World Football

Gregg Berhalter and American Soccer Absurdity

What does the United States do about their manager situation?

As of 12:01 AM on January 1, 2023, the United States Men’s National Team no longer has a manager.

And there is a very, VERY long story as to why.

Gregg Berhalter, the man at the helm for America’s journey back into being good enough to make World Cups, was under contract through the end of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, with the contract itself set to expire on New Year’s Day in 2023. Following the tournament, it was largely believed that, rightly or wrongly, Berhalter’s contract would be extended through 2026. For a variety of reasons, that has not happened. The United States now finds itself weeks away from the next national team camp, at the doorstep of preparation for the 2026 World Cup they are hosting (and a 2024 Copa América they are allegedly hosting and participating in), and are doing so currently without a permanent manager, with former Colorado Rapids manager Anthony Hudson acting as the interim manager. And there has not been as much as a peep from the US Soccer Federation on this issue as Berhalter’s contract quietly expired without comment or statement.

This obviously begs many questions, namely what should the US Soccer Federation do and where does the US Men’s National Team go from here? But we need to know how we got to this point to begin with. Because it is quite a story that I am not sure many outside of America are familiar with. It is a quintessentially American story, one of grand American arrogance and petulance.

What happened in Trinidad and Tobago on October 10, 2017 needs no repeating or revisiting from anyone in US Soccer. The day that the United States failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup was the nadir of this recent generation of the sport in this country. The process that followed that loss in Trinidad and Bruce Arena’s subsequent dismissal as manager was, frankly, a bit of a joke. US Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati resigned shortly after the defeat, feeling the pressure and calls for reform within the Federation. The subsequent elections within the Federation led to the election of Carlos Cordeiro as president, another insider who did not really do much in the way of reforming and who has since resigned due to a completely separate controversy that is a different discussion for a different day. The important part of that aspect is, following Gulati’s resignation, the man left in charge of the US Soccer Federation until the new president was elected, and subsequently in charge of how the US rebuilds from the disaster in Trinidad, was the Chief Operating Officer of the Federation, a man named Jay Berhalter.

Does that name sound familiar? The last name in particular?

During the nearly year-long search to replace Arena, the US Soccer Federation only verifiably interviewed one candidate for the job despite numerous outside candidates, including former Spain and Sevilla and current Wolves manager Julen Lopetegui, expressing interest. That one man was Gregg Berhalter, who was hired in December of 2018 and just so happens to be Jay Berhalter’s brother. I am not accusing the USSF of nepotism here. The COO himself is not responsible for hiring the manager (the Technical Director is, and Technical Director Earnie Stewart, who has a previous relationship with the Berhalters, was appointed by Jay Berhalter following the Trinidad defeat and subsequent calls for reform) but, well, this does not look great, especially given how relatively unqualified Berhalter was for the position.

Whatever, it happened. Fast forward four years and Berhalter has done an at least passable to somewhat successful job in the role. The US ushered in a generation of young, bright talent that has football fans in this country feeling inspired and hopeful about the future. The US successfully qualified for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, though did so by the skin of their teeth, and successfully triumphed over arch-rivals Mexico on numerous occasions, namely in the 2021 editions of the CONCACAF Gold Cup and CONCACAF Nations League. The United States advanced out of a tricky World Cup group into the knockout stages, losing deservedly to a Netherlands team that, while beatable, was not an easy match up. At a surface level, Berhalter has met or exceeded all expectations as US manager, and while many (including myself) have very legitimate grievances against his management, tactics, and team selection, it seemed like none of that mattered. His extension seemed like a given, something that was assuredly always going to happen.

And then the Gio Reyna story broke.

