DOHA, Qatar — Sean Johnson was into Year 4 as a player under coach Gregg Berhalter when he started wondering about the bounce passes.
They’d become almost folkloric among followers of the U.S. men’s national team. Whenever a stray ball would trickle out of play and into the vicinity of the USMNT coach, he’d delight fans with an aggressively sharp bounce pass, and sometimes even a behind-the-back pass, to one of his players.
Most assumed it was a quirk. “He's made it his little staple,” defender DeAndre Yedlin says. But Johnson was curious: Is there a reason for the bounce passes?
So Johnson asked Berhalter. And he got an answer that Berhalter has since given to others as well: there is.
Berhalter claims, apparently sincerely, that the purpose is to facilitate a quicker throw-in. The bounce, as he told Johnson, allows the ball to arrive at the player traveling upward, right into a natural overhead throwing motion. The behind-the-back aspect, meanwhile, allows for expediency on Berhalter’s end. “You gotta get it in quickly any way possible,” he told a Fox Sports podcast.
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And as ridiculous as the explanation might sound, everybody around the national team takes Berhalter at his word — because, as former winger Paul Arriola told Yahoo Sports with a smile, “he's a methodical man.” An obsessive, notoriously detail-oriented man who has a reason for almost everything.
Berhalter cares about, and holds colleagues accountable to the nuances of everything from on-field movements to seemingly trivial details or habits beyond the game. He doesn’t allow sneakers on the USMNT’s training field, for instance. When he wasn’t thrilled with fans’ energy at kickoff of home qualifiers, he met with U.S. Soccer’s head of event production to help script a new pregame cadence. He searches for marginal advantages wherever he can find them, so of course he throws bounce passes, even if the benefit is only split seconds.
“I mean, it does make sense, when you think about it like that,” Yedlin says. “If you want to get detailed about it, I guess.”
But the bounce pass has also become a living, breathing phenomenon of its own. It transcends utility. It’s “his signature,” Johnson says. In fact, in June, Berhalter threw behind-the-backers to a couple opposing players, puncturing a big hole in the idea that it is solely purposeful. (Berhalter is, after all, an avid pickup basketball player; he’s been known to hop into drills at training; he might just want a bit of action.)
After that June game, a 5-0 win over Grenada, as Berhalter prepared to present Jesús Ferreira with the match ball, Yedlin arose from his seat in the locker room and began enthusiastically miming the behind-the-back motion. Berhalter, on cue, shook Ferreira’s hand, kept the ball, turned to walk away, and then bounced it to him. The room erupted in delight.
“We always clown on Gregg about it,” Yedlin says. But they love it.
“Sick,” Johnson said with a smile when I first broached the subject with him in August. “So sick, dude.”