Sometimes it's the coach's fault

The criteria were rigorous. The data analytics were advanced. The metrics were sophisticated and the hiring methods were cutting edge. Most importantly, when U.S. Soccer embarked on its global search for a new men's national team coach last year, it had the one thing every successful soccer team needs: a multifaceted evaluation mechanism.

But that wasn’t all. There was a lot more corporate jargon to come. Matt Crocker, technical director of US Soccer, calculated that there were 22 elements to coaching a single soccer team, including leading “off-field player engagement” and supporting “team audit,” as well as eight “core competencies.”

This list was also exhaustive. Each head coach candidate had to have a “vision-driven identity”—which makes it sound a bit like a plea to an optician—as well as be a creative developer and a passionate innovator, which we should emphasize are not the same thing at all.

Crocker must have thought he and his staff had checked every box, covered every base, when the search ended with the previous incumbent, Gregg Berhalter, being replaced by himself. In hindsight, unfortunately, there should have been a ninth core skill for the U.S. men's national team coach: not losing to Panama.

It’s been such a week for U.S. Soccer. On Monday, just days after that heartbreaking loss to Panama, Berhalter’s team fell to Uruguay, eliminating them from the Copa América on home soil in the group stage. It’s an especially troubling humiliation, given that the country will host the World Cup in two years.

The reaction has been, well, predictable. Players are filled with regret, sadness, and a little self-loathing. Fans are filled with anger. That US Soccer’s response was to promise another thorough review has done little to quell the growing dissatisfaction: as far as most fans are concerned, the only possible outcome is obvious.

“It’s time to change the head coach position,” read a statement released this week by the American Outlaws, “US Soccer’s largest supporters group.” (It was nice of them to use the term in corporate parlance, US Soccer’s native language.)

This is, it must be said, not exactly an outlandish request. Berhalter played more or less on par in his first World Cup, guiding a young American team through a fairly tough group before falling to the Netherlands in the round of 16. But what is effectively his second stint as coach has been nothing short of disheartening.

Although his team won the Nations League earlier this year, they did so after losing in the semi-finals of the 2023 Gold Cup, again to Panama, who are proving to be their nemesis, and a comprehensive defeat to Colombia in a friendly. A shocking performance in the Copa América was many things, but it was not a real surprise.

And Berhalter doesn’t have the excuse, as he does in 2022, of having a young team. The key players for the United States are all in their 20s and approaching what should be their prime.

While it could be argued that the cost of playing soccer in the United States is prohibitive for many families, limiting the country's talent pool, that statement does not apply in our case.

Only three members of Berhalter’s Copa América squad play in Major League Soccer. He had six representatives from the Premier League and four from the Italian Serie A, as well as others who play in Spain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The United States may not have as much world-class talent as they would like to think, but that has to be a deterrent. Venezuela and Panama have both reached the quarterfinals of the Cup. Slovakia, Slovenia, Georgia and Austria have reached the last 16 of Euro 2024. Switzerland is in the bottom eight. Their playing resources are not significantly deeper or of higher quality than those available to the United States.

The fact that their results were much better — unfortunately — casts a harsh light of scrutiny on the coach. It is difficult not to argue that Berhalter failed to make the most of what he had at his disposal. And that, ultimately, is the job of an international coach.

While it is tempting to poke fun at U.S. Soccer’s tendency to use the language of corporate consultants, dismiss its belief that the best parallel for the complexities of elite sports can be found in the world of Wall Street and Silicon Valley, and deride the distinctive LinkedIn air that hangs around the organization, Crocker is smart, skilled, and well-regarded.

His work at Southampton and the English Football Association, a place that has always loved “root and branch” revisions, has been impressive. He has enough experience to know that impulsive decisions rarely lead to happy outcomes. There is a non-zero chance that the phrase “react quickly, repent slowly” has been engraved on his soul.

And yet it's hard not to wonder if, at some point, everyone involved in US soccer lost sight of what a national team coach actually does. Not just the organization, with its PowerPoint presentations, personality profiles, and “abstract reasoning tests,” but also the staff, the players, and even the fans.

Berhalter has often spoken of his job as a coach as “changing the way the world sees American soccer.” It’s a message that has clearly sunk into the brains of his players.

