ST. PAUL, Minn. – On the eve of his first match in charge of a competitive US men's national team fixture, Gregg Berhalter found himself on the receiving end of a question about Christian Pulisic’s best role for Chelsea FC.
A different man might have responded, “How the heck am I supposed to know that?”
Berhalter, however, paused for several seconds, then gave a thoughtful response about how he and his staff are trying to unlock less-developed aspects of Pulisic’s skillset before he moves to the English giants.
When the formal Q&A ended, he chased down the reporter, not to chastise him for the off-topic question, but to ask the latest details on Chelsea’s quest to replace outgoing manager Maurizio Sarri.
It was as telling a window into Berhalter’s managerial psyche as any that opened in the Twin Cities, where his US squad went on to open Group D play in the Concacaf Gold Cup with a 4-0 victory over Guyana on Tuesday night.
For a man who played for the USMNT program when it could only dream of having a $73-million player, Berhalter appears determined to remain balanced amid the heightened scrutiny that faces America’s top soccer coach today, and in some ways even embrace that spotlight.
That’s perhaps why he followed a surprising 1-0 friendly loss to Jamaica on June 5 not by insisting the team would improve immediately, but by warning honestly that more growing pains could be coming as he instills his tactical vision. They certainly did, four days later in another friendly loss, 3-0 to Venezuela.
It may also be why he felt compelled to accept the invite to appear at a nearby bar later Monday night to answer questions before a fired-up, boozy crowd of US supporters almost exactly 24 hours before Tuesday’s kickoff.
“I think the first thing was just thanking them for their support and having them in the stadium,” Berhalter explained postgame. “I remember when I was playing, it was just starting out. And to see how it’s grown over the years has been amazing. I have a lot of respect for them and how they support the national team program. And it was good to interact and meet some of them up close.”
Whether the intricacies of Berhalter’s tactical system can be taught effectively in the compressed timelines of international football in unclear. That’s only part of the job description, though.
Another is defining how you will communicate with the public that follows you. And Berhalter appears to not only accept that growing scrutiny, but also respect the sophistication of the US national team’s following far more than previous managers.
Jurgen Klinsmann once famously justified his coaching decisions by suggesting American fans don’t understand what they are watching. Berhalter instead explains his thought process in itemized detail, believing those listening will be nuanced enough to understand the gist, even if it first seems complicated or contradictory.
Take his response Tuesday to a question about why Gyasi Zardes got the nod at forward over Jozy Altidore. Berhalter praised Zardes for his work rate. Then he also explained with two hour-long shifts already planned for Michael Bradley and Pulisic, he couldn’t risk Altidore not being fit enough to go 90 and not having any subs remaining for a potential injury.
Those twin strands aren’t intuitively cohesive, but they both measured up.
Similarly, in a match billed as the beginning of a new era in the international program’s competitive history, Berhalter called giving the captain’s armband to the old head Bradley an “easy decision.” In the process, he called on American fans to understand how the old and the new can co-exist to create progress.
Surely not every fan will rise to that bar, and not every player will be a good fit for a more complex international tactical setup.
Some critics suggested those friendly defeats to Jamaica and Venezuela showed Berhalter was overloading his charges with too much information too soon. A comfortable victory over a Guyana side making its first-ever appearance in a major tournament won’t silence all of those concerns. As Bradley said afterward, Tuesday was “a game we should win.”
To Berhalter’s credit, if you were doubting his squad before Tuesday night, he doesn’t imagine that you will have stopped now.
“The game was a decent starting point,” he said. “Not much more than that.”