Spend about an hour on a Zoom call with United States men’s national soccer team coach Gregg Berhalter on the Gab and Juls Meets podcast and you’ll learn a thing or two.
Some are trivial, like: what’s wrong with the three Gs in its name? His mother liked the name “Greg” but didn’t want anyone calling her son “Gregory”. So she chose “Gregg” because no one was going to call her “Greggory”. It just doesn’t work.
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Or which cuisine – French or Italian – he would choose if he could only eat one for the rest of his life. Berhalter, who is a foodie, is torn but turns to Italian because it’s a better option as an everyday meal.
“I love four-hour dinners, tasting menus, but I can’t do it every day,” he says. “I know you can enjoy simple everyday French cuisine like baguettes and ham and cheese toast; I just haven’t lived there and haven’t developed an appreciation for it. “
Some inquiries are decidedly meatier. Like the age-old question that many years ago caused some trouble for one of his predecessors, Jurgen Klinsmann: can Major League Soccer be counted on to produce world-class players and maintain them at world class? Or is it better for promising American talent to go abroad? Klinsmann had annoyed MLS owners when he suggested Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley would struggle to keep up when they left Europe to return to MLS. Berhalter does not dodge the question.
“It’s a very simple answer,” he says. “You go to the highest possible level until you’re not challenged anymore. And then you go to the next level. If you keep doing that, you’ll be fine. The problem becomes when you’re still challenged at a level and you go to a higher level, then there will be problems.”
He adds: “I think it’s important to note that with some recent transfers from MLS…they came too soon. Think of Bryan Reynolds, who went to Roma [and made just one appearance, before being loaned out to two different Belgian clubs]. Or Georges Bello [who moved from Atlanta United to Arminia Bielefeld in January and was relegated to the German second tier], there is an argument to be made that he could have stayed in MLS and dominated the league and then moved on. So there are a number of guys that I fear are leaving too soon.
“MLS is an opportunity for young players to be on the pitch. And that’s valuable. And when they’re dominant, when MLS is no longer a challenge, then they can move on. That’s not is no different from Europe. If you are in France and you kill the French championship, you go to the Premier League. It’s normal, like a food chain, isn’t it?
Berhalter admits money matters and a player should do what is right for them. If you make $150,000 a year and get a million dollar contract, that’s another equation. And each case is different.
Ricardo Pepi moved from FC Dallas to Augsburg in the German Bundesliga for a record MLS transfer fee of $20 million, just days shy of his 19th birthday. In half a season at Augsburg, he managed just 11 appearances, including seven as a substitute, without scoring. The year before, he was voted MLS Young Player of the Year.
“When he moved, I told him that Augsburg was a stable club and stability was going to help; it’s not like Bayern Munich, where there’s a ton of pressure,” Berhalter said of Pepi. “But now he’s there and he plays or he doesn’t play, because the reserve option isn’t that strong in Germany, they’re like in the fourth division. So it’s a problem there, because he must look at how he will continue to develop if he is not on the pitch every day.”
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Coaching a national team is a different animal from working at club level. Outside of major tournaments, you see your players several times a year – for a few days at a time – and the focus is inevitably on games, not training. Like most national team coaches, Berhalter had previously only worked with club teams, where he had daily interactions with his squad.
“That was the biggest learning curve,” he says. “When I took the job, I intended to create a strong culture within the team. And people were saying you couldn’t do that. I don’t agree with that, but obviously from a playstyle perspective you need to go back to basics and keep everything very simple because you don’t have time to practice that’s one of the most important things I have learned since taking the job.
Berhalter has developed its own hacks to help it do this. Its staff shares a Google Doc with all the games American gamers — and would-be American gamers — are involved in every weekend, sometimes as many as 50 (its last team alone had players plying their trade in 11 different countries ). Each member of staff is assigned matches – usually six or seven each – and on Monday nights they have a report.
“We watch videos with the guys from their games and see what they are doing with their clubs and if it can be integrated into the national team,” Berhalter said. “Let’s say, for example, Erik Palmer-Brown at Troyes plays in a back three and makes certain types of passes in the build-up, we see how that would suit us. So [we’re] kind of prepare them for when they come to camp.”
Berhalter has another challenge, which coaches from more established nations do not have. Along with Mexico, the United States is a preeminent footballing power in CONCACAF (although both teams finished behind Canada in the last qualifying tournament). Being the top dog in your area means having to push yourself against opponents who often set up shop and look to knock you on the counter. At the World Cup, the United States will face better teams, teams looking to lead the game against the opposition. Conventional wisdom would suggest that you need to set up a path to get to the World Cup and, once there, set yourself up differently.
“First of all, even when we are favourites, we always approach the game with a lot of respect for our opponents,” he said. “But the main point for me is to bring intensity to every game and keep playing the way we want to play. That’s the fundamental question: Can we always play the same way? Can we always play the same way? impose on England, as we do on other opponents? “It’s going to be an interesting question. I don’t have the exact game plan for this match yet. But I believe in the talent of our squad. So why can’t they do the same at the World Cup?”
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The United States are likely to be the youngest team at Qatar 2022 and, more than at any time in the past, there is a core of young talent playing for big European clubs: Christian Pulisic (23, Chelsea), Brenden Aaronson (21, Leeds United), Timothy Weah (22, Lille), Yunus Musah (19, Valencia), Sergino Dest (21, Barcelona), Weston McKennie (23, Juventus), Tyler Adams (23 , Leipzig). And there’s 19-year-old Gio Reyna at Borussia Dortmund, whom Berhalter has known since birth through former traveling teammate Claudio Reyna. The list goes on and on, and you can’t help but look beyond 2022 to 2026, when the United States hosts the tournament, along with Mexico and Canada, and many of those players will be at their peak or will enter their peak. .
“It’s definitely preparation for 2026,” Berhalter said. “But as with everything, you have to focus on the next step you take, you can’t get ahead of yourself. So for us, we are deeply focused on 2022. We want to stay in the moment and focus on the task ahead.”
The big picture — hand in hand with 2026 — is the question of what role sport needs to play in America and whether it can fully conquer the last big hurdle in terms of mainstream acceptance. Because while there is a large number of fans who follow the game, be it MLS, European leagues or Liga MX every week, there is an equally important constituency that only logs on every four years. and a major who just doesn’t know and doesn’t care.
“I think it’s our obligation as national team coaches and players to help grow the game in the United States,” Berhalter said. “And if we can create heroes from our players and we can inspire kids to play the game, we’ve done our job. Even if it’s first-time fans on board, that’s valuable.
“You know, I was thinking about the 1994 World Cup. The kids who watched it are now parents, and their kids are going to watch in 2026. And I think you kind of close the loop on that link between generations of fans. Once you come full circle, you start creating a culture where parents and kids are fans. That’s how you support growth. That’s how you really build the sport in America.