“We want to change the way the world sees American soccer, actually, that’s one of our goals,” Christian Pulisic said a couple of years ago.

“We set out on a mission four years ago to change the way the world sees American soccer,” teammate Weston McKennie said last year. “And now our motto is to change soccer in America forever.”

There was an echo of that sentiment in the statement the American Outlaws produced. “Every game is about more than just the score,” he wrote. “It’s an opportunity to capture America’s attention and build an everlasting bond between new fans and the team. It’s an opportunity to inspire new fans to stage the game and longtime fans to share the team with others.”

This is an admirable, if quixotic, sentiment. Soccer is already entrenched in the American sports landscape. Millions play it. Millions watch it. There is a strong, resilient, and widely followed domestic league. American players are scattered throughout Europe. The women's team has long been the best in the world.

Soccer has been a thing for Americans for a while now. True, the rest of the world may not pay much attention to it, but that’s not uncommon. Aside from the Premier League, no domestic tournament really captures the attention of a foreign audience. Fans in Italy aren’t avidly consuming the latest from the German Bundesliga. Soccer is typically provincial, and all the better for it.

More immediately, however, this belief that the United States plays not to win games but for hearts and minds piles undue pressure on players. It creates an urgency, a desire for panic, among fans that shouldn’t exist. And, crucially, it has clearly come to distort the thinking of the game’s authorities.

In Crocker’s hiring process, which led to Berhalter’s reinstatement, he dismissed focusing on “the next game, the next result” as the kind of small-time thinking indicative of a “long-serving coach.” Fueled by an insatiable desire to grow the game, U.S. Soccer decided it needed the opposite, a guy with a big-picture vision, a level-four galactic brain.

And that's all very well, until a defeat against Panama means elimination at home, and the specter of impending humiliation (and the rejection of the greatest opportunity of all) looms on the horizon.

The job of US Soccer is to think about the future, to consider where the game is going, to have an identity that is driven by vision. It is the job of the coach to take McKennie, Pulisic, Gio Reyna and all the rest and turn them into a team that can win some games in 2026, maybe get to the quarterfinals. There are not eight core competencies for a national team coach. There is one, and it is really, really obvious.

Euro 2024 has not been — so far — what one might describe as a classic. There have been moments, of course. There always are moments. Mert Gunok’s stunning save to preserve Turkey’s victory over Austria. Georgia’s emotional, enthralling victory over Portugal. Hungary’s ultimately futile triumph over Scotland. Ruben Vargas’s deft, curling shot to send Switzerland into the quarter-finals. Jude Bellingham’s acrobatic save to spare England’s blushes.

And there was colour in abundance, rich and varied: the dancing Dutch fans, the battalions of black-clad ultras, the pre-match passions and contests organised by fans from – though not necessarily from – Turkey, Albania, Georgia and Romania. It's all good stuff.

But the tournament as a whole feels like it’s been scrambling, just a little, for momentum. This may be structural. The group stage was, necessarily, a slow burn: starting with 24 teams but eliminating only eight tends to concentrate the drama in the final round of matches.

It also has a knock-on effect in the round of 16, where there have been too many games with an obvious favorite: Switzerland vs. Italy and Austria vs. Turkey have been the only exceptions. Typically, the rest of the games have taken the form of a spirited underdog trying tooth and claw to hold back the tide, ultimately to no avail.

There is, however, good news for the next two weeks: a mouth-watering quarter-final lineup. The France-Portugal match will not, judging by this tournament, be particularly dynamic, but there is irresistible tension in a match between two teams with realistic ambitions of winning the tournament.

Switzerland will test a hesitant England for the first time; the match will serve to determine whether a well-coached and aggressive team can overcome a team full of individual talent.

Spain has been the most impressive team in the tournament so far; their opponents, Germany, have the advantage of playing at home and have a unifying purpose.

But, just as Turkey's match against Austria was the most intriguing of the last round, the one against the Netherlands could prove to be the most interesting of this particular series.

Tradition has it that the Dutch, even without their first-choice midfield, are the favorites. Turkey, on the other hand, is all energy, grit and chaos, and has two of the best players of the tournament, Arda Guler and Ferdi Kadioglu.

The Euro has been all sparkle and flash so far. This should be where it shines.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *