup last year and only scored 2 goals in the group stage, 3 in total in 4 games at this year’s World Cup in Qatar. Our failure however in the knockout game against the Netherlands and the group stage performance was truly a microcosm of the prior 3.5 years under Gregg. For the casual fan or those of you who don’t follow this team as closely let me explain.
Out of the gate Gregg made some questionable roster and lineup selections but given that it was early in his tenure most of us gave him a pass and waited to see how things panned out. Within a year, however, it was quickly becoming apparent Gregg had some serious issues choosing the best players from the pool for our roster, a best eleven, and even struggled with game management adjusting tactics as needed and substitutions. This largely continued for the next 2 plus years frustrating many fans, particularly on Twitter and some independent pundits. Most mainstream soccer media focused solely on the winning record and trophies with Nations League and Gold Cup as well as World Cup Qualifying, ignoring how we got there barely getting by to each of those accomplishments. We never seemed to dominate our opponents and truly it can be said Gregg never really prior to the World Cup ever got this group humming like a symphony.
When the World Cup roster was announced there were a couple of surprises and many expected selections particularly the 9 MLS players he chose, arguably 6 of whom had no business being on the team as they truly offered no accretive value to the squad. Moreover omissions of other young players whom are likely to be considerations for the 2026 roster like Mailk Tilman, Djorde Mihailovic, Ricardo Pepi were left out and deprived of the supposed valuable experience of being part of a World Cup roster.
So once again we went into a tournament/window with a less than ideal roster. That said most would agree the top 16-17 players on this roster were sufficient to do great things if Gregg managed their minutes well and stuck mostly with these players. Our first game against a mediocre Wales team we managed a 1-0 lead that looked promising until the 2nd half. Some odd substitution choices rather than going for a 2nd goal and a definitive win Gregg went defensive with his subs. Ultimately 6’5’’ Keifer Moore for Wales was clearly causing havoc for us as we only brought 2 players over 6’3’’, striker Haji Wright and defender Walker Zimmerman. Gregg had a falling out of sorts in 2021 with 6’4’’defenders Matt Miazga and John Brooks never to be seen in a USMNT uniform since, both of whom were better selections than Aaron Long. Ultimately a mistake by Zimmerman trying to defend against Gareth Bale led to a penalty kick goal and the game ending in a tie. Top players like Gio Reyna didn’t see any minutes in this game, which many found odd as he’s arguably our most creative player who excels playing in an attacking central midfield role as an 8 or 10. His skillset is unique as he can beat players 1v1 and has the ability to find space in tight places and distribute the ball around multiple defenders he usually draws to him. He’s truly the only other attacking player other than Christian Pulisic and maybe Yunus Musah who have some of these skills. Once again Gregg played conservatively and made some questionable substitutions that ultimately led to a tie, not a win against a team most would have suggested we should have beaten.
Game 2 against England was a great performance. In fact, it was arguably the best we’ve ever looked under Gregg. He even made an adjustment to our very rigid 4-3-3 formation when defensively we dropped into a 4-4-2 utilizing our strikers to block passing lanes to England’s defensive midfielder Declan Rice. Our midfield also frustrated England and Gareth Southgate was forced to make a halftime adjustment and bring in Jordan Henderson. The game ended in a 0-0 tie. It was a point well deserved, however some were still critical that Gregg should have put Reyna in much earlier to try to generate more scoring chances than just the last 13 minutes of the game.
Our final game against Iran now required a win to get through the group stage into the knockout round. Amazingly Gregg started a lineup that contained not 1 MLS player, the first time he’d ever done so I believe in his entire tenure of almost 4 years. The only reason this is significant is that he has been criticized I believe rightfully for not being able to pick his best roster or best XI, often choosing much less talented players being mixed in with more talented ones. Its not really an MLS/European player issue per se as there have been a small few that deserved to be on the roster from MLS. It just so happens that the overwhelming talent the USMNT player pool has plays in Europe, not MLS. Yet cycle after cycle we seem to find lesser quality MLS players on the roster, undoubtedly limiting the potential quality of our performances.
