The USMNT is taking a step back

Photo Paul Rudderow

It’s been a busy couple weeks for the United States Men’s National team.

On the pitch, Josh Sargent became the latest American to make a mark in the German Bundesliga. Sargent, 18, scored mere minutes into his league debut for Werder Bremen and joined the likes of Christian Pulisic and Bobby Wood as American goal scorers abroad. In fact, seven different Americans have scored in the Bundesliga this season. Couple that with big-name defenders like John Brooks and Timmy Chandler, and the Bundesliga is becoming an American soccer destination.

Wouldn’t it be great if the USMNT had a world-renowned German manager with Bundesliga connections?

Just to remind everyone, Jurgen Klinsmann’s resume is world class. As a player, he played in the biggest leagues in the world for some of the biggest clubs in the world: Bayern Munich, Tottenham Hotspur, Inter Milan. He made 82 international caps and won a World Cup with West Germany in 1990. As a manager, he coached Bayern Munich and the German national team.

Do U.S. soccer fans even realize what they had in Klinsmann?

Last week, the USMNT brought in a new boss, Gregg Berhalter, formerly of Columbus Crew in Major League Soccer. His resume, side-by-side with Klinsman’s is, well, a bit underwhelming. He did play in Germany for both Energie Cottbus and 1860 Munich, but was never at one place for long. Going from a Dutch club to Crystal Palace in London for one season to a small German club isn’t exactly a world-class path.

Now, sure, you don’t need to be a world-class player to be a world-class coach. And, sure, he took over a rough situation in Columbus, but a 74-69-50 record doesn’t jump off the page. Winning 38 percent of the time doesn’t exactly feel like USMNT standard.

The Berhalter hire is a let down for a number of reasons.

Over a year ago, the USMNT monumentally failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. This came months after the federation fired Klinsmann and recycled Bruce Arena with the sole job of qualifying for the tournament. Even after a horrible set of qualifying matches, it came down to the final day. One match against Trinidad and Tobago was the ticket. One result was all it took. Panama even helped the cause by getting one against Mexico and was primed to bail the U.S. out. They failed.

What were we doing?

Failing to qualify didn’t call for a conversation in a board room — it called for a total blow-up. Scrap the old, washed up players, clear out the staff, sack the executives and simply start over. That’s what should have happened. What happened instead was a waiting game. Months and months went by and the federation sent a squad out there under an interim coach while high-profile managers took other jobs and failure continued to sting. What took so long?

Talk about adding unnecessary pressure to Berhalter’s already daunting task. A world-renowned coach came to the organization with interest, and they turned him down because they were “too far into the search?” Seriously? What does that even mean? More weeks stroll by, and they bring in an MLS coach. They couldn’t have done that six months ago?

No disrespect to Berhalter, who, at least according to pundits, did a good job in Columbus, but where exactly is the USMNT going? Where is it trying to go?

The World Cup shouldn’t be the answer to that question. That should be a given. Berhalter will qualify for the World Cup as anyone should. The answer should be deep into the World Cup — deep into the World Cup every time. The countries that do that regularly (Germany, France, Brazil, etc.) all have one glaringly obvious thing in common: all their best players play at the biggest clubs in the world. Take a look at the club logos next to France’s squad. It’s a very simple science. World-class players play at world-class clubs.

News flash: The MLS is not world class. It’s really not even close. There’s a reason Sargent, born in the year 2000, left home to play in a foreign country. There’s a reason Pulisic doesn’t play for the Union. The recent success of these players should tell you what you need to know and paint a picture for the next generation of USMNT prospects.

Go to Germany. Go play first-team ball in a top five league in the world. Go gain valuable experience. Go play on FS1 where people can watch. If you’re not good enough to play in the Premier League like Pulisic or DeAndre Yedlin, the Bundesliga is the alternative. Hell, even if you are good enough, stay at Dortmund and become a star. That’s what the USMNT needs. A star can be born in MLS, but they can’t live there.

The American headlines in Germany are exactly what the federation needs, and it’s why the Berhalter hire is begging so many questions. After a long year of searching, they hired from home. They hired from home when the real game is abroad. At least, that’s where it should be.

That’s where Klinsmann was born. He was a German icon that traversed the highest levels of world soccer. When you look back, wasn’t it lucky that a guy like that was even interested in the USMNT job? Wasn’t it out of his league? Say what you want about his success or lack there of at the helm — he won 56 percent of his matches with a +69 goal differential. At some point, somebody said that wasn’t good enough.

Was that really why he was fired, though? Are we sure it wasn’t the subpar players? Geoff Cameron, who played in the Premier League for years and served on many U.S. teams, said the players were good enough and weren’t being coached properly. He knew Bruce Arena was never the answer.

To find it, you have to get on a plane. The USMNT is on the verge of rebirth and many players have traveled already. They’re young, talented, and holding the future in their hands. All they need is an international soccer figure to guide them. Someone that hasn’t just qualified for the World Cup, but won it. Someone with deep connections overseas. Someone that knows what it takes.

That guy is long gone.


  1. If I have any issue with hiring Gregg Berhalter, it’s that it seems like a resoundingly safe pick. He may very well do a great job, but he’d have to demonstrate a level of skill I’m not sure he’s shown — or even had the opportunity to show — at Columbus.

    The one real head-scratcher for me is taking a definitive pass on Julen Lopetegui, who is a better manager than anyone else the US considered by any measurement you want to use. That is if the story that Lopetegui was interested is true. A problem with having Ernie Stewart run the team is that he might be the least transparent person in world football. We’ll never know what the process to pick Berhalter was.