For those who do not know, Borussia Dortmund’s Giovanni Reyna is probably the biggest and brightest young talent in the United States’ player pool at present moment. The 20 year old attacking midfielder has been a rising star for Dortmund for several years now, and while he has recently been plagued by injuries, he went into this World Cup fit and returning to the form and confidence we know he has in him. He is also, important to know for the story, the son of Claudio Reyna, one of the USA’s best ever players and someone who is still very much involved in the US Soccer world (as Sporting Director of MLS side Austin FC) and is still very connected to people within the Federation and the greater US Soccer world. Going into the World Cup, it was seemingly expected that Gio would start and be an influential player in the US team. Come the game against Wales, however, and Gio did not feature at all. Berhalter claimed he was injured, while Reyna claimed he was healthy. Reyna then only featured for seven minutes in the 0-0 draw against England and once again did not feature in the 1-0 win over Iran. Keen-eyed USA fans noticed Reyna throwing his shin pads in frustration during the Wales game, but also in the video posted by the US Soccer Twitter page looking rather dour and dejected during the celebrations at the hotel following the win over Iran. Reyna then featured off the bench in a 45 minute spell during the USA’s 3-1 loss to the Netherlands, and that was it.

There were some rumblings of issues during the competition. Most notably, former US Soccer player and coach Eric Wynalda, who is notably friends with and was in communication with Claudio Reyna during the tournament, went onto a Twitter Space hosted by the Los Angeles Times and accused Berhalter of lying about Reyna’s injury and telling Reyna to maintain the lie when approached by the media, information he supposedly got from Claudio and comments he has since retracted. After the US team returned home, however, real developments began to happen. Gregg Berhalter went to speak at the HOW Institute for Society’s Summit on Moral Leadership back in December. During that appearance, and I cannot emphasize enough that this was an appearance at a conference in a room full of people, Berhalter told the story of a player in the US camp, whom he did not name, who was not giving the requisite effort in training and in preparation. The issue evolved to the point where the US coaching staff considered sending the player home, which is no small decision. Ultimately, the issue was resolved, the player apologized and was held accountable for his actions to his teammates, and everyone moved on. Until Berhalter, who claimed his comments were off the record (again, he was in A ROOM FULL OF PEOPLE), told this story and the quote was published in the newsletter of one of the conference attendees.

It did not take long for journalists to put two and two together. In an allegedly-already planned article, The Athletic revealed that the player in question was, in fact, Giovanni Reyna. Reyna made a statement in response and…well…you can read it for yourself:

A scathing response to his now-former coach. It reads very clearly as criticism of Berhalter’s character, criticism that feels warranted given the action. I want to try and stay neutral here, but even the idea of telling one of your best players that his role at a World Cup would be “very limited”, and telling them this before the tournament, is absurd to me. Now this could not be the reality of what happened, but if it is true, then it is an absurd and baffling decision by the manager.

And we thought the story’s twists would stop there. But they did not.

Allegations surfaced of an incident that took place in 1991 between Gregg Berhalter and his then-girlfriend, now wife, Rosalind. US Soccer launched an investigation into the matter. Berhalter issued a statement in response that was very frank, open, and regretful. In 1991, after a heated argument at a bar, Gregg kicked his then-girlfriend in the legs. This was an act of abuse, one that, regardless of how remorseful he might be, is not acceptable. But it was not the only notable part of the statement, and the below passage stood out like a sore thumb:

“During the World Cup, an individual contacted US Soccer, saying that they had information about me that would “take me down” – an apparent effort to leverage something very personal from long ago to bring about the end of my relationship with US Soccer.”

We later learned the identity of this individual, or should I say individuals: Claudio and Danielle Reyna.

From what I understand, based on what has come out, Danielle Reyna, Gio’s mother, contacted US Soccer on the 11th of December, following Gregg Berhalter’s appearance at the HOW Institute summit, to tell the story Berhalter explained in the statement. Danielle was roommates with Rosalind Berhalter when both attended the University of North Carolina, so she was aware of this incident. The Berhalter and Reyna family have been close for decades, and it seems that relationship has come undone. The individual who contacted US Soccer during the World Cup, apparently, was Claudio, and US Soccer had released a statement detailing inappropriate behavior toward multiple US Soccer staff members (apparently being Earnie Stewart and Brian McBride) by people outside of the organization that they were also investigating.