We managed to play well in the first half, having a decent amount of possession and creating some chances. As the half wore on you could feel a goal coming and ultimately a great headed cross into the box from Dest was met by a charging Christian Pulisic to tap home the game’s first and only goal. Tim Weah scored a 2nd just before half but was ruled offside. The 2nd half, however, again yielded an approach many were baffled by. Needing a win to advance while Iran needed just a tie with an England victory over Wales one would have thought we would have tried to push for that 2nd goal, giving the US a small buffer to then try to lock the game down.
In the first half Iran didn’t even get off a single shot, I believe for the first time in their World Cup history. So clearly what were doing in the first half was working. Pulisic was subbed out with his injury incurred on his goal for Aaronson. 65 minutes in and Weston McKennie comes out for Kellyn Acosta, a solid player, however, who arguably has 2 skillsets of any value at this level, set piece taking, and some defensive ability. Again, at this point we were dominating our chances and largely holding them down. At the margin this substitution at this point in the game seems odd? Why not put Gio in and get that 2nd goal? Haji came on in the 77th minute after Sargent’s mild ankle injury. Minute 82, Shaq Moore, not a more talented Joe Scally, comes in to replace a far more offensive threat Sergino Dest. Zimmerman for Weah too, defender for winger. Ok Gregg’s just trying to hang on for dear life and get the win. Again, not a material attempt at getting a 2nd goal just like the Wales game. We didn’t get a single shot on goal in the 2nd half through the 84th minute and perhaps the entirety of the 2nd half.
We held on for the win and had the Netherlands to play on Saturday morning. In the days after the game, I said to myself we got through but barely. A 1-1 tie with Wales, 0-0 tie with England, and a 1-0 win vs Iran. Wales and Iran arguably should have been victories but weren’t. Both games in the 2nd half we could not get a 2nd goal and often were just absorbing pressure. I was concerned for the Dutch game for 2 main reasons. First, fatigue. Gregg’s 4-3-3 and press requires lots of mileage particularly out of our midfield. Weston was not really 90 minutes fit coming into the tournament recovering from his injury weeks prior. Tyler and Musah had been giving 90 regularly and others like Weah, and Pulisic were for different reasons not getting full 90 min regularly prior to the tournament. It should come as no surprise going into that Netherlands game the US had ran in aggregate almost a full marathon more than the Dutch, and I believe the most or close to the most in the entire tournament. Gregg’s style of play demands this but this leads me to my 2nd concern, player management and rotation. If you’re committed and so rigid as to only play a 4-3-3 requiring your midfield in particular to cover massive amounts of ground, and then you ask them to play 4 straight games over 13 days, you’re begging for a problem.
You see Gregg in my opinion once again was not properly prepared for this Dutch game, borne out of bad decisions in games prior, heck in decisions made in windows long before, unforced errors if you will. These unforced errors during the tournament specifically were not having some flexibility in our player rotation and lineup formation, making it easier for teams to defend us and not giving our players the best chance to score goals or at a minimum create more scoring chances. Some tactical flexibility beyond the defensive 4-4-2 in the England game would have been nice. Maybe a 4-2-3-1 that helps give the midfield guys some relief and at the same time helps create space behind our opponents if we don’t press so high to allow our attackers to get in behind would have been great. A lot of our attackers thrive and score in transition with their club teams yet we rarely seemed to create those types of chances.
