USMNT’s Gregg Berhalter talks World Cup 2022 and 2026, MLS players going to Europe too early

Spend about an hour on a Zoom call with USA men’s soccer team coach Gregg Berhalter as part of the Gab and Juls Meets podcast, and you’ll learn a thing or two.

Some are trivial, like: what’s with the three Gs in his name? His mother liked the name “Greg” but specifically didn’t want anyone to call her son “Gregory”. So she chose “Gregg” because nobody would call him “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 for Italian because it’s a better option than everyday meals.

“I love the four-hour dinners, tasting the menus, but I can’t do it every day,” he says. “I know that you can enjoy simple French everyday dishes like baguettes and toast with ham and cheese; I just didn’t live there and didn’t develop an appreciation for it.”

Some requests are decidedly more substantive. Like the age-old question that got one of his predecessors, Jurgen Klinsmann, in trouble many years ago: Can Major League Soccer be counted on to produce world-class players and keep them at world-class levels? Or is it better for promising US talent to go abroad? Klinsmann had angered MLS owners by implying that Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley would struggle to maintain their level if they left Europe to return to MLS. Berhalter does not dodge the question.

“It’s a really simple answer,” he says. “You go to the highest level you can until you are no longer challenged. And then you go to the next level. If you keep this up, you’ll be fine. The problem becomes, if you’re still being challenged a level and you go to a higher level, then there will be problems.”

He adds: “I think it’s important to keep that in mind with some recent transfers from MLS… they came too soon. Think of Bryan Reynolds going to Roma [and made just one appearance, before being loaned out to two different Belgian clubs]. Or George Bello [who moved from Atlanta United to Arminia Bielefeld in January and was relegated to the German second tier], there is an argument that he could have stayed in MLS and dominated the league and then switched. So there’s a bunch of guys that I think are leaving too soon.

“MLS is an opportunity for young players to be on the field. And that’s valuable. And when they’re dominant, when MLS is no longer a challenge, they can move on. It’s no different than in Europe. When you’re in France and you kill the French league, you move to the Premier League. It’s normal, like a food chain, isn’t it?”

Berhalter acknowledges that money matters and a player needs to do what is right for them. If you’re making $150,000 a year and you get a million dollar deal, that’s a different equation. And every case is different.

Ricardo Pepi moved from FC Dallas to Augsburg in the German Bundesliga a few days before his 19th birthday for an MLS record sum of 20 million dollars. In half a season at Augsburg he made eleven appearances, seven of them as a substitute, but failed to score. Last year he was voted MLS Young Player of the Year.

“When he came I told him that Augsburg is a stable club and that stability will help; it’s not like Bayern Munich where there’s a lot of pressure,” Berhalter says of Pepi. “But now he’s there and he either plays or doesn’t play because the reserve option isn’t that strong in Germany, they’re like fourth division. So that’s a problem there because he has to see how he’s going to develop if he’s not on the pitch every day.”

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Coaching a national team is different than working at club level. Outside of the big tournaments, you see your players a few times a year – for just a few days at a time – and the focus is inevitably on the games, not training. Like most national coaches, Berhalter had previously only worked with club sides, where he interacted with his side on a daily basis.

“That was the biggest learning curve right there,” he says. “When I took the job, I was striving to build a strong culture within the team. And people said you can’t do that. I don’t agree with that, but obviously from a playing point of view you have to go back to the basics and keep everything simply because you don’t have time to train. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned since taking the job.”

Berhalter has developed its own hacks for this. His staff shares a Google doc detailing all games involving US players – and potential US players – each weekend, sometimes as many as 50 (his most recent roster alone had players plying their trade in 11 different countries) . Games are assigned to each staff member – usually six or seven apiece – and they have a report by Monday night.

“We go through videos of their games with the boys and see what they are doing with their clubs and whether it can be integrated into the national team,” says Berhalter. “Let’s say Erik Palmer-Brown at Troyes, for example, 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] to prepare them when they come to the camp.”

Berhalter has a different challenge that coaches of more established nations don’t have. Along with Mexico, the United States is a preeminent footballing power in CONCACAF (although both teams finished behind Canada in the last qualifier). Being top dog in your area means having to face off against opponents who often open shops and try to meet you at the counter. However, at the World Cup, the USA will face better teams, teams trying to take the game to their opponents. Conventional wisdom would say that you have to set up a path to the World Cup and set up differently there.

“First of all we go into the game as favorites with a lot of respect for our opponents,” he says. “But the most important point for me is to bring intensity to every game and still play how we want to play. That’s the basic question: can we still play like that? Can we still impose on England how we want to play do to other opponents.” ? This is going to be an interesting question. I’m not that far with the game plan for this game. But I believe in the talent of our group. So why can’t they do the same at the World Cup?



The Futbol Americas crew pay tribute to Gregg Berhalter and discuss how the USMNT squad is finally playing its part.

USA are likely to be the youngest team at Qatar 2022 and more than ever 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 is 19-year-old Gio Reyna at Borussia Dortmund, whom Berhalter has known since birth thanks to his old travel colleague Claudio Reyna. The list goes on and on, and you can’t help but look ahead to 2022-2026, when the United States will host the tournament along with Mexico and Canada, and many of those players will be or are entering their prime.

“It’s definitely preparation for 2026,” says Berhalter. “But as with anything, you need to focus on the next step you take. You cannot overtake yourself. So for us there is a deep focus on 2022. We want to stay in the moment and focus on the task ahead.”

The bigger picture — hand-in-hand with 2026 — is what role esports should play in America and whether it can fully conquer the last great resistance to mainstream acceptance. Because while there’s a large core of fans who watch the game every week, whether it’s MLS, the European leagues or Liga MX, there’s an equally large fan base that only tunes in every four years, and a significant one that just doesn’t know and I don’t care.

“I think it’s our duty as national team coaches and players to help football grow in the United States,” Berhalter said. “And if we can make heroes out of our players and inspire kids to play the game, then we’ve done our job. Even if it’s the fans who come on board for the first time, it’s valuable.

“You know, I was thinking about the 1994 World Cup. Children who saw them are parents now, and their children will be watching in 2026. And I think you come full circle on that connection between generations who are fans. Once you close that loop, you begin to create a culture where the parents and the kids are fans. How to sustain growth. That’s how you really build the sport in America.” USMNT’s Gregg Berhalter talks World Cup 2022 and 2026, MLS players going to Europe too early

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