A mere 473 days after the cataclysmic loss to Trinidad and Tobago, the US men’s national team will take the field under a permanent head coach again when the Gregg Berhalter era begins in earnest on Sunday.
The Americans will face Panama in Glendale then Costa Rica on 2 February in San Jose in a pair of friendlies. Stiffer and more significant tests await, including the Concacaf Gold Cup in June and the March friendly with Chile that was announced on Thursday.
While not a critical period for a programme in rebuild mode after that notorious night at Ato Boldon Stadium and before the start of 2022 World Cup qualifying, Berhalter’s beginning is at least a long-awaited moment; a milestone on the road to recovery after the 2-1 defeat in October 2017 that saw the US fail to reach the World Cup finals for the first time since 1986.
Born in New Jersey, the former defender made 44 appearances for the US. At club level he played for Zwolle, Sparta Rotterdam and Cambuur in the Netherlands, Crystal Palace in England, Energie Cottbus and 1860 Munich in Germany and the Los Angeles Galaxy in Major League Soccer, then managed the Swedish side, Hammarby, for 19 months.
The 45-year-old was confirmed in December after the New York Red Bulls ejected his Columbus Crew side from the MLS playoffs. It was the Crew’s fourth postseason in five years under Berhalter.
Despite a paltry budget and turbulence off the pitch as ownership made like tech industry millennials and tried to move to Austin, Berhalter built a solid side that worked hard and employed a possession-based approach that laid a foundation for the gifted playmaker, Federico Higuain, to express himself eloquently.
After relying on Higuain, Berhalter again finds himself in charge of a team that is deeply dependent on one player for assists and goals: the new Chelsea signing, Christian Pulisic.
The 20-year-old won’t be suiting up in the Phoenix suburbs; as usual, the Europe-based set were not called into the January camp. Even with that restriction, Berhalter has sculpted an especially callow group at this level: the 23-man roster features 11 uncapped players.
Only midfielders Paul Arriola, Michael Bradley and Wil Trapp and forward Gyasi Zardes have reached double figures in appearances. Indeed, with 142 appearances and 17 goals, Bradley has more caps and strikes than the rest of the squad combined. There will be particular intrigue in seeing how forwards Jeremy Ebobisse of the Portland Timbers and Christian Ramirez of Los Angeles FC fare should they make their debuts.
Any friendly, of course, is a chance for fringe players and youngsters to show they can be useful on a more regular basis. Specific to this year, the meeting with Panama will give an early glimpse of how Berhalter plans to set up the team – a Columbus-esque 4-2-3-1? More broadly, his duty is to provide purpose and direction – qualities that are hard to instill in any organization without clear and authoritative leadership.
The US played twelve times under interim coach Dave Sarachan – a number that would be remarkable at club level, let alone on the international stage. A handful of young players showed promise under Sarachan, such as Tim Weah and Weston McKennie. Results, while not the priority, were patchy; the US won three games and lost five.
Berhalter’s permanent predecessor, Bruce Arena, was a conservative short-term appointment tasked with smoothing a rocky passage to Russia. The challenge facing the new hire is not so different from the one faced by Jurgen Klinsmann before that: qualify for the World Cup while adding more technique and guile to complement that stereotypically-American athleticism and spirit.
Part motivational guru, part disruptor, Klinsmann ultimately stumbled when the supposed visionary lost sight of where he was going. Performances, playing style and the quality of the talent pool as veterans aged and youngsters mostly failed to excel suggested a downgrading of expectations was merited even as Klinsmann’s rhetoric remained resolutely lofty and his ambitious regime turned into an Icarus project.
In contrast, Berhalter is more pragmatist than idealist and looks a decent bet to identify the best players available and get the most out of them in a meticulous and clear-headed way – and if they prove not good enough to match the traditional powers, to find a way for the team to over-achieve anyway.
If there is pressure beyond the norm it is the result of an absurdly elongated hiring process that took more than a year before settling on an obvious and unglamorous candidate who was probably available far earlier.
The search became so ponderous that the choice has come to feel like something of a risk – not through any doubts about Berhalter’s credentials but because of the deflating experience it would be for federation and fanbase alike if the new coach is unable to conjure big wins and lavish entertainment after such a long wait for his arrival. That job – the part visible to the public, at any rate – starts on Sunday.