    This next year we should get a good idea of just how up to the task Berhalter is. Let’s see how he handles the Gold Cup.

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    Berhalter is an international soccer figure. the guy played all over the world. by all accounts he is a very learned man with scrupulous attention to detail… he can organize tactics for possession or adapt and play on the counter.
    there was no revolution. the mandate for an american manager was clear. the hiring of earnie stewart made that crystalline.
    we can argue for or against world class managers all we want, in my opinion, if the mandate was clear to hire from within, Gregg Berhalter is the right guy.
    whether it works or not, is an entirely different question.

  3. Interesting comment that is not my own. How many people had heard of Lopetegui two years ago? If you had heard of him you would know that with the biggest budget ever for Porto, he had failed to win any silverware. 2 years ago he was unceremoniously fired as coach of Porto in the middle of the season. Later that year he was made coach of Spanish national team. A bit of a head-scratcher. Now has just been fired from RM after less than 6 months.(I won’t hold that against him, nearly everyone is fired from that job) So in two years he has become a world beater?? Worth giving the keys to the USMNT to? Maybe. Maybe not.

    • These are fair enough points, however, he’s managed that same Porto squad to a Champion’s League quarter final, in which he beat Pep’s Bayern Munich 3-1 in the first leg. His overall record at Porto was 53-16-9…. not bad. He was unbeaten in charge of Spain’s senior squad and had a combined record of 38-3-4 in charge of Spain’s various youth squads.

      So on one hand, we have a manager with 6 years of experience incharge of senior and youth teams at the international level, a very good run in UEFA Champions League football (the highest level of competition in the world) and a winning record in club football.

      On the other with 8 or so years as a manager for MLS and what was a division 2 club in Sweden, who was no experience managing beyond that. Now he may have been a superior player, with a lot more senior team minutes, though it’s hard to fault Lopetegui for failing to break in with Madrid…. But I’m not sure how you can objectively make any case that he’s not a more qualified choice for manager than Berhalter.

      Again, I’m not down on Berhalter. He may be great. And I really hope he is.

  4. There are deep structural problems with the USMNT program, and any near term hope of dealing with them seems to have ended with the election. Arguing who the coach should be, to me, seems akin to arguing what color of paint to put on a broken car. I just don’t think it will ultimately matter much either way.

  5. It’s amazing that such a talented manager has been out of work for two years now and no club or country has snapped him up in any role. It’s almost like the entire sport agrees on what he brings to the table…that never happens.

  6. Klinsmann’s pedigree as a player and his ability to revamp youth systems and draw talent that may have chosen other countries… I’ll grant you that. Problem is, he is a totally awful coach. Joachim Löw was really the coach for Germany in 2006 and Klinsmann knew it (why do you think he quit?) I watched Bayern a ton before, during, and after Klinsmann’s run and I can tell you he was terrible. Most talented squad in the league by far and he couldn’t win it. And sure his win % looks passable with the US, but in reality there’s only one team in the region that should be able to beat us. And do you think it’s coincidence that he wasn’t coaching when the US hired him? Or that no one has hired him since he was fired?

  7. Chase Gipson says:

    Trying to praise JK’s (lack of) understanding of tactics and his (in)ability to get the best out of players, by quoting his own PLAYING experience, is roughly akin to assuming a well-behaved eight year old is also a good parent. Literally absurd. Even more absurd is referencing his failed stint coaching BM and his brief tenure assisting Jogi Low while Jogi coached the German NT from 04-06. Who knows how Greg will do, but JK was/is an epic disaster as a coach, hence his continued absence from the sideline.

  8. Berhalter was certainly an easy and ordinary hire, but he should at least restore the US to a modicum of respect and competitiveness.
    On the other hand, I honestly do not understand any benefit of the doubt given to Klinsmann. The guy was a visibly terrible to manager to even the least-trained soccer eye. If not for his — yes very good — playing career, the dude would be laughed out of the NPSL. Zero tactics, zero nuance, but (BUT) with zero fundamentals on top of that (which you would think would be helpful when you are expecting players to “just play” without any definite roles). I don’t understand any JK love. His teams made me seriously hate watching the USMNT and distance myself from the squad entirely. I could honestly go on a 5k-word rant about how blindly dumb his tenure was. The dude is a moron who lucked out in Germany and conned Gulati into way too big of a role with way too big of paychecks.
    So yeah, Berhalter isn’t a shiny name — and yes they should have gone after Tata — but GB is actually an astute tactician who comes up with novel game plans depending on the opponent. Also, it should be noted that the process is very much not GB’s fault. I think we an all say that given Earnie Stewart’s style in Philly, it is not the least bit surprising.
    Are the US going to win the World Cup with Berhalter? No. But they will be competitive, play as a cohesive unit, and, for the first time in a long time, be fun to watch.

  9. Christian , great article and I totally agree with you. If the USMNT want to excel in the World Cup and in general they have to play like a European team. I think the firing of Klinnsman was premature and a mistake. It’s not everyday European coaches with his caliber want to take on this uphill battle of a team. I like Berhalter but yes he’s an MLS coach. You’re right. The MLS is no where close to being at the level of play as the Euro leagues. They need to build this team around Pulisic and him alone. They need a European coach who sees this and will implement this idea on the pitch. I hope Berhalter proves me wrong, but i agree that this move could most likely move us backwards with our progress.

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