A study in contrasts, Berhalter confident he can strike the right balance for USMNT

The new U.S. national team boss says the style of play will be shaped by the players and how they respond to his system

Take a close look at new U.S. national team manager Gregg Berhalter and you will find a coach who is a study in contrasts.

He spent the majority of his playing career in Europe, but built his coaching resume largely in Major League Soccer. His music playlist contains some Dispatch, an indie rock jam-band, but also Lil Wayne, which almost certainly makes him the first U.S. national team coach to listen to hip-hop. He wears the look of a mild-mannered manager, but underneath the collection of black sweaters and collared shirts beats the heart of the same fiery competitor who was a no-nonsense defender. 

You would think the contrasts end at Berhalter’s approach to coaching a team, but they don’t.  

Known by MLS followers for having turned the Columbus Crew into a possession-oriented team with a penchant for overachieving in the playoffs, Berhalter is synonymous with his team’s playing style. But the 45-year-old coach is quick to point out that the evolution of the USMNT’s playing style during his tenure will come down to the players. 

“The important thing is that we’re in it together with the players,” Berhalter told Goal. “I adapt to the quality of the players we have. It’s a structured system, but within that there’s flexibility. When you look at what we do in Columbus, we highlight the strengths of the guys we have.” 

USMNT general manager Earnie Stewart lauded Berhalter’s ability to implement a style of play and have it become the team’s identity.  

How Berhalter managed that with the Crew was an impressive feat, but as head coach and sporting director, he was able to hit the open market to find the pieces he needed to create the ideal puzzle.

As a national team coach he is limited to a specific set of players, but the new USMNT boss doesn’t see that being a problem with a talented player pool at his disposal and what he sees as an adaptable system.  

“There’s two parts. First thing is I have to look at the player profiles of my system and match it up with what we currently have,” Berhalter said. “It’s really important that the player profiles match in a playing system. And then, what I have to do is see how the different players interact with our playing system. 

“When we start teaching the principles I think we’ll be able to see more clearly exactly who can execute what we’re looking for. But in watching the national team the past year I’ve seen intelligent players. I’ve seen capable players and now it’s about getting more out of them.” 

Few people are better equipped to know how Berhalter’s style of play will transition into the national team than Wil Trapp, who emerged as a regular presence on the USMNT in 2018.  

The Crew captain has played for Berhalter for five seasons and believes the current national team crop has players who have already shown the qualities to fit the system the manager used in Columbus. 

“You look at what do we like to do with our wingers,” Trapp said. “One winger, in Columbus for example, can get the ball wide and run 1v1, or come inside. Who’s probably the best American player to do that, probably other than Landon Donovan? Christian Pulisic. So think about plugging these guys in.  

“Ball-playing center backs, like John Brooks and Matt Miazga, that’s exactly what we want. These types of players. DeAndre Yedlin getting up and wide as an outside back. Those are profiles that fit what he has done in Columbus extremely well.” 

Trapp isn’t exactly impartial when it comes to his long-time manager, but that hasn’t kept USMNT teammates from asking him about Berhalter, who has been considered the favorite to become the U.S. coach for several months. 

“You’ve seen guys play and are smart and are high-level players that play for the national team, and they want clear directives,” Trapp said. “Give us a plan that we can step out on the field and we feel prepared to play. That was the biggest thing I was easily able to communicate to guys. Every time we step on the field [under Berhalter], you feel prepared for what the opponent’s going to bring and what’s expected of you.” 

Berhalter’s attention to detail was forged going back to his earliest days as a professional player, when he was a 21-year-old American starting his pro playing career in the Netherlands. 

“When I first started playing, and I was in Holland, I lived alone that first year. I would come home and write all my training sessions down,” Berhalter said. “And then I’d write ‘If i was the coach, how I would formulate the team?’ Then I started taking my coaching licenses pretty early and in the meantime it was having discussions.  

“Holland was such a hotbed for soccer at that time. Ajax winning the Champions League, PSV in the Europa league final. There was so much discussion about soccer, and it was really great. Holland is a really combative place for discussion about soccer, and it was great.” 

Berhalter is taking over a U.S. national team in a state of transition, with a young generation of players being looked to by a fanbase still recovering from the disappointment of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. The former Crew boss must now bring veterans who have been largely absent in 2018 back into the mix and start working on in instilling his philosophy on the group. 

“We want players to be comfortable having the ball,” Berhalter said. “We want them to be brave. We want players to be able to disorganize opponents and create scoring chances. Obviously, you want to win games, but we want to do it playing beautiful soccer. If we can play beautiful and win then I think everyone will be happy.” 

Berhalter’s hiring has been met with mixed reactions, including criticisms of the hiring process that settled on him ahead of several candidates with stronger resumes and more experience.  

Berhalter is no stranger to hearing critics, having faced his share of skepticism when he was hired as the Columbus Crew coach in 2013. He admits to drawing motivation from the criticism, but says his motivation now is less about proving doubters wrong and all about helping the national team reach its full potential. 

“I can’t control the criticism,” Berhalter told Goal. “My job is to work hard, to be clear with the players, and get the best out of the group and build a team that plays together.” 

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