Kyle BonaguraESPN staff writer11 minutes of reading
In early January, about a week after Gregg Berhalter’s contract as Expired United States men’s soccer coach Zinedine Zidane turned down an approach from the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) to become the next coach.
His lack of interest wasn’t surprising given his resume, but the USSF’s pursuit felt instructive. It was a big swing.
A World Cup winner with France as a player, Zidane doesn’t need much of an introduction. He established himself as a consummate player on the pitch and is among the sport’s most respected managers after guiding Real Madrid to three straight UEFA Champions League titles from 2016 to 2018. If the USFF had somehow managed to land him, it would have been celebrated widely and set a positive tone for the run-up to the World Cup on home soil in 2026.
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When that didn’t happen, however, there was reason to believe it was someone in that form – achieved at the sport’s highest level – the federation would continue to pursue. Call it basic logic, especially since US Soccer announced that same week that it had hired a law firm to investigate a domestic violence incident in which Berhalter admitted to kicking his now-wife in 1991 when they were in college .
With all this going on, the idea that Berhalter would be rehired seemed far-fetched, and that was before it became public knowledge that the parents of rising star Giovanni Reyna — close friends of the Berhalter family for decades — had tried to orchestrate his downfall .
When the investigation was completed in March, its report found that U.S. soccer legend Claudio Reyna and his wife, Danielle, both threatened to reveal damaging information about Berhalter to U.S. soccer officials during the World Cup when their son was given limited playing time.
“When this tournament is over, I can make a phone call and do an interview and his cool sneakers and jumper will be gone,” Danielle Reyna told a federation official, according to the report.
On December 11, she did so and informed then-athletic director Earnie Stewart of the incident. And for about six months at least, that call had the desired effect: Berhalter was out as USMNT coach.
Of course, that is no longer the case. Berhalter was reinstated as US coach on Friday and will take the baton back from interim coach BJ Callahan at the conclusion of the Gold Cup.
Whether Berhalter is the right coach can – and will – be debated ad nauseam, but what is not up for debate is that his well-worn path back to the role was bizarre.
Get details about candidates, interview process
When Stewart left to become director of football at PSV Eindhoven at the end of January, US Soccer announced it was hiring an outside agency, Sportsology, to lead the search for his replacement, who would then be responsible for hiring the next head coach.
“Sportsology is working with senior U.S. Soccer management and has already begun a full review of U.S. Soccer’s sports department,” the USSF announced in January. “The group will also analyze head coaching candidates to expedite the athletic director hiring process.”
It took three months before Matt Crocker, most recently director of football operations at English club Southampton, was hired in April. In a Q&A after his hiring, Crocker said he would conduct a series of interviews in June, narrow the list of candidates, and then another round in mid-July.
At Berhalter’s rehiring news conference, Crocker said a “worldwide” search had been conducted, adding, “I talked to several candidates from guys who were [in roles] in the best leagues, coaches who have previously coached internationally.”
Crocker also confirmed that the number of candidates was in “double digits” but confirmed all other names or if the second round of scheduled interviews had taken place. It is also unclear which of those interviewed were subjected to what US Soccer described as a “battery of practical and psychological tests.”
One candidate, Jesse Marsch, was presumably in the mix until the end, given his agent, Ron Waxman, tweeted that the former Leeds United manager would not be taking the USMNT job just hours before news leaked of Berhalter’s return. Another candidate, ex-Arsenal star and recent Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira, held initial talks with the federation, but sources told ESPN’s Julien Laurens that talks did not progress.
Oguchi Onyewu, recently hired as the association’s vice president of sports said Sunday on the Paramount+ Nations League pregame show that other names would not be revealed as a matter of confidentiality.
Did salary or budget play a role?
None of the known candidates represent the same type of ambition associated with the early approach to Zidane, which can be explained in a couple of ways. What’s most likely is that the American job — as desirable as it looks domestically, with a young, talented core and a home World Cup to prepare for — still doesn’t interest the sport’s most accomplished coaches.
Then there is the budget. USSF CEO JT Batson said they had no salary restrictions, but a USSF source told ESPN in April that budget would play a role, and for example, something in the $10 million range in salary for a top coach was unrealistic.
Multiple sources told ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle that the names of the other finalists were not widely circulated among the 23-person USSF board, which approved the Berhalter hire, with only one member voting not to confirm.
