Amid Berhalter mess, U.S. Soccer deliberates over the USMNT’s coaching future

DOHA, QATAR - NOVEMBER 21: United States head coach Gregg Berhalter before at FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group B match between Wales and USMNT at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on November 21, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Gregg Berhalter's future with the U.S. men's national team remains uncertain. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA — On the 13th day of U.S. men’s national team limbo, with Gregg Berhalter out of contract and under investigation, and with the USMNT’s coaching future as murky as could be, J.T. Batson stepped on stage.

Gossip swirled all around him at the United Soccer Coaches Convention last week. The Berhalter-Reyna scandal followed Batson, U.S. Soccer’s new jeans- and Nikes-wearing CEO, to a Friday morning session alongside federation president Cindy Parlow Cone. They were asked to comment on “the news surrounding the men’s national team and their coach.” They gave their standard noncommittal answers, about ambition and sporting director Earnie Stewart’s “review” of the USMNT program.

Then, before they could move on to another vanilla question, Batson brought the microphone back toward his mouth. He wanted to make “one really important point.”

“Obviously there's a lot of focus on who the men's national team or women's national team head coach is,” he said. “But as a part of our review, we're looking at this broadly.”

He went on to mention the players’ day-to-day environment and U.S. Soccer’s communications with their clubs. He spoke about finding competitive games for a team that will co-host the 2026 World Cup, and therefore won’t have to qualify for it. Later, speaking to two reporters off stage about potential participation in the 2024 Copa America, he hinted at discussions with CONCACAF, the North and Central American soccer confederation, and perhaps even with CONMEBOL, its South American counterpart and the Copa America organizer.

“Obviously we know those parties,” Batson said, “and we may or may not have been in Miami [the home of CONCACAF headquarters] this week.”

But his wider point was that the massive decision facing U.S. Soccer is not, in fact, a singular decision. There are countless variables that will both influence the selection of a USMNT coach and depend on it. The federation must decide whether it cares about regional competitions, like the Gold Cup and the Nations League, between now and 2026. It must establish priorities, and map out precisely what the USMNT needs in order to, in Batson’s words, “maximize our chances in ’26.” Does it need a strong 2023, or do its stars need a break? Is the coaching choice pressing, or can it wait?

Stewart surely does not need more time to “review” and evaluate Berhalter’s performance. He and the federation are waiting on the results of an independent investigation into Berhalter, his past domestic violence, the Reynas and perhaps others. Then they will measure Berhalter and his baggage up against alternatives — who may or may not be interested or available in 2023, which may or may not affect the coaching search’s timeline, and may or may not lead the search back to the incumbent.

U.S. Soccer’s Berhalter decision

Stewart is a fan of Berhalter. He has been for years, and still sounded like one in his first public comments since the 2022 World Cup. He said that the USMNT had a “successful four years” under Berhalter. He was “pleased” with the team’s identity and style in Qatar, and overall “very happy with this group.” There have been numerous hints that, on sporting merit alone, he would have been very happy to offer Berhalter a contract extension. (The bigger question seemed to be whether Berhalter would want one; he has since said that he does.)

Now, though, preferences are unclear and the ultimate decision will be a thorny one. Even if the investigation reveals no further wrongdoing by Berhalter beyond the 1991 incident he has already disclosed, U.S. Soccer will consider two key questions: Is it comfortable employing a coach who admitted to kicking his now-wife, albeit 31 years ago? And can the coach repair his relationship with a 20-year-old star, Gio Reyna, who should be a pivotal player over the next 3½ years?

That relationship, surely, is not beyond repair. Reyna will mature. Berhalter is a professional. He won’t hold the actions of Claudio and Danielle Reyna against Gio. But of course, this scandal and the damage it’s done won’t just disappear.

MURCIA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 27: Gio Reyna of The United States looks on during the international friendly match between Saudi Arabia and United States at Estadio  Nueva Condomina on September 27, 2022 in Murcia, Spain. (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)
Gio Reyna, 20, should play a central role on the USMNT for years to come. (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)

The first question, though, could be the more pressing one. U.S. Soccer could reasonably conclude that Berhalter has long since grown from his admittedly “shameful” actions on that night in the early 1990s; it could decide that a 49-year-old man should not be punished for something he did when he was 18, especially if his victim forgave him and happily married him. But the federation also knows that employing Berhalter now sends a complicated and potentially problematic message. Cone, Batson and Stewart would have to answer thorny questions, about everything from their anti-abuse commitments to the 2018 process that landed on Berhalter in the first place.

There are multiple layers of risk, of headaches that U.S. Soccer could simply choose to avoid by moving on from Berhalter and hiring a new coach — one who, in theory, would come with similar soccer acumen and no baggage. The open question, though, is whether anybody who fits that description would want the job — and when.

Who are the other USMNT coaching candidates?

Stewart has said that he maintains “a pool of candidates at any given moment.” Among them are, presumably, experienced international managers and rising American ones. Among those with significantly more managerial pedigree than Berhalter, though, it’s unclear if any would take the job — which will feature very few games of consequence over the next three years.

