Inside Gregg Berhalter's leadership quest, and how it inadvertently ignited a USMNT mess

(Graphic by Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)
(Graphic by Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)

The rooftop barbecue buzzed past midnight at the luxurious Marsa Malaz Kempinski, with the messy emotions of World Cup elimination wafting off into the Middle Eastern night. It was Dec. 4, the end of the road for the U.S men’s national team in Qatar, and the end of a four-year journey that concluded with sadness but yielded pride. Players, families, coaches and staffers gathered at their team hotel 24 hours after their loss to the Netherlands. They fraternized and feasted, and commemorated a campaign that many at U.S. Soccer viewed as a successful one. Gregg Berhalter, the man steering it, retired to his room around 1 a.m. that night as a heavy favorite to retain his job as head coach.

Then he awoke a few hours later, in excruciating pain, vomiting.

He’d been scheduled to fly to Chicago later that morning; to walk into his North Side home on the evening of Dec. 5, to decompress, reflect and recharge. But he knew, in his sickly daze, that he couldn’t possibly board a plane in several hours. What he didn’t know was that this, an inexplicable stomach bug that delayed his return, would be one in a ludicrous series of chance occurrences that changed his life.

He texted Sam Zapatka, the USMNT operations manager, who rebooked him on a flight the following day. He shut his eyes, and opened them around 11 a.m. feeling much better. Emotionally, he was empty, suddenly deprived of the purpose that had guided the last four years of his life; but he rallied for lunch, and a game of padel, then dinner. And in between, amid the fog, he spoke with Dov Seidman, a kindred spirit who’d helped Berhalter in the buildup to the World Cup — and who, on Dec. 5, pitched a plan.

Seidman, the founder and chairman of The HOW Institute for Society, had organized a Dec. 6 gathering of CEOs, military generals and many others to discuss “moral leadership.” He’d invited Berhalter, who, ever since the summer, had planned to participate virtually, even if that meant Zooming in late at night from Qatar. But in the aftermath of the USMNT’s elimination, Seidman had an idea: What if Berhalter stopped in New York on his way home to attend in-person?

So, at around 1 a.m. Arabia Standard Time on Dec. 6, Berhalter sank into a first-class seat on a plane in Doha. He landed at JFK in Queens, hopped in a pre-arranged car, and arrived at the Ford Foundation in Midtown Manhattan by late-morning. He received a hero’s welcome — an on-stage introduction and a standing ovation. A few hours later, in an intimate auditorium, sporting an untucked white button-down and unshaven stubble, he settled into a chair and spoke to a diverse audience of over 100 people. And in the 21st minute of a 22-minute session alongside Seidman — who, at Yahoo Sports’ request, with appropriate permissions (including Berhalter’s), agreed to share video of the session to allow for description of its full context — in response to a question from the audience, Berhalter told a now-infamous story.

The story, about an unnamed player’s misbehavior in Qatar and how the USMNT dealt with it, was not meant for publication. But it appeared, due to miscommunications, in a newsletter five days later. And coupled with reports identifying the player as Gio Reyna, it ignited a mess. It prompted Gio’s parents, Claudio and Danielle Reyna, to contact U.S. Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart. On a call with Stewart that night, Danielle revealed that Berhalter had assaulted his now-wife when they were college students. The revelation led to an investigation, during which Stewart took another job, leaving Berhalter in limbo and U.S. Soccer without technical leadership.

And the devastating irony of it all is that Berhalter’s presence in New York on that fateful December day not only stemmed from his perpetual quest to sharpen his own leadership; it was, according to Berhalter and people who’ve encountered him, part of the journey.

Gregg Berhalter and his players wave to fans after losing to Netherlands at the Qatar World Cup. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Gregg Berhalter and his players wave to fans after losing to Netherlands at the Qatar World Cup. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

A ‘21st century coach’ on a ‘journey of significance’

By the time Berhalter and Seidman met in May of 2022, the USMNT coach was, in Seidman’s words, already “fully on this journey.” It began over a decade ago, even before he’d retired as a player, then intensified when he got the national team job in 2018. He had a culture to repair and a mission to shape. So he searched far and wide for any information that would help him do that.

