Berhalter’s back: How U.S. Soccer’s strange coaching search played out

In early January, roughly a week after Gregg Berhalter’s contract as the United States men’s soccer coach expired, Zinedine Zidane rejected an approach from the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) to be the next coach.

His lack of interest wasn’t surprising given his résumé, but the USSF’s pursuit felt instructive. It was a big swing.

A World Cup winner with France as a player, Zidane doesn’t need much of an introduction. He established himself as an all-time great on the field and is among the sport’s most respected managers, having guided Real Madrid to three straight UEFA Champions League titles from 2016 to 2018. If somehow the USFF had managed to land him, it would have been widely celebrated and set a positive tone for the lead-up to the World Cup on home soil in 2026.

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When that didn’t happen, though, there was reason to believe it was someone in that mold — accomplished at the sport’s highest level — the federation would continue to pursue. Call it basic logic, especially since in that same week, U.S. Soccer announced it had hired a law firm to investigate a domestic violence incident in which Berhalter admitted he had kicked his now-wife in 1991, when they were in college.

With all of this going on, the idea that Berhalter would be rehired seemed far-fetched, and that was before it became public that the parents of budding star Giovanni Reyna — close friends with the Berhalter family for decades — had attempted to orchestrate his downfall.

When the investigation was complete in March, its report showed that U.S. Soccer legend Claudio Reyna and his wife, Danielle, both threatened to reveal damaging information about Berhalter to U.S. Soccer officials during the World Cup as their son received limited playing time.

“Once this tournament is over, I can make one phone call and give one interview, and his cool sneakers and bounce passes will be gone,” Danielle Reyna told a federation staff member, according to the report.

On Dec. 11, she did, informing then-sporting director Earnie Stewart of the incident. And at least for roughly six months, that call had the desired effect: Berhalter was out as USMNT coach.

That, of course, is no longer the case. Berhalter was reintroduced as the U.S. coach on Friday and will take the baton back from interim coach B.J. Callahan at the conclusion of the Gold Cup.

Whether Berhalter is the right coach can — and will — be debated ad nauseam, but what’s not up for discussion is that his circuitous route back to the role was bizarre.

When Stewart departed to become the director of football at PSV Eindhoven in late January, U.S. Soccer announced it hired an outside agency, Sportsology, to head the search for his replacement, who would then be responsible for hiring the next head coach.

“Working with key U.S. Soccer leadership, Sportsology has also already begun a full review of U.S. Soccer’s sporting department,” the USSF announced in January. “The group will also analyze head coach candidates to accelerate the Sporting Director’s hiring process.”

It took three months before Matt Crocker, most recently the director of football operations at English club Southampton, was hired in April. In a Q&A after his hiring, Crocker said he’d conduct a series of interviews in June, narrow the list of candidates, and then another round in the middle of July.

At Berhalter’s re-hiring news conference, Crocker said that a “worldwide” search had been conducted, adding: “I spoke to numerous candidates from guys that were [in roles] in the top leagues, coaches who have coached internationally previously.”

Crocker also confirmed the number of candidates was in “double-digits” but did confirm any other names or if that second round of planned interviews had occurred. It’s also unclear who of those interviewed were subjected to what U.S. Soccer described as a “battery of practical and psychological testing.”

One candidate, Jesse Marsch, was presumably in the mix until the end given his agent, Ron Waxman, tweeted that the ex-Leeds United manager would will not take the USMNT job just hours before news leaked of Berhalter’s return. Another candidate, ex-Arsenal star and recent Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira, had initial talks with the federation but sources told ESPN’s Julien Laurensthat talks did not progress.

Oguchi Onyewu, recently hired as the federation’s vice president of sporting, said Sunday on the Paramount+ Nations League pregame show that other names would not be divulged as a matter of confidentiality.

None of the known candidates represent the same type of ambition associated with the early approach for Zidane, which can be explained a few ways. What is most likely is that the U.S. job — as desirable as it appears domestically, with a young, talented core and a home World Cup to prepare for — still doesn’t interest the sport’s most accomplished coaches.

Then there’s the budget. USSF CEO JT Batson said they had no salary restrictions, but a USSF source told ESPN in April that budget would play a role and, for example, something in the range of $10 million salary for a top-tier coach was unrealistic.

Multiple sources told ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle the names of the other finalists were not circulated widely among the 23-person USSF board of directors, which approved the Berhalter hire, with only one member voting not to confirm.

