Commentary / For Pete's Sake

Four thoughts on the USMNT’s busy few days

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Coming at the end of one of the longest (European) club seasons of all time, the finals of the Concacaf Nations League arrived this past week with little fanfare.

But it proved to be an eventful few days for the USMNT.

Just before the semifinal against Mexico on Thursday night, news broke that Gregg Berhalter would return as the national team manager, the culmination of a perplexing search process.

And, on the pitch, the Americans — led by interim manager (and former Union assistant) B.J. Callaghan — thrashed two of their continental rivals, lifting their second consecutive Nations League title on Sunday night after brushing off Canada.

Here are some thoughts on the talking points after such a busy few days.

The Berhalter of it all

After all the drama surrounding Berhalter and the Reyna family at the end of the 2022 World Cup, it didn’t seem likely that the former Columbus Crew manager would lead the USMNT into a second World Cup cycle.

But, surprisingly, the federation’s new sporting director — Matt Crocker, formerly of Southampton and the England FA — chose Berhalter after interviewing “a multitude of domestic and international candidates.”

Given the strangeness of bringing in a new sporting director to conduct a thorough search, only to end up with the same head coach, U.S. Soccer’s has been eager to prove that this isn’t just business as usual.

“This isn’t just business as usual,” Crocker is quoted as saying in the press release announcing the move.

Look, there are reasons to think this is a solid move for the USMNT. Berhalter’s squad built off continental success (like the 2021 Nations League) to shake off the ghosts of the 2018 qualifying cycle and get back to the World Cup. By the time the World Cup rolled around, Berhalter had his team playing a recognizable system that won admirers on the world stage. He’s clearly well-liked by (most of) the players and understands how important the 2026 World Cup is.

But… it’s tough not to be underwhelmed. The 2026 World Cup will be the most important event in men’s domestic soccer for a generation, and it’s an unprecedented opportunity for the USMNT to make a leap from a continental power to one of the world’s big boys. Is Berhalter really the manager to make that happen? For all the good things he’s done, there have also been baffling personnel choices, strange bouts of conservatism, and — oh, yeah — a massive, self-inflicted, public falling-out with one of his team’s most important players. And the history of USMNT managers going into a second (or third) cycle in recent years has been abysmal.

Maybe it’s not business as usual for a federation that is too often one step forward, one step back.

But it sure looks like it from here.

No Curtin?

Of course, it’s hard to evaluate the move without knowing who the other serious candidates were. It sounds like Jesse Marsch and Patrick Viera were at least in the mix.

One person who wasn’t, though, was Philadelphia Union’s two-time MLS Coach of the Year.

“No, I was never in my life contacted by the U.S. national team,” Jim Curtin said on Monday, when asked during his weekly press conference if he had interviewed for the job.

This is, frankly, baffling. To be clear, I have my doubts that Curtin would be an effective international manager. But he’s clearly one of the two or three best managers in MLS right now — I’d put Steve Cherundolo in that bucket too — and has a lot of the qualities that you’d look for in a USMNT head coach.

Although the federation said that it had interviewed a multitude of coaches, it’s hard to see how wide a net it really could have been if it excluded Curtin. And what, exactly, is the point of a months-long interview process if you’re not going to meet as many people as possible?

In any event, with the national team off the table, the next order of business is tying Curtin and sporting director Ernst Tanner down to long-term contracts. Both men are out of contract in the offseason, and — as Tom Bogert put it in a report for The Athletic yesterday — “the closer these contracts get to expiring with no new deals in place, doubt will creep in.”

The Union influence

Even with Curtin staying in Philly, it was striking to see all of the Union connections on display for U.S. Soccer.

The (impressive) interim manager, Callaghan, is a former Union assistant. On the pitch, Brenden Aaronson played big minutes across the two games, while Auston Trusty got his second USMNT cap at the end of the final. (If it weren’t for an end-of-season injury, Mark McKenzie would have joined them.)

The ties extended into the broadcast booth. Maurice Edu was the color commentator for both USMNT games, talking about his time playing center back alongside Canada’s Steven Vitoria for the Union. (Let’s not think too much more about that time.) Charlie Davies was also part of Paramount+’s coverage, while newly minted U.S. Soccer vice president of sporting Oguchi Onyewu popped up to be interviewed.

It’s truly been a golden age for the Union, with their influence on the national team growing alongside their dominance in MLS.

Flo Balogun

We haven’t even mentioned what happened on the pitch! There was a lot to like — Gio Reyna and Christian Pulisic looking dominant, Chris Richards coming into his own in the back, and Weston McKennie engaging in mixed martial arts with the Mexico sideline.

For my money, though, the big-picture takeaway has to be that the USMNT has finally found a No. 9 — Folarin Balogun.

The 21-year-old Arsenal starlet burst onto the big stage this year with 21 goals for Reims, finishing as the fourth top scorer in Ligue 1. In May, the NYC-born Balogun spurned England (for whom he’d played as a youth international) and Nigeria to represent the USMNT, and he made his competitive debut in these two matches.

He looked right at home with the Americans, showing impressive strength, intelligent positioning, and a nose for goal. His goal against Canada was a real striker’s finish.

Balogun has the potential to be a world-class striker. Assuming he continues to develop — and his next move, likely away from Arsenal this summer, will be crucial — he could be a game-changer for a U.S. team that has a fun, young, attacking nucleus.