He read voraciously, and studied other industries, picking up tips and tidbits as he went. He read about soccer tactics, of course, but also about courage in business and much more. He dove into “Think Again” by Adam Grant and “Shift Your Mind” by Brian Levenson. He read “Quit” by Annie Duke and “Tribe” by Sebastian Junger. He read “Atomic Habits” and many other books that now line his shelves.

Along the way, he’d reach out to authors, or to anybody from whom he felt he could learn. He attended a retreat in the hills of Maryland organized by Levenson and David Epstein, the author of “Range.” He spent an afternoon with retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Virginia. He connected with Sam Walker, who wrote "The Captain Class,” and integrated Walker into his work with the USMNT. He continues to speak monthly with leaders outside soccer to pick their brains.

And it was in this spirit that Berhalter consulted Seidman, an entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to “scaling values-based cultures” and “moral authority” — and who, in 2019, founded the non-profit HOW Institute to further his mission.

They were brought together by Peter Farnsworth, founder of the SALA Series, a cross-industry community of executives and influencers that Berhalter joined in 2020. Two years later, he and Seidman appeared together on the SALA podcast. They met via Zoom shortly before recording, and quickly realized they spoke a common tongue. Their discussion ranged from Vicente Del Bosque to Friedrich Nietzsche to Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and to concepts that would fly over Average Joe’s head — but Berhalter was struck by the clarity of them.

So, not long after the pod, he followed up. Seidman saw him as a “21st century coach,” a practitioner of the non-autocratic leadership that Seidman preaches, and chose to invest in his “new friend.”

They chatted more via phone and Zoom, then met in person at Seidman’s Long Island home on July 1. They planned to venture out onto Seidman’s boat, into Quantuck Bay, but when Berhalter arrived mid-morning, they plopped down at an outdoor table and never left. They spent hours deep in conversation, with notebooks open, pausing only for lunch. They talked about translating values into standards and behaviors; about which can be coerced or motivated and which must be inspired; and, among many other things, about the five tenets of an authentic apology. They also unpacked the distinction between a “quest for success” and a “journey of significance.”

Berhalter circled those last three words in his notes. He’d already been framing the USMNT’s journey as exactly that — he opened every first meeting of every training camp by rallying players and staff around the shared goal of “changing the way the world views American soccer” — but he’d never considered it with such conceptual precision. He’d already been working with intentionality to craft a strong culture, and “everything was pretty close to how it should be, but just not exact,” Berhalter told Yahoo Sports. In general, “Dov was really helpful in helping me create an even stronger framework.”

In July, Berhalter was also preparing for a coaching staff retreat. He and several assistants and analysts would trek to Big Sky, up into the mountains of southern Montana, in August. They’d dissect World Cup gameplans, but also bike and hike through tough terrain, and circle up for bonding sessions. Berhalter was developing the agenda, and he used Seidman as “a sounding board,” Seidman recalls. “He really wanted to be at his best for that.”

And so, around that same time, when Seidman mentioned the Summit on Moral Leadership and asked Berhalter to take part, Berhalter committed — despite its place on the calendar, smack dab in between the USMNT’s potential Round of 16 match and quarterfinal. Berhalter pointed out the conflict; Seidman arranged for him to join virtually. By September, the HOW Institute had listed Berhalter on its website as one of 21 confirmed speakers; and Seidman had been mentioning him as a “participant” in emailed invitations to others.

“Dov fully supported me, and I was gonna fully support him,” Berhalter says when asked about his reasons for participating. “But it was also an opportunity to meet a lot of interesting people, and learn from the other guests.”