Not utilizing the skillset of a Gio Reyna not just for the added offensive threat he is but to help rest that MMA (Musah/McKennie/Adams) midfield was also a problem. Again, we don’t know the roots of why Gio wasn’t utilized but a good manager has to have the skillset to manage players, even those that may pose a perceived challenge to their leadership or team cohesion. You find ways to make it work because we’re not France. We don’t have two virtual world class best XI’s. Thinking Jordan Morris offered you more with his "speed and power" versus Gio’s technical skills was beyond odd. Heck I would have rather have seen Luca De La Torre get some minutes instead of Kellyn Acosta as you wouldn’t be sacrificing as much possession or offense with him and it should have been important to get guys like him or even Joe Scally important minutes as he could have subbed in for Jedi or Dest to give each a bit of rest without sacrificing much in performance like you did by subbing in Yedlin and Moore.
Gregg might say he didn’t have enough time or experience with different formations and went with players he felt most comfortable. Again, my point here is he wasted 3 years with inferior players and not getting our core group together with better and more similar skilled players more often leading up to 2022. Yes, injuries played a part, but not as big as some would make it out to be. This is why people like me were screaming after that 1st year that we have a big problem with Gregg’s management style. In International soccer you have to know who your best and most talented players are, and it’s largely agreed you try to play a style or tactical approach that optimizes their skillsets, not the reverse where you pick players for your ideal system of play.
All that wasted time with players like Jackson Yueill, Sebastian Lletget and many others. Not picking on them but they’re examples of solid MLS players but those not truly at a skill level required for international play with the USMNT. Don’t agree? Go watch and see the lineup for the USMNT vs Panama World Cup Qualifier in Panama. Gregg was extremely slow identifying our best and that hurt us going into the tournament with a roster that wasn’t as deep as it could have been nor were our best proficient in a variety of tactical formations let alone with each other often enough.
So not feeling comfortable enough for whatever reason playing for a 2nd goal or bigger leads which give you a greater buffer and luxury to get key players rest and other key subs minutes ideally prepping your team for a 4th game in 13 days, your first knockout match against the Netherlands proved detrimental. Of course, there’s no guarantee we would have scored a 2nd or more goals in those games but your job as coach is to have a plan that gives the team its best chance for success. When I watched the game against the Dutch it was obvious players were gassed, and just didn’t have that extra gear we saw in the game against England. For those of you who haven’t played, when you’re exhausted your first touch slips, your focus isn’t as sharp. You saw that on display all over the field from most of our players that day and its what led to the 3 Dutch goals. Worse, Gregg actually started 5’8’’ 150lb Jesus Ferreira at striker pitted against arguably one of the world’s best defenders Virgil Van Dijk, 6’5’’ 205lbs, instead of starting Gio Reyna and/or 6’3’’ Haji Wright with Josh Sargent out with his ankle injury. We were, other than one early random chance by Pulisic, not as threatening offensively as we could have been, by both fitness and personnel. Both are the results of decisions by Gregg. Yes, you can always and should blame the players for not executing as we did have some chances in this game, but it was clear we were not as clinical as we needed to be compared to the Dutch. They managed the game extremely well. They shut the center of the pitch down inviting us to beat them with our fullbacks and wingers crossing in balls to the box where we had ZERO presence. Even after the game Netherlands coach, Louis van Gaal, criticized us for how inflexible we were and thus easy to plan for.
I view our Round of 16 loss as what most would have expected for this group of players, definitively good enough to get out of the group given our other opponents. A better than expected tournament result would have been making it to the quarter finals and a semi final appearance would have been almost beyond expectations. But given what we’ve seen this tournament this could have been a tournament for the US to beat expectations. But for that you don’t just need talent, you need leadership. It’s here where I’ll say I am sure Gregg is a great guy, and in fact should be given credit where he deserves it. Particularly recruiting Yunus Musah and Sergino Dest, none of us could imagine what our team would be like without them. And perhaps Gregg deserves some credit keeping what we hear was a tight knit group together and positive all these years. I have my doubts however as to how true that was, at least in terms of all the players having confidence in Gregg. I suspect many after seeing what happened to Brooks and Miazga, no younger player was about to risk appearing at a World Cup making waves about any of the coaching decisions. Frankly though a good coach has the ability to manage players who may have criticisms or issues and still keep them part of the group and focused working toward the team goal, especially if they are some of your more talented players like Gio, Brooks and even Miazga who had a great finish to his MLS return this year.
