Last week, in response to word that the US Soccer Federation was interested in re-signing men’s head coach Gregg Berhalter following a run to the World Cup round of 16, the general world soccer media, and a lot of the sport’s more casual American fans, shrugged their respective shoulders and said, “Yeah, that makes sense.”
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Under Berhalter the US met their general goals in this World Cup cycle — despite an extreme youth movement, they both qualified for the competition and went unbeaten in group play to advance to the knockout rounds, where they lost to the Netherlands. They showed well against England, they’ve crafted a four-match unbeaten streak against Mexico, and when these things happen, you re-sign your coach. It’s the way things tend to work.
For hard-cores on Twitter and elsewhere, however, the response was apoplectic. “#BerhalterOut” began trending immediately, and even the most tepid acknowledgments of Berhalter’s accomplishments — or the idea that he isn’t the worst manager in the history of the sport — drew endless ire and a reliable list of anti-Berhalter talking points. Even for this social media veteran, one who has written about Berhalter’s flaws and mistakes plenty of times in recent years, the dichotomy was disorienting.
It was the same story over the weekend when news broke that, in response to attitude issues and a supposed lack of effort from young attacker Gio Reyna, Berhalter was allegedly prepared to send him home until a player vote and a confrontational conversation between the burgeoning star and the team’s leaders helped to create a positive path forward.
To many, this was a sign of a positive, player-led culture, one that any program should strive to establish. To others, it was a sign that Berhalter is ruining Reyna and will ruin everybody else if not fired immediately.
This speaks to the relationships that fans tend to have with national team managers. Lots of English fans hate Gareth Southgate — who took England to the 2018 World Cup semis and 2020 Euro finals and whose team outplayed France on Saturday and were unlucky not to advance. Lots of Spanish fans hated Luis Enrique. Plenty of French fans are less than enamored with Didier Deschamps, etc.
It also spoke to the contradiction that can afflict many coaches: The things he tends to do well (establishing a strong environment for getting a talented young team to play with confidence) are things not often credited to the coach by fans. The things he does poorly, however (roster selections, substitutions), are what fans tend to yell about the most.
Berhalter is said to want to explore his European club options before officially re-signing with the US, and we’ll see whether the recent swirling drama surrounding the Reyna incident has any impact on his or anyone else’s intentions. But while we wait to see whether he or someone new will be leading the team over the next four years, let’s talk about what exactly he did well and where he or another guy will need to improve the most over the coming years if the US men’s national team are to clear a rising bar moving forward.
What Berhalter has done well
First things first: It’s not enough to say that since Berhalter took the US to the World Cup round of 16, his tenure has therefore been a success. Evaluating long-term performance based on four matches is poor process, and beyond that, four of the past five full-time national team managers have managed that feat at least once. The US have now reached the round of 16 in five of the past eight World Cups; the team didn’t overachieve in Qatar — they simply achieved.
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All in all, Berhalter’s record has been solid but unspectacular. The US won both the CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup in the summer of 2021 and have indeed gone unbeaten for four straight matches against Mexico. But goal scoring has frequently been an issue — even in the winning Gold Cup run, five of six wins came by 1-0 margins — and the team struggled mightily away from home in World Cup qualification. They dropped points to inferior competition (El Salvador, Panama, Jamaica) and finished tied for third with Costa Rica, avoiding the World Cup’s qualification playoff thanks only to goal differential.
To date, the US rank just 23rd in the world ratings at EloRatings.net, an improvement over what Berhalter inherited (they were 34th at the end of 2018) but slightly below where they finished following the 2014 World Cup cycle (19th) with Jurgen Klinsmann. Even with an incredibly young squad, it is fair for fans to have hoped to see more consistently solid performances. It’s also fair to acknowledge what he seems to have done well over the past four years.
The best generation of young American players is playing in a player-led culture
“Culture” might be one of the most overused and misunderstood terms in sports. But creating a good one within a national team structure can be immensely useful, and it appears Berhalter has done just that.
Generally speaking, I tend to view culture like this: When your veterans and leaders are serving as assistant coaches and holding everyone accountable when the coaches aren’t around, you’ve got a good one. And from what we know about this team, it appears Berhalter has helped to create a good one. (It obviously isn’t all of his doing, but he certainly hasn’t gotten in the way of it.)