U.S. men's soccer coach Gregg Berhalter speaks during a news conference Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
U.S. men's soccer coach Gregg Berhalter speaks during a news conference Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

A ‘meaningful day,’ but a fateful miscommunication

When they spoke on Dec. 5, there was a part of Berhalter, the emotionally drained and wounded part, that just wanted to get home. He had a World Cup to digest and, before long, a future to plot — not to mention a suddenly fraught relationship with lifelong friends.

But he also had a commitment. And everybody else on the summit’s guest list, from the CEO of Walmart to the president of Howard University, would be attending in person.

And as for the spotlight that might follow him from Qatar to the Ford Foundation? “I didn't really hesitate to go there, or to speak,” Berhalter says, “because it was a private leadership event.”

So he booked a two-leg trip that would get him to New York for the day and back to Chicago late that night. He was greeted at JFK, his first touchpoint back in America, by a swarm of people recognizing him from the World Cup. He trudged through customs, then into the car that Seidman’s team had sent for him. He emerged from backstage at Seidman’s urging, in beige Nike Air Trainer 1s with red laces. And with his towering photo projected onto a screen behind him, he hugged Seidman and raised a left hand to acknowledge the room’s applause.

Then, for most of the day, he became a participant. He took in a lunch “masterclass” taught by former Air Force Brig. Gen. Dana Born. He reconnected with a couple old acquaintances and met new ones. He was in his element. “On Dec. 6,” Seidman says, “he was there as a genuine member of the HOW community.”

By the time his session began, Berhalter was comfortable, so comfortable that he never thought to double-check the terms of the conversation. It had been communicated throughout the day, Seidman and others said, that the entire gathering was subject to Chatham House Rule — which forbids the attribution of any information shared so that participants, in Seidman’s words, “feel comfortable teaching each other constructively, and discussing challenges openly, and even being vulnerable.” It was assumed that this applied to Berhalter as well.

However, the previous day, with Berhalter now confirmed as an in-person attendee, a third-party publicist representing the HOW Institute had emailed another attendee, Kevin Delaney, the CEO and editor-in-chief of Charter, in part to advertise Berhalter’s appearance as a “news hook” and his session as “open press.” Delaney audio-recorded it with his phone, and sent a follow-up email shortly afterward: “The Greg Berhalter interview was on the record, right?” To which the publicist responded: “Yes, Greg’s interview is on the record.”

Berhalter, unaware of the apparent breakdown in communication — Seidman and the HOW Institute declined to comment on how, exactly, it occurred — spoke with his host for 12 minutes about a range of topics that jibed with the summit’s broader agenda. In Minute 13, Seidman called on a former NFL coach in the audience to contribute to the discussion. In Minute 19, Seidman said, “so, we are out of time for this session,” but he went to one more sports executive in the audience for a comment anyway. The executive asked Berhalter about “challenges to your moral leadership.” “Wow,” Berhalter said as his weary brain spun in search of insight. “That’s a great question.”

And that’s when he launched into the story that eventually spread like wildfire, the one he felt was a “shining example of team culture,” of using “values as a filter” to confront challenges. Seidman felt it was an “inspiring” one, and that Berhalter “spoke gracefully and respectfully.”

So they went out to dinner that Tuesday night unbothered by second thoughts, reflecting on what Seidman called a “meaningful day.” Delaney, meanwhile, sat on the audio, readying it for his Sunday newsletter. Independently, two Athletic reporters dug for details on Gio’s behavior in Qatar, and prepared a story on it — then chose to hold the story until at least Monday after longtime soccer journalist Grant Wahl died on Friday night.

So it was Berhalter’s comments that spread first and framed coverage of Gio on Dec. 11 and beyond. Some members of the HOW community were alarmed to learn that something from their gathering had slipped out beyond their bubble of privacy. A U.S. Soccer official contacted Berhalter to notify him. And the coach flipped immediately into crisis management mode.