Prior to the confirmation, several board members expressed concern about giving Berhalter another World Cup cycle, perhaps primarily as a matter of principle. It’s a common refrain around the world that coaches can lose their effectiveness at international level beyond a World Cup, and that rotating with a fresh voice or perspective protects against that. Jurgen Klinsmann’s second cycle with the USA supports that idea, but of the 16 teams that reached the 2022 World Cup knockout stages, 10 had either been with the team at the 2018 World Cup or served as head coach previously.
Did the players want Berhalter back?
As most of the American soccer public dismissed the possibility of Berhalter’s return, star Christian Pulisic had not. In an interview with ESPN in March, Pulisic admitted he wasn’t always a fan of Berhalter, but eventually came around.
“There were moments when he bent me. I hated him. I was so angry,” Pulisic said. “But then the next game comes and then I find myself in a better place.
“The way he handled a lot of situations, I have to give him a lot of credit. I think he created a team that was probably the best fraternity family I’ve been a part of. On the football side of things , when it came down to World Cup time, I think you could say a lot of people were also impressed with what we did out on the pitch.”
Pulisic was far from alone. Weston McKennie, Timothy Weah, Walker Zimmerman and DeAndre Yedlin among others all praised the job Berhalter has done in the last few weeks and months.
In Qatar, the United States advanced from the group without allowing a goal from open play before their 3-1 loss to the Netherlands in the Round of 16. It was a strong showing by American standards, especially considering they used the youngest starting XI in Qatar. the tournament. After the exit, negotiations for a contract extension with Berhalter were set to begin with the expectation that it was little more than a formality.
But when word leaked that Berhalter referred to Gio Reyna’s bad attitude in Qatar (without naming him specifically) during a leadership summit, that changed everything. That’s what prompted Danielle Reyna to finally go through with her threat, and when the USSF was made aware of the domestic violence allegation, it made the decision, if largely forced, to pull out of the extension negotiations.
“Whatever it is, I’m going to play and give 100% and that’s what I’m going to do,” Pulisic told ESPN in March. “In my opinion, everything that happened with Gregg, first of all, in my opinion, was handled in an extremely childish way. I think we’ve all seen what’s been going on. I think it’s childish, it is youth football, people complain about playing time, I don’t want us to get too far into it, but that’s what we’re going to say.
“I think Gregg has been extremely unlucky to get into the position he is now [while he was out of contract]. Do I feel like we just have to wait and wait? I don’t think it’s necessary because I don’t feel we’re at a stage that we were after, not qualified four years ago or however many years ago, we were back for the last World Cup, where we need a complete rebuild.”
And what about Gio Reyna?
Pulisic’s comments were made before Crocker’s appointment and it is impossible to quantify how much weight they carried, but had the players taken a firm view that it was time for a new manager, it is hard to discount the possibility that Berhalter would have been rehired. .
“From day one, my job was to make sure I engaged with the players so they understood where we were and what type of process I intended to take the candidates through to work through who the best candidate in the last end came out . . . the other end,” Crocker said. “And I kept them updated throughout the process.”
Crocker never specifically said whether Gio Reyna was among those he consulted and Berhalter said Friday that he has not spoken to Reyna since the World Cup.
“I will certainly recognize that there is work to be done and Gio is an important player for this team,” Berhalter said. “He’s an extremely talented individual and I have the commitment and the obligation to coach him like I coach any other player and I want to get the best out of him. We want to get the best out of him and we know , that if we can unlock his talents, he’s going to be a game-changer for this program. So there’s work to be done, and part of that is working with Matt and trying to rebuild a relationship that we know will be important going forward.”
Tough, potentially awkward conversations are sure to come. Reyna has only addressed the situation publicly once, in an Instagram post in December, where he expressed disappointment that events in a private team environment were made public and “extremely surprised that someone on the US men’s team staff would contribute to that. Coach Berhalter has always said that issues that arise with the team will remain ‘in house’ so we can focus on team cohesion and progress.”
However, his initial response on the pitch could not have been better. Reyna played what might have been his most impressive half of soccer in a U.S. jersey during the Concacaf Nations League final against Canada on Sunday, assisting both goals in the 2-0 victory — one on a corner, one on a brilliantly weighted pass to the new forward Folarin Balogun — before leaving the game at half-time with an injury. His influence on the game was pronounced and he ran the game from central midfield, a role Berhalter never put him in.
“The meeting with me is not a priority [for Reyna],” Berhalter said Friday. “It’s up to him to rest and prepare for the upcoming season. We will have time for that. It is a priority, but we will manage to do it before the September window.”