  1. Andy Muenz says:

    Nothing to worry about for 2026. The US will bribe FIFA whatever is necessary to allow Messi to play for them. I mean he has dominated the MLS website for at least two weeks now so he must have done all sorts of great things in league play, right? What could go wrong with this plan?

  2. My guess on Curtin is that he received an unofficial call from a friend about the USMNT position and declined – they get their answer and he can say USMNT never called.
    Small sample size, but was impressed by Callaghan. Happy with Curtin long term, but if he moved on, Callaghan might be nice replacement some day.
    Anyone know who’s job it is in USMNT soccer to set up the international friendlies? Gooch?
    Whoever’s job it is, I really hope they can set up some class A friendlies for this team among the top 10-15 in the world. Germany is good. How about Brazil and Argentina in our hemisphere? How about England or France?
    USMNT need to play against the best to get better. Concacaf is not going to get us there.

  3. A lot of these players really need to find good club homes. Pulisic, McKennie, Balogun, Aaronson, Musah, Weah, Adams…. Gotta get them as many minutes as possible on quality sides.

    It does seem odd that Curtin wouldn’t at least get a phone call. Though I don’t think there’s any reason to believe he’d do a better job than Berhalter. Behalter clearly did something to create what is clearly a fantastic culture within the team. That so many of them have advocated for his return is a positive sign. The hysteria over his return has been pretty remarkable. Barring news that Ancelotti wanted the US gig, I think people should calm down. These national team jobs are not that sexy. Berhalter probably is the best available.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      I think the thing at issue is: would a new coach bring more to the table than removing Berhalter would take off it? That is, what matters most is good players who are happy to play together. The coach certainly affects the margins but it’s really about player quality and attitude, overall. Berhalter created an A+ culture and recruited some A+ talent. The system works, too. Sometimes he gets in his own way as a coach, but does bringing in Patrick Viera, who is probably a better on-the-field coach, disrupt the great off-the-field work Berhalter did, especially when the on-the-field stuff from GB is pretty good? That’s the calculus, at least.

      I would have been happy with a change, but I can’t get worked up about the decision when the team is clearly able to perform at a high level under the current setup, and seem to happy to do so. There are definitely some individual relationships between players (like Gio and Pepi) and Berhalter to watch, but the overall picture looks good, to me.

      • SilverRey says:

        For as much as the Mexican players got Diego Cocco fired from Mexico, I think the US players got Berhalter hired again – they believe in him. There is power in that.

      • Agree with all of this.

      • I respectfully disagree that the culture is everything and happy players is all that matters. What another the players that are unhappy? What about the happy players that get called in but don’t deserve it. Culture is huge, but to think that another coach who makes better decisions couldn’t also make players happy just isn’t correct. Also sometimes being uncomfortable brings out better in a player.

  4. DanielHaus says:

    Full disclosure. I am not prepared for the possibility of both Ernst and Jim leaving this off-season. I remember the Ernie and Nick years and let me tell you, those were some lean years minus lightening in a bottle in 2011. Make it happen Suges!

    • I could deal with Curtin moving on. I really fear Tanner leaving, though. I think he’s worked miracles and is the least replaceable person at the club.

  5. SilverRey says:

    fwiw Cherundolo said he wasn’t contacted either.
    Now that the search is over I really need to see Curtin and Tanner get new contracts. I’d be surprised if we don’t see them sign by the time we get done with Leagues Cup. That’s when I start to worry, but as far as I know both have hinted at wanting to stay. Hopefully Tanner isn’t too fed up with BaleGate and MessiMania to want to leave. I imagine Miami will end up signing someone to a Bale-like contract next year – in true Mas fashion.

    • Because no one was contacted, it was a sham.
      Really praying Tanner stays, he’s really changed this team into a perennial power.

  6. There are, as you said, several parts to the Berhalter decision. Tactically he has proven to be extremely rigid, which is good in sustainably learning a similar system, but bad in that it hasn’t worked…great? And does not have much ability to adapt when needed.
    Personnel wise, he’s clearly had some baffling favorites, although every coach will have that to some degree. However some choices are inexcusable, such as the Pepi /Reyna and Long/Roldan/Morris etc. long term, those alienate more than they help. He does clearly have the ears of some key players though, which shouldnt be discounted.
    Beyond anything else, though, is the massive farce and scam that has been this whole process. It’s insulting to everyone to pretend there was some real search and they found him the best suited. They clearly always were keeping him and didn’t want to seem like they didn’t care about the domestic abuse.

    • I think there needed to be a good reason to shift from Berhalter. I don’t disagree with the criticisms, but I don’t think Marsch, Viera or Henry are guaranteed steps up. All are risks at the international level (albeit, no more so than when Berhalter was first hired).

      My guess, too, is that they were leaning heavily into having an American manager. With key players, including your usual captains, calling for him to stay on, it’s not a surprising decision.

      Was the process overblown and aimed at maximizing PR? Possibly. Probably. But the result is really not that surprising. I don’t think there were obvious better choices.

  7. Is Aaronson playing in any upcoming USMNT games? Is he now out of favor with the US team since Leeds was relegated and he hardly saw the field the last half of Leeds season. I had high hopes for him but now it does not look too promising unless he gets stronger on the ball. He spent a lot of the time at Leeds on the ground and looks like he lost his confidence. I hope gets stronger at Berlin FC and puts on some muscle and learns how to fight off opposition and avoid tackles.

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