Over the past several months, it's followed the US men’s national team at seemingly every turn and with dizzying roller-coaster swings.
From the euphoric relief of qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup to the jittery thrills of a Round of 16 run in Qatar to the saga involving former coach Gregg Berhalter and the Reyna family, new plotlines have been ever-present. And now another twist is nigh, just as the road to the much-anticipated North America 2026 World Cup formally kicks off with the first matches of both the year and the cycle.
Stewart, McBride exit
Thursday morning brought news that sporting director Earnie Stewart is leaving the federation to take up the post of director of football affairs at Eredivisie powerhouse PSV Eindhoven, while USSF also officially confirmed reports that broke several days ago of USMNT general manager Brian McBride’s departure.
“We've known for a couple of weeks that this was a possibility,” CEO and secretary general JT Batson said in an ensuing press conference, but “this all has firmed up over the last couple of days.”
While USSF executives were careful to confirm to reporters that Berhalter remains a candidate to regain the head coaching job pending their ongoing program-wide review, that possibility seems less likely than before.
“Obviously, this isn't the process that we chose to go down, said USSF president Cindy Parlow Cone. “But now that we are in the situation that we are, we've made some shifts inside of U.S. Soccer.”
Coach hire "by the end of the summer"
While Berhalter and McBride faced contractual exits, Stewart was supposed to be the last word and the throughline to the next cycle. He’d already received an extension to remain at the helm of the entire technical operation that oversees the men’s, women’s and youth national teams. He was to lead the USMNT’s direction approaching 2026 and select those who would execute it.
Now his successor must be selected and hired to lead a similar process to choose the next coach. That will take months. So interim USMNT coach Anthony Hudson will be in charge for a good while longer, probably through this year’s Concacaf Nations League (games in March) and Gold Cup (June and July) competitions. McBride’s post might not be refilled at all.
“We did let [Stewart] out of his contract to pursue this new job,” said Parlow Cone, rejecting the suggestion that any of this was planned in light of recent events. “The timing, we would like to have our new [sporting director] and our men's national team coach in place by the end of the summer.
“As for the GM role, we're going to be working together with [outside consultants] Sportsology to evaluate our entire sporting department, and once we have more clarity on what that department should look like moving forward, we’ll determine the leadership and support that is needed.”
Going several months into a new cycle without a permanent head coach does present some worrisome vibes – especially in the wake of the laborious overhaul required to lift the program out of the post-Couva doldrums it slid into five-plus years ago.
But disgruntled observers should also ask themselves what U.S. Soccer’s alternatives really are. At the risk of sounding sacrilegious: What’s the hurry?
The post needn’t be filled just to keep up appearances. Just like the January international transfer market tends to be smaller and less active than the summer one, there isn’t an abundance of tempting or suitable managerial candidates floating around as free agents right now. USSF reportedly already approached one of the most prominent ones, Zinedine Zidane, and got a polite ‘no.’
Even if the French legend and ex-Real Madrid boss is more of an aspirational target, it stands to reason significantly more possible hires on that tier, as well as the more realistic ones one rung below them, will be considering their options when the main European club seasons end in May and June.
Jose Mourinho is another name to pop up lately. A successful recruiting pitch for The Special One would probably involve waiting for his current Italian Serie A campaign at AS Roma to conclude before gaining his full attention. Even domestic contenders might think twice about taking a national-team job involving fewer competitive games thanks to automatic qualification via hosting rights, at least until the nature of the 2024 Copa América takes shape.
The USMNT are defending Nations League and Gold Cup champions, and those are titles worth defending with full commitment. Regional honors like this are not unprecedented, however – certainly not compared to the scale of the opportunity awaiting in 2026.
Hudson’s record in charge of the Colorado Rapids makes him an unappetizing figurehead for many among the USMNT fanbase, and those stark numbers (8W-26L-9D in league play) speak for themselves. But advancing to the final of regional championships has been a baseline expectation for the USMNT for decades now, and will remain so for whoever is in charge. Mounting a real World Cup push in ‘26, on home soil, will be how whoever takes the helm is most measured.
A new hiring process
In the meantime, Parlow Cone and Batson aim to build the kind of process-oriented organizational infrastructure that has not always existed at such moments in the past. Older readers may remember that the hires of both Jürgen Klinsmann and his replacement Bruce Arena were primarily driven by then-president Sunil Gulati rather than a collaborative methodology. Structures tend to be more lasting than personalities here.
“We think Earnie and team had built a great bench,” said Batson on Thursday, “to be able to carry us forward in a very positive way.”
Earlier this month a reporter asked Batson about the much-discussed 2018 process by which Berhalter was hired, in which reportedly few others were seriously considered. Batson alluded to “learnings and recommendations to make sure that we're approaching things with the sophistication and the sort of level of professionalism that we are striving to deliver.”
Right now, that push for sophistication means scanning the horizon in addition to considering what’s close at hand.