Top club coaches typically aren’t interested. Roberto Martinez, one of several publicly mooted candidates, already signed with Portugal. Zinedine Zidane politely declined a preliminary approach from U.S. Soccer, according to reports. The one big name who seems semi-realistic is Joachim Löw, the 2014 World Cup-winning German coach who took an extended break after leaving his country’s national team in 2021. Löw speaks English, and said in October that he feels “motivated” to return to management.

The most qualified American candidate would be Jesse Marsch, who has said that “coaching the U.S. national team would be incredible,” and specifically that “coaching at the World Cup at home would be an incredible experience." But he is currently at Leeds United. To become available in 2023, he would either have to leave the English Premier League — which in many ways is the pinnacle of his profession — or get fired, in which case his last two club stints would have essentially ended in failure. (RB Leipzig, a top-four German Bundesliga club, sacked Marsch in 2021 after just four months, during which he had a losing record.)

And Marsch, by the way, would face many of the same challenges that Berhalter has. How would he instill his philosophies and implement his system in short international windows? Would his intensity invigorate players or wear on them?

(There is a tendency to assume that a coach’s club success can translate to national team success, but the games and the jobs are different. Successful international managers are rarely the ones whose hires are celebrated. Lionel Scaloni was essentially a last resort when Argentina removed his interim tag in 2018. Two of the other three semifinalists at the 2022 World Cup, Croatia’s Zlatko Dalic and Morocco’s Walid Regragui, were relative nobodies in mainstream international soccer when they took up their posts.)

If Marsch isn’t available or fancied, the search would likely lead back to a respected, up-and-coming, mid-40s MLS coach — Jim Curtin? Steve Cherundolo? — which is exactly what Berhalter was four years ago. Which, of course, begs the question: Why not just keep Berhalter, who has proven, at least to some extent, that he can adapt to the international game?

U.S. Soccer’s other option would be to wait for a better candidate to materialize. It could ride with an interim coach — either Anthony Hudson, the current caretaker, or another one — until this summer, or perhaps even until 2024. It could use the 2023 Nations League and Gold Cup to prepare for the 2024 Olympics (a mostly under-23 competition), and give the USMNT’s stars a break until the Copa America. It could sacrifice a few training camps and games to maximize its chances of getting the coaching hire right.

DOHA, QATAR - NOVEMBER 14: Anthony Hudson of the United States during a training session at Al-Gharafa SC Stadium on November 14, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Anthony Hudson of the United States during a training session at Al-Gharafa SC Stadium on Nov. 14, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

An extended interim period, however, was the subject of criticism last cycle, and could forfeit significant momentum stemming from 2022.

Both are viable paths, but neither is ideal, which brings us back to Batson’s idea of a “broad” review. U.S. Soccer doesn’t just need a USMNT coach; it needs a plan.

Who at U.S. Soccer will make the decisions?

U.S. Soccer officials have indicated that Stewart, who last year signed a contract extension through 2026, is primarily responsible for that plan. But it’s unclear who else is involved.

Back in 2020, when Stewart hired Brian McBride as the USMNT’s general manager, he initially said that the hiring and firing of coaches would be McBride’s responsibility. But McBride himself is also presumably being evaluated as part of the sporting review. He is currently still employed by U.S. Soccer, a federation spokesman confirmed to Yahoo Sports, but Batson told Soccer America last week that no “long-term decisions” have been made. (McBride’s potential communication with Claudio Reyna could also be a subject of the investigation.)

So the soccer decisions are Stewart’s — unless his bosses decide otherwise. If he wants to retain Berhalter, baggage and all, Batson and Cone would surely need to sign off on that choice. The U.S. Soccer board of directors also must approve any coach’s contract, and could vote to reject this one if they no longer feel comfortable with Berhalter leading the team.

And all of this, again, could hinge on the investigation, which could provide clarity, or could exacerbate the mess.

If not Berhalter, U.S. Soccer would most likely name a permanent successor in the first half of 2023. If, after a couple years, it becomes clear that the program is heading sideways, Stewart could then pull the plug and chase a high-profile coach in 2025, with a low-pressure year to prepare for the high-pressure moment in 2026.

One of the theoretical 2023 candidates, Curtin, said last week that he has not been contacted by U.S. Soccer, and is happy with the Philadelphia Union. But, of course, that could change.

“I will say, for 2026, with the decision that’s made, whoever the coach is, it’s a big one,” Curtin told reporters. “And I think that every head coach should put the egos aside and almost be willing to be an assistant with that team. It’s that big of a job and that important of a job.

“It’s such a big moment in our country that you have to take the time, reflect, do the right things and continue that search,” Curtin continued. “If Gregg is the guy at the end of that, that’s great. But I think everybody needs to be open-minded, and we have to go all-in for that [World Cup]. No stone should be left unturned to find the right manager or managers to get that one right.”