How Gregg Berhalter got his job back

United States men’s national soccer team head coach Gregg Berhalter, center, answers questions during a news conference Friday, June 16, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Lucas Peltier)

United States men’s national soccer team head coach Gregg Berhalter, center, answers questions during a news conference Friday, June 16, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Lucas Peltier)

LAS VEGAS — U.S. Soccer’s 166-day search for a men’s national team head coach supposedly spanned the globe, but culminated over 10 intensive hours on Tuesday in New York.

Gregg Berhalter had been summoned for the final stage of a multi-part process. At a Manhattan conference center, sporting director Matt Crocker grilled him with traditional interview questions, but also put Berhalter through a battery of exercises that extended far beyond soccer tactics.

There were psychometric tests, cross-industry tools used to assess everything from personality to intelligence. There were “abstract reasoning tests,” Crocker said, and ones that evaluated “logical thinking.” There were “tests where candidates had the opportunity to prepare for certain elements around strategy,” Crocker added, and “certain tests where they just literally had to deliver under pressure at a moment in time.”

It was “grueling,” Berhalter said. He came away impressed and intrigued. “Impressed with Matt, impressed with his process,” Berhalter said, and “impressed how he looked at things.” But, at the time, he apparently wasn’t sure how impressed Crocker had been with him.

Berhalter stayed the night in New York — where Crocker, who hasn’t yet completed his move from England to Chicago, had set up shop for these final stages. Crocker called on Wednesday morning and asked to meet again, with U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone present as well. They talked, then said their goodbyes, and Berhalter headed to the airport, he recalled.

Then his phone rang. It was Crocker again.

“You’re the guy,” the 48-year-old Welshman said.

Berhalter’s mind raced, firstly to his family. Emotions tickled him as he recounted the moment two days later. “It was a great feeling,” he said. “You can imagine what the last six months have been like.”

He had spent four years developing deep connections with staff and players. He’d felt pride watching the young ones, the “kids,” grow into adults and top pros. He’d then been forced to put many relationships on hold throughout six months of limbo. Now, he couldn’t wait to rekindle them, and to have another World Cup go.

Some 24 hours later, he flew to Las Vegas. Less than 24 hours after that, he was reintroduced as USMNT head coach. A few minutes before 1 p.m. on Friday, he walked into a lobby-level conference room at the team’s hotel to speak — and to listen as Crocker and Parlow Cone tried to answer one overarching question:

Why, if Berhalter had been such a “clear and convincing” choice, had it taken so long to re-appoint him?

Their answers were complicated, replete with new-age corporate buzzwords — and some details, but certainly not all of them.

What we know about the USMNT’s coaching search

The Berhalter-Reyna investigation and Earnie Stewart’s departure, of course, accounted for at least two months of the six. Cone and Batson, supported by Sportsology, then led a month-slong search for Stewart’s replacement, and said that the new sporting director would subsequently lead the coaching search.

In April, they landed on Crocker — who had a contract with English club Southampton through the end of July. Southampton eventually let Crocker leave early, at the end of the Premier League season, a move that allowed him to dive full-time into the coaching search and accelerate it. But throughout May, he still had his old job.

Crocker, essentially working part-time, first set out to establish the process by which he’d pick the USMNT coach. He wanted clearly-defined criteria. Before formalizing them, he consulted a variety of people, including players.

All the while, clocks were ticking — and Berhalter remained in limbo.

What Crocker ultimately devised, though, was a job description and eight core “competencies” that very conveniently aligned with what Berhalter had been doing ever since he first got the USMNT job in 2018.

“Gregg pretty much set the data model,” Crocker said Friday. “He was responsible for four years of development around style of play, around pressing metrics. Clearly what he’s done is, he’s developed a really, really young, dynamic, front-footed team.”

The first step in Crocker’s process deployed data to identify candidates. He used things like Elo ratings to find quality ones. He also used descriptive metrics, as mentioned above, to identify coaches whose philosophies could further shape that “young, dynamic, front-footed team.”

