When Gregg Berhalter was hired by Columbus Crew SC late in 2013, I didn't really get it.
Sure, his bona fides as a player were unimpeachable – he'd had a very good run with the USMNT, including an excellent 2002 World Cup showing; he'd spent 15 years in Europe, bouncing mostly between the Eredivisie and 2. Bundesliga; he finished things up with 50-odd games for Bruce Arena's LA Galaxy, helping win an MLS Cup/Supporters' Shield double in 2011, his final year on the pitch before moving to the sideline.
That move was not smooth, and therein lay my confusion. Berhalter had gone back to Europe for his first head coaching job, landing with Hammarby in Sweden. He lasted 18 months before he was fired. His team had shown a "lack of attacking play."
I mean, so had the Crew in 2013. "How is someone who washed out of Sweden going to fix Columbus?" is what I thought, and what I wanted to write.
There's a line I actually did write in August of 2011, when Jurgen Klinsmann was hired to replace Bob Bradley. I don't remember exactly how it went, so accept this paraphrase:
We can suspect we’ll see something, but we won’t know until it’s out there for us to watch. That’s a big change, because with Bob Bradley, we almost always knew.
With Klinsmann, until the ball is kicked, we won’t.
The idea, you see, was that Klinsmann, with his iconoclastic ways, would shake up U.S. Soccer. That he would be inventive and intuitive and would drag out of the US a more elegant, attacking style of play. Sure, he'd goofed badly with Bayern Munich, and yes, he was the man who hand-picked Aron Winter for Toronto FC. And ok, when he talked he didn't sound much like a man with a plan, but more like a collection of cliches and platitudes. Nonetheless he would elevate the game here, as he supposedly had for Germany. It would be exciting.
I think about that line all the time, and wish to God I hadn't written it. With Klinsmann, even when the ball was kicked, we still didn't know. Neither did the players.
I keep a document of lines that I wish I had written, and go to them when I'm feeling stumped or in need of inspiration.
"Precise and effortful execution can only raise a bad plan to mediocrity," from Deadspin's Albert Burneko, is one of those lines.
That line is irrefutably true. Also true: A bad plan is better than no plan.
To be clear, I think that Berhalter, who was named head coach of the USMNT on Sunday, will come up with a very good plan. I think he will impose a structure and instill a sense of tactical balance and responsibility on this young roster. I'm not certain that he will get the very best out of everyone on the team, but I am certain that will not be for lack of clarity and planning and effortful execution.
For the past five years, Berhalter's Crew played the most defined and structured system in MLS. And at no point – that includes this past year, when his team wasn't scoring much – could anyone have accused his side of a "lack of attacking play." Sure, the final product didn't always come off (which isn't unusual for any small-budget team in any league). But by both the underlying numbers and the eye test, the Crew moved. Let them get into a rhythm and they would spray; bottle them up and they'd run. Try to shove it down their throat and you'd meet well-drilled banks of four, everyone in their zone and all involved in helping each other keep tabs on opposing attackers both on and off the ball.
His job now is to translate that overall ethos to the US men’s national team.
At their best, this is what his Crew looked like:
This goal hits pretty much every bullet point on the Berhalter's Attacking Plan for the Crew™ checklist:
- the sequence of possession begins with the 'keeper
- d-mid Wil Trapp drops deep, and the defenders split
- both fullback push high, creating width and verticality
- box-to-box midfielder Artur drops into more of a defensive midfielder's role
- the wingers tuck inside into playmaker zones while the fullbacks control the wing
- once RBNY have been unbalanced, a center mid (Artur, this time) plays a long diagonal to the weak-side fullback
- that pass is a trigger for all the attackers to flood into the final third with coordinated runs
- Federico Higuain, the No. 10, is the x-factor, sniffing out spots from which he can playmake or orchestrate or be goal dangerous
- one-touch goal for the center forward
There is a lot of great individual work here. Higuain's touch is the stand-out, but don't discount that pass from Jonathan Mensah to Harrison Afful – look at how hard Daniel Royer bites on Mensah's look toward Pedro Santos. Good individual play opens up a lot of lanes.
All of it comes from within the structure Berhalter has created over the past half-decade. Having that structure allowed Columbus to be a side whose whole was pretty consistently greater than the sum of the parts from the time he took over. Crew SC punched above their weight, and that included playoff matchups against the likes of Jesse Marsch, Tata Martino and Patrick Vieira.
Suffice it to say, I now understand exactly why he was hired in Columbus. And I understand why he was hired for the USMNT, too.
Step 1 was hiring a coach with a plan. Step 2 is figuring out if that plan can work A) at the international level, what with its shorter windows to train the team; and B) with the current player pool.
I'm not particularly worried about the backline or, obviously, goalkeeper. I don't think Trapp can do at the international level what he's done with the Crew, but I'm very encouraged by the play and development of more robust defensive options at d-mid like Tyler Adams and Russell Canouse. I have zero worries about the No. 8 spot, or the wingers. Forward looks a little bit thin now, but I bet by springtime we'll have two Bundesliga regulars, a healthy Jozy Altidore and at least one other young-ish forward (Andrija Novakovich? Jeremy Ebobisse? Jordan Morris?) ready to go.
Personnel-wise, the big issue is simply that the way the Crew have played since 2014 was inextricably tied to Higuain. The little Argentine has gotten my vote for "smartest player in the league" five years running, and there's nobody quite like him in the US pool. There just aren't many No. 10s at all, truth be told.
There is every chance that Berhalter fashions a plan without a No. 10. Or he could do with the US and Christian Pulisic what Tata Martino did with Atlanta and Miguel Almiron, making him a No. 10 who plays as a "central winger," bursting through the lines to find space. Pulisic has played plenty in that role for the US, and usually with good results to show for it.
The raw, top-down strategic approach (Step 2, Part A) is the bigger question. "Can the US be a mid-block, possession-heavy team?"
Berhalter's Crew were always in the top third in MLS in terms of raw possession, and usually had the highest number of passes per possession – their possessions were long. And they hit a lot of longballs, primarily from central midfield to the flank (28 per game, the essential connection that defines the Columbus style). Transporting that whole cloth to a new team that plays a dozen games a year (at best) together is a big ask even if the personnel is 100% correct.
Beyond that, "Should the US be a mid-block, possession-heavy team?" is arguably an even bigger question.
There is a chance that "use the ball to unbalance the opposition" is a mediocre plan given the player pool and the direction of the international game. France won the World Cup by countering. Chile won the last two Copa Americas not with the ball, but with their suffocating press (at least until the final, at which point they won it with karate and bunkering). Portugal counterpunched their way to the 2016 Euros. Even Mexico finally gave up the ball this past summer, settling in to counter their way past Germany in the group stage.
Ball dominance is no longer as strongly correlated to winning soccer at the international level as it was five years ago. Apropos of everything, we've never seen Berhalter put together a winning team that's not ball-dominant. It's a concern that borders on being an outright worry.
Right now with Berhalter, we don't know. We don't know if he's going to play with a No. 10. We don't know if he wants to join the crowd and create a frenetic, pressing, attritional international side. We don't know if he'll play Pulisic wide or central. We don't know if he'll want to counter teams to death. We don't know if he'll use one forward or two, three defenders or four or five.
We don't know if he can create a stylish, ball-dominant USMNT. We don't know if he even wants to.
So there are questions, as there would be with any new coach. But one thing we should all have learned over the last half-decade of watching the Crew evolve and the US stagnate: Where there is a structure and a system – where there is a plan – there are answers.