USMNT World Cup qualifiers: Gregg Berhalter deserves credit for overcoming early growing pains in qualifying


When Gregg Berhalter was appointed as the United States men’s national team head coach in 2018, there was more than a little fan pushback. USMNT supporters complained about everything from Berhalter’s MLS-focused credentials to the process by which the sporting director Earnier Stewart landed on Berhalter without interviewing other candidates. Then, a loss to Mexico in the 2019 Gold Cup final, seemed to validate all those concerns. The team seemed directionless and had an overreliance on holdovers such as Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.

But, as it turns out, rather than an indication of a team heading in the wrong direction, that loss marked a turning point for Berhalter and the USMNT. Since then, this side has only lost four games, securing two trophies along the way and beating Mexico twice in the finals of tournaments to do it. That success didn’t quell all of the fan discontent, however, and as recently as the first half against Costa Rica, there were calls to replace Berhalter.

In a way, it’s understandable. The World Cup qualifying cycle got off to a rough start with draws to El Salvador and Canada where the team couldn’t get going. Then there was an especially excruciating 1-0 loss in Panama where the team could only muster five total shots. But, just like that 2019 loss to Mexico, Berhalter’s team kept bouncing back from rough results in the best way possible. This time they defeated Costa Rica and Mexico to take control of their World Cup destiny at the halfway mark of Concacaf qualifiers, and now they have a chance to capitalize on a perfect November window with a win at Jamaica on Tuesday, which you could watch on Paramount+ at 5 p.m. ET.

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It’s in Berhalter’s nature to be a lightning rod for criticism. He has certainly made some interesting lineup decisions and his tactics can easily cross the line from bold to foolhardy. This is something that he admitted himself after the Panama loss where the team had to switch formations to a 4-4-2 in the second half once more regulars were added into the fold. The Costa Rica match was a similar situation with the team falling asleep early and then clawing back to secure the points.

But you can’t deny that ultimately he gets results. He’s responded by winning and doing it without two of his most talented players during that time. Christian Pulisic and Giovanni Reyna have missed major minutes, Weston McKennie faced a suspension from the team and despite it all, all they’ve done is march forward.

Thanks to Friday’s victory against Mexico, Berhalter became the fastest USMNT coach to reach 30 wins and is tied for fourth on the USMNT all-time wins list with Bora Milutinović. Friday’s result may have marked a rare hat-trick of wins over Mexico in a calendar year, but it was also the 16th win for Berhalter in 2021. With two games remaining in calendar year, albeit one being a December friendly, Berhalter is in prime position to break Jurgen Klinsmann’s 2013 record for most wins in a year.

2021

Gregg Berhalter

16-2-2

2013

Jurgen Klinsmann

16-4-3

2005

Bruce Arena

13-3-4

2009

Bob Bradley

13-8-3

2007

Bob Bradley

12-5-1

2016

Jurgen Klinsmann

12-6-1

2002

Bruce Arena

12-6-2

The task of guiding a youthful USMNT to the World Cup is tall. Berhalter, who in 2018 started the youngest USMNT lineup ever and in 2020 started the second-youngest, has been handed the most talented generation of soccer players in American history. He’s burdened not only with winning, but winning more decisively than the USMNT ever has before. While some of the criticism is warranted such as not taking control of games early enough, much of it can also be filed under growing pains for a young team. When it comes to player management, Berhalter has said and done the right thing and he has the support of the locker room. A team’s struggles can be forgiven if they emerge from the other side of them more successful.

With the team’s performance and the two trophies under their belt in the calendar year, Berhalter and his staff deserve some credit as they sit atop the Octagonal table with seven games to go. They’re in pole position being three points up on fourth while also being tied with Canada for the best goal difference (+7) in the group is a huge improvement from prior cycles. And while things aren’t perfect, they’re moving in the right direction and Berhalter is saying the right things and acknowledging his prior mistakes.

Berhalter has been able to not only acknowledge his mistakes, but also problem-solve them on the fly, which has spurred the team scoring 10 of 11 goals in the second half of matches in qualifying. From bringing Ricardo Pepi into the fold against Honduras to subbing in Christian Pulisic to score a header against Mexico, Berhalter in-game has pushed the right buttons. An issue with managers is that when their plan a doesn’t work, they don’t typically want to resort to Plan B, per se, but those are Berhalter’s strengths which goes a long way in international management.

He may not have been everyone’s choice to lead the team, but he’s certainly proving to be a worthy choice.

Kickoff for Tuesday’s game is set for 5 p.m. ET at Independence Park, with pre-match coverage beginning at 4:30 p.m. ET on Paramount+ with studio host Kate Abdo and analysts Clint Dempsey, Oguchi Onyewu and Charlie Davies, along with Maurice Edu. 





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