Gregg Berhalter L, head coach of the United States, instructs during the Round of 16 match between the Netherlands and the United States at the 2022 FIFA World Cup at Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Dec. 3, 2022. (Photo by Wang Lili/Xinhua via Getty Images)
Gregg Berhalter instructs Gio Reyna during the USMNT's Round of 16 match against Netherlands. (Photo by Wang Lili/Xinhua via Getty Images)

The messy aftermath and an uncertain future

Berhalter has since said, in a Jan. 5 interview with the Harvard Business Review, when asked generally about “regrets” or things he wishes he’d handled differently, that, “if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't have told that story.”

But of course, that retrospective wish is fueled by hindsight, knowing that his words leaked and knowing the impact they had.

We will likely never know how the Reyna-Berhalter drama would have unraveled in the hypothetical absence of Gregg’s comments. What we do know is that Claudio texted Stewart on Dec. 11 in response to them. The texts, according to Stewart’s interview with investigators, led to the phone call, during which Danielle said that Gregg “beat the s*** out of” Rosalind, his then-girlfriend and now-wife, in the early 1990s.

And the call, Danielle would later say in a statement, came “just after the news broke that Gregg had made negative statements about my son Gio at a leadership conference.” She said she “felt very personally betrayed by the actions of someone my family had considered a friend for decades.” Behind the scenes, while Gio rode the bench at the World Cup, she and Claudio had vaguely alluded to damaging information from Berhalter’s past, but this — while “many people were trashing Gio on social media due to Gregg’s comments,” Danielle wrote — was the night when a lingering saga escalated.

Stewart felt obligated to report the allegation to U.S. Soccer’s senior counsel. U.S. Soccer hired outside lawyers to investigate. The investigation mostly corroborated what Gregg publicly revealed about the 1992 incident, and cleared him of any further wrongdoing — but it took three months. In the meantime, Stewart left for PSV Eindhoven, USMNT GM Brian McBride also departed, and Berhalter’s contract expired.

In those fleeting days after the USMNT’s elimination, with Stewart still in charge and the Reyna-Berhalter feud still mum, Stewart and the federation were leaning strongly toward wanting Berhalter to return, according to sources familiar with their thinking. Berhalter craved time to ponder his own desires, but by the week of Dec. 12, he’d begun to sketch out what a second cycle might look like. He has since said that he’d like to continue as head coach, but over three months after he made that declaration, a new sporting director — who’ll be primarily responsible for picking the next coach — still has not been hired.

With his future murky, Berhalter has spent the interim exploring options — and continuing his quest. He traveled to Europe recently, and visited clubs big and small, in London and Manchester. He attended games, chatted with coaches, observed trainings and met with at least one reporter. He also caught up with several USMNT players.

Some players, including Christian Pulisic, have publicly endorsed Berhalter’s work to varying degrees in recent months. But of course, it is impossible to gauge the entire player pool’s true feelings. And Gio Reyna — who said in a Dec. 12 Instagram statement that he was “disappointed” and “extremely surprised that anyone on the U.S. men's team staff would contribute to [ongoing coverage of his World Cup drama]” — is not among the players who’ve spoken. Externally, the assumption is that Berhalter is now a long shot to be rehired.

So there is a chance, if not a likelihood, that this entire sequence of events has cost Gregg his job.

The Berhalters’ relationship with Claudio and Danielle, meanwhile, appears to be totally broken.

Berhalter declined to comment on that and other sensitive subjects. He has described the entire post-World Cup mess as “difficult” and “sad,” primarily for Rosalind. “It was her story,” he said in the Jan. 5 Harvard Business Review interview. “I feel tremendously bad that my profession had to bring this to the public light.”

But they are moving forward, seeking out positives and finding them. Berhalter reiterated that sentiment in brief comments to Yahoo Sports this week. “Personally, it's been a difficult time,” he said. “But our family is strong, and we'll continue to use this as an opportunity to get better.”

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