Columbus Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter shouts instructions vs. Toronto FC
USA Today

The Evolution of Gregg Berhalter: Columbus Crew SC's young head coach never stops learning

COLUMBUS – It was less than two years ago when Gregg Berhalter took on a monstrous challenge in Europe – and it would have been easy to think his brief head coaching stint with Hammarby was a failure.

When Berhalter snapped up the head coaching job with the second-tier Swedish side in 2012, he became the first American to land a top job in Europe. The club had been a perennial presence in the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s top league, but had recently been relegated.

Berhalter’s job was to take them back, and it wasn’t going to be easy.

He followed a moderately successful first season, finishing just out of reach of promotion, with a subpar beginning to 2013. The leash was short, and he was fired by July.

The pressure, he said, was overwhelming.

“That being my first job, I think it was an extreme amount of pressure,” Berhalter told MLSsoccer.com. “You took a team that hadn’t performed well the year before, and you were expected to be champions. That was difficult for a first-time manager.”

Hammarby chairman Kent Hertzell was candid with the team’s website upon Berhalter’s dismissal. He hadn’t been good enough, particularly on the offensive end.

"Gregg has brought order to our defensive game and has good discipline in the squad, but unfortunately we have not seen good enough dividends in the offense," Hertzell told the website.

But Berhalter says it wasn’t a case of neglecting the offense. Opposition, he said, weren’t willing to go head-to-head against his attack-oriented offense and instead parked the bus.

That approach proved to be a hard nut to crack.

In the 15 matches before his dismissal, Hammarby allowed only 15 goals, but scored just 12 themselves and were shut out six times.

“The interesting dynamic at Hammarby is that teams played very, very defensive against us,” he said. “It became very difficult to break down. You’re always searching for perfection, always searching for quicker moves and finer moves and more precise shots and harder shots. And that was challenging. That was, as a coach, difficult.”

After his dismissal, Berhalter found himself without a job for the first time and suddenly with all the time in the world to plot his next move. With his decision to take the reigns with Columbus Crew SC at the start of 2014 – a team that had also struggled mightily in previous years that was undergoing a transformation – Berhalter was faced with a similar challenge.

And in just one season, Berhalter led the Crew back to the MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2011.

He knows, however, there’s still work to be done.

While the physical, hard-nosed American style of soccer is the natural foundation for many American soccer minds, Berhalter, an Englewood, New Jersey native, credits the highly technical, nuanced Dutch Eredivisie, where he began his professional career with Zwolle after skipping his senior year at the University of North Carolina in 1994, for many of his philosophies.

By the end of his Dutch experience, Berhalter was still in his 20s, but the seed of many of his soccer ideas had already been planted.

“I was lucky enough to [start my career] in Holland where, at that time, the game was exploding,” he said. “Ajax won the Champions League one year and went to the final the next year. Feyenoord was doing really well in European competitions, PSV had a very strong team and the Dutch national team was really good. So a lot of the basic ideas of my game are formed around the Dutch style and the Dutch principles.”

Berhalter would stay in the Netherlands for the next seven seasons with three teams.

But Berhalter’s career was just getting started and continued with a short stint at Crystal Palace, then Germany with Energie Cottbus and 1860 Munich before he made his last stop with the LA Galaxy from 2009-11.

And while his Dutch-style foundations remained, his experience helped broaden his scope.

“As I went to England, [my philosophies] started to change,” he said. “You realize it’s a more national game with more power; it’s more physical. The German side of it was about the precision and the movements. The German game is extremely physical with really fast transitions and really good crossing and shooting. You combine all those things, and you come out where we are.”

Leadership came naturally to Berhalter, who was nearly immediately named captain of his 1860 side and had become one of the more experienced members on the US national team by his 44th cap in 2006. But management and organizational prowess are difficult qualities to develop while just a player.

It was when Bruce Arena, his USMNT coach, took over the LA Galaxy in 2006 that Berhalter made the jump to America for the first time. He would eventually transition from player to assistant with LA in his first coaching job.

“I would say Bruce is my No. 1 mentor from the standpoint of managing a group and navigating through this league and personnel decisions,” he said. “There’s no one better, in our game, at that. He’s been extremely helpful to me in defining that.”

After just one season under Arena, Berhalter returned to Europe knowing the scope of the challenge – something he doesn’t regret.

“It took a couple years to define a lot of the stuff I was trying to do at Hammarby and the way that I would define it,” he said. “It was coaching in another culture, which also isn’t easy. That’s why I have a lot of empathy for the foreign coaches in our league today. You need to adapt to that. But overall it was a great experience, and it was something that I would never trade for anything.”

Before Berhalter was announced Crew SC boss in November 2013, his first interviews were done over the phone.

He was in Barcelona at the time, completing a trip that included observing clubs in Spain, England, Sweden and the Netherlands. He wasn’t job searching or asking for anything; he was just observing and learning.

It was a call from new Crew SC investor-operator Anthony Precourt, who laid out for Berhalter the idea of a blank slate. Precourt wanted someone to run his soccer operation, and Berhalter jumped at the chance.

“It was about Mr. Precourt and his vision of where he wanted to take the club,” Berhalter said. “Those visions – his and mine – aligned pretty closely, and that was something that made it exciting. I’ve learned from the past that you want to be around good people, and that was a key part of the decision.”

And after his travels, Berhalter found himself more motivated and his methods more focused.

“Things changed,” he said. “I think there’s more clarity to [my style]. It’s more defined.”

Not that he’ll actually spell it out for you – Berhalter keeps his tactical cards close in interviews and is fond of closed practices – but 90 minutes are more than enough to get a glimpse of the blueprint.

His fullbacks bomb up the wings more than any in the league. His “wide midfielders” almost exclusively pinch inside, allowing room for the fullbacks. His central midfield pairing of Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp fit into his possession-oriented, short-passing system perfectly, while playmaker Federico Higuain’s free role gives the modified 4-2-3-1 just enough fluidity to look a bit different each match.

The style of play has become recognizable.

But perhaps Berhalter’s most important improvement in Columbus has been revamping the team’s attitude and reputation. The coach preaches professionalism above nearly all else.

Everything from food and facilities to media policies has been tightened under his reign, and it’s led to the belief that Berhalter has what it takes to not only attract talent but also to provide a launching point for young players.

Defender Giancarlo Gonzalez provided the perfect example of that philosophy’s success. Floundering in the Norwegian Tippeligaen, Gonzalez was heading into a World Cup year without as much playing time as he wanted. Berhalter gave him a home and responsibility in Columbus, and by the end of an astounding World Cup run with Costa Rica, Gonzalez was packing his bags for Italian side Palermo.

“The first thing is that you want the guys to be comfortable,” Berhalter said of the new Crew SC culture. “They need to perform, and you want to put them in the best possible environment that they can perform. The second thing is that you want to be a club that the players are proud to play for and a club that’s known for looking after its players. You want to be the type of club that when players leave, they want to one day come back and play for you again.”

As the reputation for Berhalter’s style grows, so do the challenges.

Teams frequently tried the familiar bunkering against Columbus that felled Hammarby, and the Crew SC boss knows he has to work through it. He admits it will “always” be difficult to play against that style.

He’ll keep searching for that perfection and precision.

But Berhalter says he won’t be stagnating. And after years of change, his philosophies aren’t set in stone just yet.

“What I’ve been getting at is that you do evolve, and every experience you have changes you somewhat,” he said. “Ten years ago, of course I thought differently than I do now. The world thought differently, right? You look at technology, and everything has changed. That’s part of it. The game changes as well. Ten years from now, it will be different than it is now.”