Berhalter has been working with both the youngest and most high-upside base of talent a US manager has seen. Of the 16 players who recorded more than 40 minutes at the World Cup, 11 are currently 24 years old or younger. Now, eight of those 11 play for clubs in Europe’s Big Five leagues, and many of them have logged major minutes in the Champions League.
There are more Americans playing for high-level European clubs than ever before, and that’s an obvious luxury for Berhalter. But this is still a really young core, and as tends to happen with young teams, there have been some dramatic episodes.
Thus far, the responses to the drama have been what one would hope to see. When Berhalter suspended star Weston McKennie for protocol violations early in World Cup qualification, the midfielder responded with a series of strong performances upon his return. And as Berhalter and his assistants tried to figure out how to handle Reyna’s supposedly lackluster training performances, the team’s own players stepped in and hashed the issue out with him.
Even young leaders like 23-year old captain Tyler Adams are serving assistant-level leadership roles, and while you have to guard against cliques forming — something bad coming from something good — this can help whoever is in charge of the team moving forward.
That the Reyna story emerged at all, of course, was a mark against Berhalter, who shared details in what he thought were off-the-record remarks at a leadership summit in New York last week. One could consider it awfully naive that he thought such details would not emerge publicly, and we’ll see what impact that has on his relationship with both Reyna and the team as a whole.
Thus far, his man management has met the moment, but that could change at any time.
He has recruited well
He hasn’t won every important recruiting battle for dual-nationals, but he has won some very big ones. Fullback Sergino Dest, one of the team’s best performers in Qatar, could have chosen the Netherlands. Yunus Musah, part of the MMA (“McKennie-Musah-Tyler Adams”) midfield that wrecked shop for a good portion of the team’s World Cup stint, could have chosen England, Ghana or Italy.
Jesus Ferreira, Berhalter’s first-choice center-forward for much of World Cup qualification, could have chosen Colombia. Midfielder Malik Tillman, a 20-year old Bayern Munich prospect currently on loan with Rangers, could become a major piece in the coming years and could have chosen Germany.
Other US coaches have recruited dual-nationals, too, but Berhalter and the US have won some high-profile battles, and it has raised the team’s upside immensely moving forward.
He created an identity that the US adhered to on the biggest stage
Berhalter’s heavy-pressing, heavy-possession approach is a system that doesn’t fit the US player pool perfectly, but we certainly saw some of the potential in Qatar. It maximized the team’s athleticism at fullback and midfield and became something that opponents absolutely had to adjust for. Southgate’s England, one of the most talented teams in the world, didn’t really adjust well. (Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands, however, did.)
Tactically, Plan A is generally good
We’ll talk about the need for a Plan B below, but the US won the first 60 minutes in each match of the World Cup group stage, for instance, and adjusted its identity appropriately, to more of a counter-attacking approach, for many of their recent matches with Mexico.
Beyond Berhalter’s specific strengths, there are also a few trends that favor retaining even a decent coach on a more long-term basis.
Second-cycle coaches are succeeding throughout the world
In the quarterfinals in Qatar, Croatia, led by Zlatko Dalic in his second World Cup, beat Brazil, in its second with Tite; France, in its second World Cup with Deschamps, beat England, in its second with Southgate. Portugal reached the quarterfinals in its eighth year and second World Cup with Fernando Santos, and van Gaal led the Netherlands to the quarters as well in his second (non-consecutive) World Cup.
Fans in the States have a strong fear of second cycles, and not without reason. After leading the US to the World Cup quarterfinals, Bruce Arena failed to navigate them out of the group stage in 2006. His successor, Bob Bradley, renewed his contract after a return to the knockout rounds in 2010, but underwhelming results led to his dismissal a year later; in his place stepped Jurgen Klinsmann, who again brought the US to the round of 16 in 2014 but was fired early in a dreadful (and ultimately failed) World Cup qualification run in 2017.
Still, broader trends say renewing a coach’s contract isn’t automatically an awful decision, and continuity seems to have helped quite a few major countries recently.
The success of the US in 2026 will be as dependent on talent as coaching
There aren’t many genuinely top-class, best-in-the-world coaches in the international soccer pool, and a lot of them bring pretty clear flaws to the table. Southgate and Deschamps have both been castigated for not playing with enough attacking intent (considering the absurd attacking talent at their disposal). Santos’ Portugal had some of the most creative players in the world, and Luis Enrique’s Spain had some of the best passers, and neither had any idea how to tactically break down Morocco in recent knockout matches.