Gregg never got this group in 4 years playing greater than the sum of their parts, like we’re seeing with many other teams at this years World Cup. He’s not demonstrated any true command guiding this group. He’s been wildly inconsistent in applying criteria for including some players but not others. The most recent example was when he explained the reason he left Ricardo Pepi, who had been scoring regularly again since joining his Dutch league team, off the World Cup roster in favor of Josh Sargent was because Josh offered more physical presence as Gregg said they expected that would be needed against some of their opponents. Ok fine, agreed, but Ricardo is 6’1’’ while he chose 5’8’’ Jesus Ferreira who is not only far smaller had not played well at all for the USMNT against meaningful opponents. There are many more examples too.
World Cups come around only every 4 years and if you make a big mistake like the program did in the 2018 cycle it can be longer. Fortunately, we automatically qualify for the World Cup in 2026 as we’re co-hosting with Mexico and Canada. We should not waste another 4 years with a coach who has not really impressed in any real way with proper perspective managing the best young group of talent the USMNT program has ever seen. We really should be focused on getting an experienced and accomplished international coach that can bring the best out of our group of players, getting them to perform beyond the sum of their parts. That should be at a minimum a quarter final appearance in 2026 but hopefully something further. The only progress we’ve made is getting back to where we were before failing to qualify for 2018. IF you’re satisfied with this I think that’s sad.
I’m speaking now to Earnie Stewart and new US Soccer CEO JT Batson. If you want the soccer public to feel like progress is being made and that you’re doing your job properly, no more Gregg Berhalter at the helm. Do not renew his contract. No more nepotism hires. We deserve a publicly declared, thorough and transparent hiring process that will be utilized moving forward for all coaching positions. This group of players deserves that. This fan base and nation deserves that, period. Also, end the explicit or implicit conflicts as the revolving door and back scratching between MLS/SUM/US Soccer/Former Player Pool/Big money sponsors at the very least gives a bad impression to the public. A transparent meritocracy-based process for hiring, player development, roster selection, is what we need across the system. A sound process doesn't guarantee success, but it does increase the probability of success and increases faith and trust in the system. We have 3.5 years to get this right to make what arguably is the best lasting impression on the US public about this sport. We cannot afford to screw this up.
If you need to hire Tab Ramos as Technical Director and/or someone like Dave Sarachan as Head of Scouting or quality people like them, do it. They can be great assets to any coach, particularly a coach they bring from overseas if they go that route. Additionally, if you want progress to be made, as someone who has started down the path of coaching education and certification through your system, let me share with you a couple of alternative ideas that can have a meaningful impact for years to come. First, sharks and minnows are great, but if you really want two dozen Gio Reynas or Christian Pulisics, emphasize a high skills track that focuses solely on technical ball skills from ages 5-10. Market and partner with groups like Eddie Johnson’s the Lab and others around the country to focus developing the technical skills our young kids need to truly develop into great players in their teenage years. Introduce Futsal ages 8-10 before introducing organized play at age 11 and up. Yes, keep a separate track for those parents whose kids are just looking for fun. Yes, other changes are needed around finding these players and ensuring access to any kid who wants to play and especially if they’re good enough to warrant attention. Do this and you will fundamentally change the number of talented players that can develop into great players at the top level.
It was great seeing our national team get back to the World Cup but at the end of the day, Do The Right Thing! Winning Men's and Women's World Cups should be the primary goal for US Soccer. Growing the game, developing the talent that feeds the ability to do so is part of that endless cycle that many other great soccer nations have achieved. We deserve to get there. There’s a much brighter future out there for this Men's National Team if our federation’s leadership has the courage to make the right decisions. LFG!!!!