After every recent USMNT game since his hiring almost three years ago, head coach Gregg Berhalter has been repeatedly drawn into the center of conversation, around the sports bars from coast to coast across the country, and on social media around the planet.
After years of skepticism to begin his tenure, the summer of 2021 went very well for the former national team player and former coach of Hammarby IF. From the beginning there were valid questions about his credentials to lead the Stars and Stripes back to the World Cup after the unthinkable failure of 2017.
The Swedish team fired him about a year and a half later after giving him the job, citing that he never set up his team to play attacking soccer. As the British would say, he liked to “park the bus,” a style which runs counter to what many see as a historically rich vein of attacking players currently available to the national program.
He also did a five-year stint with Columbus Crew in MLS, where he led the team to the play-offs in four of those five seasons. Although, to be honest, half or more of the coaches in the MLS led their teams to the play-offs due to the league’s generous, if not scattershot allocation of post-season spots, even if the Jersey native did reach the final in 2015.
Despite these doubts, Berhalter did lead the Nats to a pair of trophies during this past summer while using two completely different sets of players. First, he secured the CONCACAF Nations League title with an exciting 3-2 win over arch nemesis Mexico, where Christian Pulisic scored the winning goal from the spot in the 114th minute.
After that final in early-June, the rest of the summer was full of Gold Cup games and once again the Americans beat the Mexicans in a final in early-August, securing the cup for the seventh time. It was another extra-time goal that broke El Tri hearts, this time from the head of Miles Robinson.
Gregg became our hero. He managed to bring together two very different squads, for two different tournaments, and brought home the silverware in both by beating the country’s biggest rival. These were his first trophies in his 11-year coaching career, and hardly anybody could argue against them being well-deserved.
Was it a sign of more good things to come, perhaps on the biggest stage of all?
After the summer, it was back to business and it would be fair to say that there was optimism around the American soccer world heading into the whirlwind qualifying schedule for the upcoming World Cup. The team – effectively two teams – had proven that they could win the big games.
The disappointment of not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia perhaps faded a bit but with the arrival of autumn, it was time to get to work, and begin the quest to qualify for the next World Cup, thus vanquishing those memories of failure, and making sure that the Stars and Stripes would be in Qatar in 2022.
Then a familiar reality struck.
The first round of qualifiers in September did not instill confidence in fans, as the Nats failed to even score away against a traditionally weak El Salvador team in the opener, followed by a horrendous 1-1 tie against Canada in Nashville. Berhalter was lambasted for tactics and team selection with many feeling that it was time for the USSF to go coach shopping before it was too late to right the ship.
The last game of the three September qualifiers was away against Honduras; after trailing by a goal at the half, the USA found the back of Los Catrachos net four times to pick up those much needed three points. This game also revealed another American teenager with great potential and a nose for goal – Ricardo Pepi.
Neverhtless, having salvaged five points out of a possible nine was nothing to brag about. In fact, it was more than disappointing, particularly dropping what should have been sure points to Canada at home, but fortunately other results in the group meant that the situation was not as dire as it could have been. The United States was still in a position in the standings that would put them through, albeit with 11 games left on the schedule.
Skip forward one month, and now we are in the second phase of another trio of games. Mr. Berhalter seemed to have gotten it right in the first game, beating the Jamaicans in Texas on Thursday with the young Pepi leading the line and scoring both USA goals. The young man has been on fire not only for his country as of late, but also for his club team.
Even with his young age, beginning his national team career with three goals over two games would in most logical cases seem to warrant another start, in this case at Panama, if anything to ride the momentum.
However, instead of starting the teen against Panama and giving him the opportunity to keep his goal streak alive, the FC Dallas striker was benched. In particular, he was benched in favor of long-time national team also-ran Gyasi Zardes.
In fact, a total of seven changes from seemingly-convincing the Jamaican victory were made. Seven. Berhalter also decided not to play others who impressed against Jamaica – Tyler Adams, Brenden Aaronson, Sergiño Dest and Miles Robinson. It seems that when 11 players on the field are successful, their coach rewards them by sitting them down for the next game and trying his luck with a new team. Of course, what else would make sense?
In this case, and it isn’t the first time, the experiment failed miserably. A disjointed team wasted chances, had little coherence, was constantly under pressure from their Panamanian hosts, and were shut out for the loss.
The 18-year-old Pepi did however make an eventual appearance but not until the 67th minute, when the tone was set, and the damage – a go-ahead goal from Panama was already done. It was a case of too little, too late, the USA dropped all the points, and in the process dropped out of the top spot in the group.
So what is the coach’s problem? This is what American fans and the media are openly asking in the days since. Does Berhalter think that he can replace more than half his team and still succeed? Does he feel that his team is so deep with talent that every player is interchangeable?
Or has he just lost the plot?
How many more times will he be allowed to make bad decisions; decisions such as the last game where many fans could clearly see that the team would struggle the minute the starters were announced?
Perhaps Berhalter’s boo-boys have been right all along; perhaps it’s time to find a more competent coach before it’s too late, and the USA misses out on yet another World Cup.
CONCACAF trophies are nice but fans want to see their team’s playing on the biggest stage in the world and that stage will be in Qatar next year.
But a win against Costa Rica in a few days will have the media believing that our coach is a genius again, and all is well with the state of US Men’s Soccer.
That is, until the next game, and next inexplicable miscalculation from the man in charge.