Wow. I mean, wow.

I struggle to respond to all of this. I am worried about writing this out of fear that this is not the end of the scandal. But part of me wants to wrap this up now, because this story is still quite sad, pathetic, and disheartening whether this is the end of matters or not.

I firstly express sadness and distress for Rosalind Berhalter, who is having to relive an old traumatizing experience being aired in the court of public opinion by people she thought she could trust. I hope Rosalind, and anyone who has suffered from abuse, has a strong support system around them. The most profound feeling I have from all of this is sadness for her, and it is this fact that makes this scandal all the more pathetic.

I keep going back to that one word: arrogance. It is something that has, in many different ways, characterized the operation of the US Soccer Federation for a long time, but especially since that day in Trinidad in 2017. It is a special kind of arrogance to believe that you yourself are the most important person in every room you step foot in to, and that is essentially what US Soccer is and has been.

It is a special kind of arrogance to believe that your son’s playing time is worth ruining people’s lives over. A special kind of arrogance to think it is fine to air previous instances of abuse to the public because someone said your son was pouting and not running enough in training. The Reyna family (excluding Gio, as it is unclear whether he had any knowledge of what his parents were doing) should be ashamed of themselves. Claudio Reyna captained his country and is currently a high-ranking sporting director in a MLS team, he should know how best to deal with people and deal with disagreement, and this is not it. Danielle Reyna, and I mean this in the least patronizing and man-splaining way possible, should know the power and damage of what she revealed and how damaging it can be to many people, those directly involved, indirectly involved, and not at all involved who have to be reminded of their own past abuse and trauma after reading about this. I am astounded by her statement, playing dumb about what she thought was an innocent conversation with Earnie Stewart (again, Gregg Berhalter’s boss) about this incident when she absolutely should have, and probably did, know the power of what she was saying. I think we all as rational people would not want the same done to us. And ultimately, Mrs. Reyna, I find it hard to believe that your statement, which included the line that Gregg’s statement “significantly minimizes” the incident of abuse in question, is truly about protecting your friend and roommate or defending victims of abuse because if it was, this could have been brought up three years ago when Berhalter was hired, not after he decided to not play your son enough and a few people said some mean things online about him.

Regardless of whether it was the correct or incorrect decision to not play Gio in Qatar, regardless of whatever you think of Berhalter as a coach, it is not enough to justify doing what the Reyna family did. Claudio and Danielle Reyna should be ashamed of themselves. Claudio has irreversibly damaged his legacy in American soccer, he has caused more embarrassment to himself and his son than from anything done or said by Berhalter, and they both have dragged up past trauma for an innocent woman for absolutely no reason aside from the incredibly snobbish, rich suburban parent paltry complaint about your son not playing as much as he should. It is an incredible level of arrogance to believe that the statements used to justify their horrific actions to the public are anything more than pathetic whining from very privileged people. It is an incredible and unearned level of arrogance to believe that the “Reyna” name should give you a level of invincibility that would allow this to be acceptable.

Now, Mr. Berhalter, it takes a special kind of arrogance, after quite literally achieving the bare minimum or slightly above the bare minimum as USA manager, to think you are so important and such a vessel of knowledge to go speak at a leadership summit where you, without being prompted and speaking IN A ROOM FULL OF PEOPLE, tell a private story that makes one of your own players look bad in an attempt to promote yourself and your own brand above that of the team. I cannot put in enough words how ludicrously, unbelievably stupid that was. Now sure, the story was going to break regardless of his appearance at that summit. The writers from The Athletic who wrote the story confirmed it was going to be published prior to his appearance at that conference but it was delayed due to the passing of Grant Wahl. All Berhalter had to do was not mention the incident at the summit and, when the story broke, deflect and defend your player, or say something like “there were issues during the World Cup but we worked through them as a team, all was forgiven, and we consider the issue settled.” Do that, and you are still US manager for the next four years. It is that simple.