He also did research, and had conversations. He had to gauge interest; and although he and his bosses said there were no financial restrictions on the search, he had to be realistic. For example, Mikel Arteta probably wouldn’t leave Arsenal to come coach the USMNT. And even some of the world’s top coaches wouldn’t be the right fit — largely because “it’s not just about coaching the men’s senior team and helping us win,” as Crocker said Friday.

Crocker said that he was “really clear and decisive” about the specifics of the role. It requires on-field coaching, but also “league/club/coach engagement,” and “creat[ing] & maintain[ing] a positive media profile,” and “act[ing] as ambassador for sponsorship activities.” It requires appearances at educational events throughout American soccer, and youth pathway creation, and more, according to an outline published by U.S. Soccer.

The data, Crocker said, “churned out” a double-digit number of candidates. Conversations about the totality of the role “either weeded in or weeded out some coaches,” he added. The ones leftover advanced to what Crocker called “the final assessment process,” the hours of multifarious testing that Berhalter underwent on Tuesday.

That testing, Crocker said, “gave us an opportunity to get real, rich data. And then it took us a period of time to sit down and effectively tune all of these numbers.” Crocker and his team, which includes U.S. Soccer’s new vice president of sporting Oguchi Onyewu, then scored and ranked candidates in eight key areas: Relationship building, planning, self-managing, communication, decision-making, innovation, people development, and whether they had a “vision-led identity” that aligned with U.S. Soccer.

“During the course of several weeks, candidates were evaluated through all of these filters,” U.S. Soccer said.

It’s unclear, though, how many candidates there were. Crocker, speaking Friday, did not name any other finalists, and did not give specific numbers.

The timeline suggests that Berhalter was the last of them. He had “scored phenomenally,” Crocker said, “every step of the way.” Within 48 hours of his testing, he’d been chosen by Crocker, and approved by U.S. Soccer CEO JT Batson, and on Thursday approved — though not unanimously — by U.S. Soccer’s board.

It’s unclear whether interest from elsewhere accelerated U.S. Soccer’s decision. On Tuesday, as Berhalter was interviewing with U.S. Soccer, reports emerged that he was a top candidate at Club América, the Liga MX club enduring its own protracted coaching search.

Berhalter said Friday that he’d had discussions with América, but told the club: “I have to go through with this [U.S. Soccer interview]. Because I would regret it the rest of my life if I never gave myself the opportunity.”

A day later, on Wednesday, it emerged that Berhalter was no longer a candidate at América — presumably because he’d taken the USMNT job.

Why Berhalter won’t coach USMNT until September

Two days after that, Berhalter had agreed to a contract through 2026. He arrived at the team hotel in Vegas — but did not meet with players. “I’d love to go in the meal room and give everyone a hug, and re-unite with them,” he admitted. “It’s been a while. But their focus right now is winning the Nations League,” the regional tournament that concludes Sunday with a final against Canada.

In fact, Berhalter won’t coach the USMNT at the upcoming Gold Cup either. He’ll ultimately spend nine whole months away from the players. The final two-plus months, Crocker said, will be used for long-term planning — because he and Berhalter both know that, over the next three years, the team must continue to improve.

Berhalter spent some of his time away reflecting on that. “Looking at the performance of the World Cup as the measuring stick,” he said, “there’s certainly elements to dissect. I didn’t think we were good enough on attacking set pieces in the last World Cup; that’s definitely an area of opportunity. I think offensive transition moments let us down at times in the last World Cup. Our defensive shape was excellent, our high pressure was excellent, but then when we win the ball, how can we more effectively create chances on the counterattack?”

If he’d jumped straight back into the team, onto the training field, into meeting rooms, Crocker was concerned that everything would be “business as usual.” What Crocker wants is to build on the last four years, and aim higher in 2026. He wants the USMNT to evolve, and wants to work together with Berhalter to steer that evolution.

“There’s some real big-ticket items around some real strategic stuff over the next couple of seasons that we need to map out first,” Crocker said.

He acknowledged the external perception that time has been lost, and that more will be lost this summer, but essentially argued that it will be valuable in the long run.

“It gives myself and Gregg the real great opportunity,” he said, to spend “some real time together working through and piecing together the framework of that strategy for 2026.”