The US played about as well as it could have in Qatar considering its own shortcomings in attack — for all of the exciting midfield and wing talent they boast, they lack in the center-forward department, like quite a few other teams. While we will dive into some of Berhalter’s flaws below, the fate of the US in the 2026 World Cup will be as dependent on the same center-forward position as it is on whoever is or could have been the manager.
Gregg Berhalter talks to Sam Borden after the USMNT’s World Cup exit at the hands of the Netherlands.
The “Must Improve” list
There is a certain resignation that comes with realizing your player pool is limited in specific ways — and that the pool of available coaches probably is, too — but none of this is to say that Berhalter himself cannot perform better or evolve as manager if he were to sign on for four more years. Let’s talk about where he needs to do just that.
Game management has lacked
If your players are good and your Plan A is good, you’re going to win quite a few matches. But when the US hasn’t been superior out of the gate, Berhalter has not proven incredible at figuring out a new plan.
And even when the US does start well, the advantages tend to dissipate when it’s time for managers to make moves. Berhalter is often slow to make substitutions or major strategic adjustments, and the US creates almost no danger later in matches.
Take these disappointing road matches during qualification.
At El Salvador (0-0, D): The U.S. attempted nine shots worth 1.12 xG in the first 50 minutes and four shots worth 0.58 in the last 40.
At Panama (0-1, L): They attempted three shots worth 0.11 xG in the first 40 minutes and two worth 0.11 in the last 50. (Somehow the only thing worse than the start in this one was the finish.)
At Jamaica (1-1, D): They attempted five shots worth 0.34 xG in the first half and four worth 0.14 in the second.
At Costa Rica (0-2, L): They attempted 11 shots worth 0.59 xG in the first 50 minutes and four worth 0.18 in the last 40.
In three of these four matches, Berhalter made his first substitution in the 64th minute or later, too, despite the US having better depth and, therefore, better potential for strategic adjustments. He was as or more conservative with his subs in the World Cup — of 19 total subs, only two came before the 65th minute, and six came in the 82nd minute or later. (This says nothing of his use of Reyna, who only played 52 minutes in the four matches. Recent revelations have shined a light on why he might not have played much, though I’m assuming everyone reading this will have a different opinion on whether or not those reasons are legitimate.)
Throughout the group stage, the team’s effectiveness faded dramatically as matches progressed. In the first 60 minutes of each match, the US outscored opponents by a combined 2-0 and attempted shots worth 2.2 xG to opponents’ 0.9.
But in the last 30 minutes, opponents scored the only goal and generated shots worth 2.2 xG to 0.4 for the US. Game state played a role in this — the US was leading for all of the second half against Iran and for most of it against Wales — but neither the strategy nor the substitutions helped.
Use the entire damn player pool: creatives edition
One thing Berhalter’s detractors are happy to quickly mention to you is that, when he was the manager of Hammarby IF a decade ago, he was fired after his team scored just 34 in 30 matches in the Swedish second division. And over his last four seasons with the Columbus Crew in MLS, his team went from fourth in scoring, to ninth, to 13th, to 22nd (second-to-last).
Per 90 minutes, the US finished second in possessions starting in the attacking third, third in possessions ending in the attacking third and seventh in touches in the opponent’s box. But they also ranked 14th in shot attempts and 23rd in both goals and xG generated. They just don’t have a lot of ideas when they get the ball into dangerous areas.
We can accurately blame part of that on the lack of go-to talent at center-forward, but this is also a Berhalter trend, and he’s got four years to figure out how to get more creative.
That could simply mean either getting some of your more creative players in better positions — Brenden Aaronson is currently averaging 2.0 chances created per 90 minutes for a low-table Leeds United team in the Premier League but has averaged only 1.4 for the US over the last two years — or getting other creatives in your player pool more involved, even if they don’t precisely fit your definitions for a given position.
Obviously some of the most effective creative attackers in the player pool have long since moved to major clubs and are already playing major roles for the national team, but Berhalter has been open to integrating young MLS talent, and some of the most creative players in MLS are, predictably, American: Atlanta United’s Brooks Lennon (second among MLS fullbacks in chances created and fifth in assists) and Montreal’s Djordje Mihailovic (second in chances among central midfielders), to name two.