Berhalter’s level of arrogance as US manager astounds me. As someone who allegedly was handed the job without contest, whose only successes have been surmounting the worst Mexico team in half a century in two cup finals and qualifying for the World Cup on goal difference out of one of the weakest qualifying regions in the world with maybe the most individually talented USA team in the last two decades, the man carries himself like he is above repute. He speaks with an air of defiance to the media when they, as well as many outside of the media, recognize the obvious and glaring systemic issues within this team, ones that were easily exploited by the Dutch in Qatar. It is this level of outright arrogance that allows you to think it is fine to go speak at a leadership conference and throw one of your players under the bus. It is this level of arrogance that makes you think it is fine to throw arguably your best player aside like he is nothing because he does not fit whatever struggling system you have stuck with to this point. The same level of arrogance that allows you to ignore Louis van Gaal himself questioning publicly why the US did not make any adjustments in game against the Dutch, why they made things so easy for them.

It is the byproduct of the Federation that gave us Bruce Arena, a certainly previously successful manager who somehow thought he was captaining the ship to shore while the USA’s chances of qualifying for 2018 sank in Titanic-levels of calamity. The same Federation that gave us the players and personnel who complained vehemently about a little standing water that surrounded the pitch in Trinidad before their game in 2017, as if it was not good enough for their hallowed boots to grace.

And let us talk about the Federation. An entire Federation made up of people who have acted in their own selfish interests for years now. There is so much we can say about the Federation, about their ignorance toward years of abuse in women’s soccer in this country, about their protection of individuals within the Federation who hold disgustingly racist views, about their delay in action against racism within the American Outlaws, about a Federation that rakes in thousands yearly in pay-to-play costs that forces away participation in lower levels of the sport among poorer demographics that also claims no talent “falls through the cracks”. About a Federation that experienced the most embarrassing on-pitch moment for US Soccer in decades in 2017, heard very genuine and positive calls for change within the system, and decided to listen to none of it and carry on with what they were doing previously.

Again, I do not want to accuse anyone of anything without facts, but it sure does look like that instead of selecting the best possible replacement for Arena to lead US Soccer forward, that the two people in charge of the coaching search decided to do zero work and hire their brother/close friend, and instead of recognizing that the US could do better, do whatever it took to maintain his position until it was impossible to do so. Again, Julen Lopetegui publicly expressed interest in the USMNT job following Arena’s dismissal and did not get as much as an interview. Nobody aside from Gregg Berhalter verifiably got interviewed. They even tried to protect their own image by making up a lie about then-FC Dallas manager Oscar Pareja interviewing for the job, something Pareja denied shortly thereafter. It was the most absurd coaching search in any sport that I can remember, and I have no faith in the Federation to carry out a more reasonable, organized, and thorough search to replace Berhalter, should he not be re-signed as manager.

So many inside and outside of the Federation believed soccer needs to be governed and done the “American way”, it is probably part of the reason why they refused to consider a foreign manager like Lopetegui and part of the motivation behind the internal and external hostility toward Jürgen Klinsmann during his tenure. This dumb idea ignores that 1) the “American way” has not won the Men’s World Cup for the United States ever and 2) no nation in the world has found success without learning from what others do well. Some of the fundamental principles for modern football and youth development were learned by European countries from Johann Cruyff and the Dutch, as an example, and it was the backbone of this teaching that created La Masia in Barcelona, the academy that formed the backbone of the Spain team that were world champions in 2010.

Ultimately, the main original purpose of this article is now irrelevant. I originally planned and began writing this with one simple question: should Gregg Berhalter continue as US Men’s National Team manager? What was once a valid discussion has now, I believe, been reduced to an open-and-shut resolution.

