Whatever you think of the nearly 14-month process that ended with Gregg Berhalter being named Sunday as coach of the United States men’s national team, the 45-year old former Columbus Crew boss is now officially at the helm.
What sort of coach will Berhalter be for the USMNT? What are his core principles? What is his management style like? How has he evolved over time en route to this point?
After it became clear over the last few months that Berhalter had emerged as the frontrunner for the U.S. job, we spoke to a bunch of people who know the New Jersey native in an effort to answer those questions. The group includes a couple of his now-former Crew players and Berhalter himself.
They helped paint a picture of a serious and highly intelligent futbol junkie, whose once-prickly personality as a player has been replaced by a more calm and nurturing demeanor, both on the sidelines and behind the scenes.
Players love working with him …
Something that always stood out talking to Crew players during Berhalter’s five seasons in Ohio was how they would casually praise him during conversations without being asked. That’s unusual. It was clear that his players respect him not only as a boss, but on a personal level, too.
The funny thing is that Berhalter has never been the most affable guy. He doesn’t shoot the breeze. You get the sense that connecting with people deeply isn’t something that necessarily comes naturally to him. But early on in his coaching career, he recognized the importance of man-management. It started even before he hung up his boots, when ex-U.S. coach Bruce Arena lured him to the LA Galaxy after 15 years in Europe so he could mentor rookie defender Omar Gonzalez.
“I think he’s grown immensely in connecting with guys, whether they’re from Ghana or the United States or wherever,” Crew and U.S. midfielder Wil Trapp told Yahoo Sports. “He does a really good job -— an intentional job — about getting to know the person.”
… Even though sometimes his teammates didn’t
To get a sense of how Berhalter has changed over the years, talk to the guys he played with. They’ll tell you that he has always been driven to the point of obsession.
“What I remember about playing with Gregg is that he was always there to win and there to compete every day,” national team legend Landon Donovan told U.S. Soccer’s website this week. “That’s who Gregg is.” ‘
But at times, that intensity also rubbed some of his teammates the wrong way. He wasn’t one to bite his tongue if he saw something he didn’t like during a training session. “He was hard to be friends with,” said another 2002 World Cup squad alum who will remain anonymous because it was a private conversation. “He was always so demanding.”
Berhalter’s communication style has changed
Berhalter was popular from the start in Columbus, even if as a stickler for tiny details he could sometimes be, for lack of a better term, a pain in the rear. Trapp was in Columbus for Berhalter’s entire tenure there, so he’s well-qualified to speak to his evolution as a coach during that span.
“He’s always been incredibly detail-oriented; I think his approach to the game — being proactive, being aggressive, being brave in a lot of ways with his style of play, hasn’t changed,” Trapp said of Berhalter. “But I think his ability to manage players has.
“He’s gotten extremely fine-tuned with how he approaches the personnel side of things and how he translates that onto the field,” Trapp added. “For players, there’s nothing better than having objectives and a set plan of knowing what’s expected in a particular game, and then you can judge the performance based on those things. He’s very proficient in how he manages guys.”
For Crew striker Gyasi Zardes, who won 40 U.S. caps under Arena and Jurgen Klinsmann, playing for Berhalter was a breath of fresh air.
“He knows how to get the best out of each and every player,” said Zardes, who was the top scoring American in MLS this season with 19 goals. “He understands that every person is different and that the way you have to communicate with different people is different. And I really respect the fact that he’s so organized; how we’re going to play, how we’re going to score.”
He involves his leaders in the decision-making process …
If there’s any international coach that Berhalter resembles in terms of approach, it might be England’s Gareth Southgate. Southgate led the Three Lions to the World Cup semifinals last summer, their best finish in a generation, in part because he got his team to buy in where other England managers hadn’t. Berhalter and Southgate are similar in age, both former international defenders, and both men have earned their players respect by giving them a voice.
“I realize how important it is to have a good environment that the players want to be in, where they feel like they can progress and improve but also enjoy it,” Berhalter told Yahoo in October. “You always learn about the management aspect of it. Every year you learn something more about how to reach players, how to talk to players, how to deal with certain situations. Because every year gives you different challenges.”
One of the biggest things Berhalter has learned is the value of giving his players ownership.
“We wanted to create a culture and an environment where we’re no longer policing it, the players are policing it,” he said. “When I first came [to Columbus] it had to be created. You don’t say after a month to the players, OK take over. I had to be much more hands-on with the management, with the rules, with the structure.
“Five years later, we have guys in the locker room that are part of the culture and carry the message. It’s almost that you can take a step back when you have that in place.”
… And gives young players room to make mistakes
Berhalter’s 2018 Crew squad was the youngest he had in Columbus. That should be good preparation for the U.S. team he’s now in charge of. The USMNT had an average age of under 24 for most of 2018. What is his approach handling less mature, less experienced pros?
“You’re much more forgiving,” he said. “Working with young guys with high potential is really exciting, but you know there’s gonna be times when there’s mental fatigue and physical fatigue that will affect performance. It’s just a matter of managing through that and giving the players support and instruction, and also giving them a structure that they can rely on.”
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