Prior to the confirmation, multiple board members expressed concern about giving Berhalter a second World Cup cycle, perhaps primarily as a matter of principle. It’s a common refrain all over the world that coaches can lose their effectiveness at the international level beyond one World Cup and that rotating in a fresh voice or perspective guards against that. Jurgen Klinsmann’s second cycle with the U.S. supports that idea, but of the 16 teams that reached the 2022 World Cup knockout phases, 10 had either been with the team at the 2018 World Cup or served as the head coach previously.

As most of the American soccer public dismissed the possibility of Berhalter’s return, star Christian Pulisic had not. In an interview with ESPN in March, Pulisic admitted he was not always a fan of Berhalter, but eventually he came around.

“There were moments when — he benched me. I hated him. I was so angry,” Pulisic said. “But then the next game comes along and then I find myself in a better place.

“The way he handled a lot of situations, I have to give him a lot of credit. I think he created a team that was probably the best brotherhood family that I’ve been a part of. On the football side of things, when it came down to it in World Cup time, I think you could say a lot of people were impressed with what we did out on the field as well.”

Pulisic was far from alone. Weston McKennie, Timothy Weah, Walker Zimmerman and DeAndre Yedlin among others all lauded the job Berhalter did in the past few weeks and months.

In Qatar, the U.S. advanced from the group without allowing a goal from open play before their 3-1 loss to the Netherlands in the round of 16. It was a strong showing by U.S. standards, especially considering it was using the youngest starting XI in the tournament. After the exit, negotiations for a contract extension with Berhalter were set to begin with the expectation that it was little more than a formality.

But when word leaked that Berhalter referenced Gio Reyna’s poor attitude in Qatar (without naming him specifically) during a leadership summit, it changed everything. That’s what prompted Danielle Reyna to finally go through with her threat, and once the USSF was made aware of the domestic violence allegation, it made the decision, if largely forced, to back away from extension talks.

“Whoever it is, I’m going to play and give a 100% and that’s what I’m going to do,” Pulisic told ESPN in March. “In my opinion, everything that happened with Gregg, first of all, was I think handled in an extremely childish manner. I think we all have seen what’s been going on. I think it’s childish, it’s youth soccer, people complaining about playing time. I don’t want us go in too far into that, but that’s what we’ll say.

“I think Gregg has been extremely unfortunate to even get into the position he is now [while he was out of contract]. Do I feel like we should just wait and wait? I don’t think it’s necessary because I don’t feel we’re in a phase like we were after, not qualifying four years ago or however many years ago for the last World Cup where we need a complete rebuild.”

Pulisic’s comments were made prior to Crocker’s hiring, and it’s impossible to quantify how much weight they carried, but had the players taken a firm stance that it was time for a new coach, it’s hard to allow for the possibility that Berhalter would have been rehired.

“From day one, my job was to make sure that I engaged with the players, so they understood where we were and what type of process I was intending to take the candidates through to work through who the best candidate was ultimately coming out … the other end,” Crocker said. “And I kept them up to speed throughout the process.”

Crocker never said specifically whether Gio Reyna was among those he consulted, and Berhalter said on Friday he has not spoken with Reyna since the World Cup.

“I’d certainly acknowledge that there’s work to do and Gio is an important player to this team,” Berhalter said. “He’s an extremely talented individual, and I have the obligation and the commitment to coach him like I coach every other player and I want to get the best out of him. We want to get the best out of him and we know that if we can unlock his talents, he’s going to be a game-changer for this program. So there’s work to do, and part of it is working together with Matt and trying to rebuild a relationship that we know will be important moving forward.”

Tough, potentially awkward conversations are sure to come. Reyna has addressed the situation publicly only once, in a December Instagram post, in which he expressed disappointment that events in a private team setting were made public and “extremely surprised that anyone on the U.S. men’s team staff would contribute to it. Coach Berhalter has always said that issues that arise with the team will stay ‘in house’ so we can focus on team unity and progress.”

His initial on-field response, however, couldn’t have been better. Reyna played what might have been his most impressive half of soccer in a U.S. shirt during the Concacaf Nations League final against Canada on Sunday, assisting both goals in the 2-0 win — one on a corner, one on a brilliantly weighted pass to new striker Folarin Balogun — before leaving the game at halftime with an injury. His influence on the game was pronounced and he ran that game from central midfield, a role Berhalter never deployed him in.

“Meeting with me is not the priority [for Reyna],” Berhalter said Friday. “It’s for him to get rest and prepare for the upcoming season. We’ll have time to do that. It is a priority, but we’ll have time to do that before the September window.”

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