No, no he should not continue.

And it is a bit sad, because this is not solely his fault. Yes, I do not believe Berhalter is a good tactical manager. No, I do not believe he is the man who should be leading the United States into the 2026 World Cup. But ultimately none of that is the reason why I say he clearly should not continue. This scandal with the Reyna’s, by itself, has sealed his fate. He can no longer face the players in the dressing room with them knowing he will actively speak about them behind his back for his own benefit. The issues that had come previously, notably with John Brooks and Matt Miazga, were just rumors of fallout between player and manager, but this is solidified. He can no longer face the Federation, knowing their golden calf has caused quite a bit of embarrassment for them. And he can no longer face the US Soccer community given not only the dirt that his name has been dragged through, but knowing that more than one member in the community is either working to bring him down or reveling in his downfall. It is his fault that he has lost the players, and it is partially his fault that he lost the rest of what I previously mentioned, but in a way he is a victim of a disgusting act of blackmail by a once-respected member of this community. I can understand and see a reality where he continues due to US Soccer not wanting to be perceived as bending to the will of blackmail, but ultimately I think relationships are too untenable for this to continue.

I came here originally to debate the different choices for US Soccer, but now they clearly have one that must be done. The US Soccer community, and very quietly I believe the Federation as well, are viewing 2026 as the culmination of a project. They believe that the United States, powered by this exciting young generation and boosted by being the host nation, can win the World Cup in 2026. Even should the United States not win the competition, 2026 is viewed with an incredible level of importance. It is a moment where soccer can truly establish itself as one of the three main sports in America. It will never overtake American football or basketball, but the rest of the sports are fair game, and 2026 has been bookmarked as the point in which soccer will fully arrive in America driven by a strong host nation performance at the World Cup.

The choice for US Soccer is clear: take that goal seriously, stop acting like you know it all already, and do whatever you truly believe to be in the best interests of the sport in this country rather than the best interests of yourself or your egos. Berhalter is not going to continue, but do not hire his replacement from the same bin of has-been mediocre managers. Do not make this hiring a political favor. Pick whoever is the most talented and most qualified for the position, regardless of race, ethnicity, or nationality. Look to the youth set up and actually listen to people calling for reforms in the system, listen for the betterment of football in this country at all levels. The past four years, in many ways, have been a waste of time and evidence of US Soccer not learning the lessons from 2017. If you want the US to be a true footballing nation, then start acting like one.

This has been a doozy to write. It took several turns that I did not expect, and it will probably take several more turns that I would not expect. It is a story of American soccer absurdity, a story so bafflingly stupid on multiple levels that it can only really come from US Soccer. A story of arrogance and ego, lies and deceit, something so confounding that I still cannot fully believe it. And it is something that must lead to change in US Soccer. 2026 is incredibly important, and the US at present moment is not as prepared as they should be.

Latest from the Blog

The Engine Never Stops: Mustafa Zazai’s Tale From Afghan Refugee to Afghan International

Mustafa Zazai is well-known for being a true midfield engine in Cambodia and he possesses one of the highest work rates for a midfielder in the Southeast Asian region. The German-Afghan player has come a long way since his humble beginnings and I had the pleasure of helping with some aspects of his past. This…

The 2022 Football Year in Review

Your superlatives for the year we just witnessed… So by the time you are reading this, 2022 has come and gone. It was a year of ups and downs, of news and elections, of geopolitical headlines and economic downturns. And for our purposes, it was a year where a lot of balls were kicked by…

Interpreting the Legacy of Olivier Giroud

Learning to appreciate the scope of work from France’s Mr. Reliable… Olivier Giroud is now France’s all-time top men’s goalscorer. Let that sink in. Giroud’s first half goal in France’s 3-1 Round of 16 win over Poland cemented the veteran striker into the history books. His 52nd goal for Les Bleus launched Giroud past France…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: