NEW YORK — When United States men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter spoke for the first time in his new role, he had a distinct message when asked about the strenuous 14 months the program’s been through.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to talk about the failure of the past,” Berhalter said during a news conference Tuesday. “I’d like to talk about moving forward. When I’m looking at this team, specifically in the last year, it was very hard to evaluate the big picture because I don’t think it was the complete team. But what I did see was a group of young, talented players with potential. I saw a group that needs development and direction. I’m excited to work with this group.”
Focusing on the past is easy because there hasn’t been much to look forward to since missing out on the 2018 World Cup, but instead of trying to fix the past, Berhalter is ready to move forward by implementing his system with a crop of talented players who make up one of the brightest generations the program has ever seen.
The former Columbus Crew manager immediately went to work after accepting the USMNT role and hopes to have as much of his staff and system in place as he can before the full team gathers during the March FIFA international window to begin preparations for the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup.
“I’m ready for this challenge,” Berhalter said. “From the youth national team to the full national team, and my experiences as a player and in the coaching ranks have prepared me for this moment.
“I’ll be focusing on the players and the team and how we can compete, first and foremost. I’m focused on building a style of play and building team cohesiveness. I know it’s going to be a challenge, but I know there’s quality in this group and the closer we become together, the closer we can come to reach our goals.”
Berhalter, USMNT general manager Earnie Stewart and U.S. Soccer in general have a lot of trust to regain in the public eye, and some fans won’t easily let go of missing the World Cup and then spending the next year with an interim manager.
While 2018 will likely go down as a lost year in terms of stylistic progress and the implementation of new ideas, new hires are now in place to lead the program into the future.
Some may not agree with every decision made on the arduous journey to the 2022 FIFA World Cup, but Stewart and the higher-ups at U.S. Soccer believe Berhalter is the man to lead them there.
“As a former professional player, both domestic and international, Gregg knows what players are looking for in a coach,” U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro said. “As a veteran of our men’s national team and the first U.S. World Cup veteran to become head coach of our team, he knows what it means to wear the crest.
“And as a coach who’s both detailed and innovative, with experience internationally and in MLS, he knows how to build winning teams. Gregg isn’t just the right choice, Gregg is the best choice. He will push our men’s team forward and with an identity and approach that will be uniquely and fiercely American.”
Stewart and Cordeiro assured everyone in attendance Tuesday that Berhalter’s brother, Jay Berhalter, who is the chief marketing officer at U.S. Soccer, was not involved at all in the hiring process of the coach, and that despite previous reports, Stewart was interested in Spanish-speaking candidates during the search.
“I did connect with a lot of domestic and international coaches through this to make sure I did understand how they thought about soccer, where they were, what their style was and how they wanted to move forward,” Stewart said. “And why they would want the high-profile job of being the men’s national team coach.”
As a veteran of the USMNT, Berhalter will be able to deliver a message to players different from predecessors Bruce Arena and Jurgen Klinsmann. And if he can translate the results he earned with the Columbus Crew the past six seasons, he could find longterm success.
What constitutes success and how the USMNT attempts to attain it were laid out by Berhalter and Stewart.
“First, is making sure that the way we play identifies with our fans,” Stewart said. “Second, is simple as qualifying for 2022 and third is doing well in 2022. Those are the goals that we have.”
“The idea is that we’re an attacking-based team creating goal-scoring opportunities by disorganizing the opponent,” Berhalter said. “We’ll do that in a number of different ways. What I’d say was consistent during my time in Columbus is we did it through the buildup, starting with the goalie in the back.
“If teams tried to press us, we play through them to create goal-scoring opportunities. The idea is it’s a fluid style that the players are intent are breaking through the lines and creating goal-scoring opportunities.”
The ideals brought forth by the pair of former USMNT players is as important as the results. Of course, winning solves plenty of issues, but if the USMNT does so in a pleasing fashion, it will be even more rewarding for a fan base used to players out of position, poor tactics and a lack of direction.
Pushing the team forward and finding the proper pieces for that style of play won’t occur overnight, but Berhalter is committed to having everyone on the same page, from the players who show up for January camp and the friendlies against Panama and Costa Rica to the European-based stars who will make their first appearances under the new USMNT boss in March.
“My first priority is immediately reaching out to players and getting to know them,” Berhalter said. “This week, I’ll be reaching out to a number of domestic-based players and then I’ll head over to Europe to meet players face to face. I’m focused on what we can do more outside of camp. What communication can we have with the players to prepare them.”
Berhalter, who was first contacted late in August when Stewart put together an initial list of 33 candidates that eventually dwindled down to two, is under pressure to win now and in a way the American fan base can get behind.
Patience isn’t a virtue the majority of fans possess, and Berhalter knows that. He wants to move as quickly as possible to put in place a new USMNT system with some of the programs already talented players, such as Tyler Adams, Christian Pulisic, Jozy Altidore and Weston McKennie, among others, to reach the pinnacle of Concacaf, threaten on an international stage and give fans something to be proud about once again.
“The process has to accelerate,” Berhalter said. “When you have quality players, you can accelerate that process a little bit. Each and every camp we should expect to see development. That’s my job and the job of the staff.”