Mihailovic’s success earned him promotion to the Eredivisie’s AZ Alkmaar, which means that Matko Miljevic (21 and eligible for either the US or Argentina) could take on a heavier role in creation for Montreal after averaging 2.2 chances created per 90. Miami’s Bryce Duke (21) is one of the better through-ball artists in MLS as well. In the coming years, Berhalter should (and probably will) give extended looks to players like this.
If you’re going to cross so much, maybe play good crossers?
A well-placed cross has been a devastating attacking tool for ages, but attempting too many aimless crosses is a calling card for an attack with no other ideas. This World Cup’s four semifinalists — Croatia, Argentina, France and Morocco — have averaged 15.6 cross attempts per 90 minutes and have averaged a 29% completion rate on such crosses between them.
The US averaged 23.3 crosses (second-most behind only Mexico) and completed an egregious 12%, worst of the 32 teams in the field. Left winger Christian Pulisic and left back Antonee Robinson attempted 52 crosses and found their target on just five of them (9.6%). Dest completed one of nine, Musah zero of eight. Only Timothy Weah (3-for-8) completed an acceptable percentage, but he didn’t attempt many.
Once again, having a major target at center-forward can make a huge difference in this regard. But whether it’s getting players like Lennon (34% cross completion rate in MLS this season), Mihailovic (37%), Miljevic (42%) or even 18-year old Jackson Hopkins (38% completion rate for DC United) more involved, positioning players better in attack or simply not crossing so damn much, this absolute dead zone needs to be addressed.
If you don’t have a ton of natural goal-scorers, manufacture goals through set pieces
For the competition overall, 28% of crosses on corner kicks were completed to a teammate; for the US that percentage was 9.5%, third-worst. Overall, the US was one of 15 teams to not score a goal from set pieces, and they only generated two shots on target from them in four matches — both were both poorly hit shots from one single corner sequence against the Netherlands.
This was the continuation of a trend. The US scored three goals from set pieces in 14 World Cup qualification matches, which ranked fourth among eight CONCACAF teams, but all three goals came in one match against Honduras; they created almost no threat from set pieces in the other 13 matches.
Pulisic has been the top-choice corner taker for a while despite the fact that he has attempted one corner in two seasons with Chelsea. Reyna (0.56 chances per 90 from set pieces over the last two seasons with Borussia Dortmund) and Aaronson (0.30) are more proven in this regard.
But even beyond who is attempting the corners, set pieces have been a source of innovation and advantage for many clubs and countries in recent seasons, and the US need to rebuild its entire set piece program from the ground up.
Use the entire damn player pool: Bundesliga edition
Among Europe’s major leagues, the average style of play in the Bundesliga has been closer to Berhalter’s pressing-and-possession preferences than any other. That has made it rather maddening to see Berhalter continuously disregarding German club players.
Borussia Monchengladbach‘s Joe Scally, 19, has been one of the brightest young fullbacks in the league for a season and a half now but has played a total of 166 minutes for Berhalter. He was on the World Cup roster but was behind a poor-performing Shaq Moore in the substitution pecking order.
Forward Jordan Pefok, 26, has been a major piece for the counter-attacking force that is Union Berlin and scored a key goal for the US in last summer’s Nations League run. But his style doesn’t specifically match what Berhalter is looking for from the position, and he has played 30 minutes for the national team in the last 15 months.
John Brooks was a center-back stalwart for both Wolfsburg and the US, but Berhalter wrote him off after a batch of poor form a year ago and never looked back. Julian Green combined creativity with goal-scoring while leading Greuther Furth to promotion in 2020-21 but never got a sniff from Berhalter; Green struggled once Furth were in the top division, but another Furth dual-national, 23-year old Timothy Tillman (Malik’s older brother) played well. He has not been capped.
The moment has perhaps passed for Brooks (29) and Green (27), but one would have simply assumed that Scally and Pefok would have been more involved over the last year. Tillman, too. If you based your assumptions of league strength on Berhalter’s selections, you would think that the Bundesliga ranked below both the Eredivisie and MLS.
This cannot continue if Berhalter is to get the most out of the player pool, especially considering how open German clubs have been to signing young Americans.