NEW YORK -- The hiring of Gregg Berhalter as the U.S. men’s national team’s new head coach should be a moment for nothing but optimism.
But it’s not, and it’s the U.S. Soccer Federation’s own fault.
Gregg’s brother Jay Berhalter is one of the governing body’s highest-ranking executives. His official title, as CEO Dan Flynn put it Tuesday, is “chief commercial and strategy officer.”
A Federation employee for 18 years, Jay has his hands in a wide range of Federation matters, from marketing deals to picking venues for games and setting ticket prices. His compensation of $780,000 in the 2017 fiscal year at the Federation -- including a bonus for his role in running the Copa América Centenario in 2016 -- was the second-highest of any non-coach employee. It was notably more than double the salary of U.S. women’s national team coach Jill Ellis.
Jay also has wielded considerable influence in the soccer operations side of the organization -- the technical side, to use the official term.
Back in late 2015, when Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure as U.S. coach and technical director started to hit the rocks, Berhalter reportedly took over some of Klinsmann’s technical director duties.
This year, Berhalter was on the six-person committee that picked Earnie Stewart to be the men’s national team’s general manager. No on-the-record explanation was ever given for why a business-side executive was needed on a technical-side committee, though sources have said since then that it was to have a diversity of perspectives in the group.
After Stewart was hired, he kept Berhalter out of the coach search process. It was run by Stewart and Federation soccer-side officials Nico Romeijn and Ryan Mooney.
(That characterization was provided Wednesday morning by a U.S. Soccer spokesperson. It was noted to the Inquirer and Daily News that Berhalter did not recuse himself, he was kept out.)
But for some observers, it smelled bad enough that Berhalter had a role in picking the man who might later hire his brother -- who had earned the right to be a candidate well before Stewart became GM.
At Gregg’s introductory press conference on Tuesday, Flynn and Federation president Carlos Cordeiro were asked exactly what Jay’s job entails. They defended Jay’s past, present and potential future roles.
“He’s a valued employee [and] a long-term employee of U.S. Soccer who has made a tremendous contribution, and will continue to make a contribution," Flynn said. “Jay reports directly to me, just like Earnie Stewart reports directly to me. I hope and have every bit of confidence that Jay will continue to be a great contributor to U.S. Soccer.”
Cordeiro spoke about Jay’s role in the GM search.
“Jay was involved earlier on, in the year, back in February, just after I got elected [president],” Cordeiro said. “He was then involved in some of our technical activities. He was involved with the selection of Earnie as general manager. That process, however, was run by Carlos Bocanegra. As chair, or co-chair [with Angela Hucles] of the technical development committee, he took responsibility for the GM search. Jay was one of five or six people in that process.”
(Bocanegra and Hucles are also co-chairs of U.S. Soccer’s Athletes Council, which gives current and former players a formal say in Federation affairs.)
Cordeiro then turned to the coach search.
“We anticipated way back in August when the search began that with Gregg being a likely contender, we wanted to keep things very separate,” Cordeiro said. “We were incredibly careful about that, and Jay had nothing to do with that process. So I want to be very clear that we think the process has been honest and fair. And put yourself in our shoes. [When] Gregg comes out on top, why would we discriminate against Gregg because his brother happens to work at the Federation? This is an independent process that concluded with that result.”
Cordeiro is no stranger to principles of good governance. One of the big reasons why he won the presidency after serving as vice president and a board member for many years was his desire to clean up a Federation hierarchy that he felt wasn’t working in the sport’s best interest.
Right now, though, Cordeiro’s road to good governance is at a fork.
In October, the Washington Post reported that Flynn will step down from his CEO role next year, likely after the women’s World Cup in the summer. It wasn’t a surprise; the potential for it has been on the table since back in 2017, when Sports Illustrated first reported Flynn was considering it.
Jay Berhalter’s business acumen and knowledge of the soccer landscape give him a strong resume to succeed Flynn. When Gregg is the men’s national team coach, though, elevating Jay even higher looks bad.
Yet when Flynn and Cordeiro were asked if they would rule Berhalter out of being the next CEO, they did not.
Flynn got things started by saying “it’s safe to say that plan [for Flynn’s exit] is not completely in place."
Then it was Cordeiro’s turn.
“At the end of every board meeting, we sit down and talk about succession planning,” Cordeiro said. “Dan will retire at some point. It might be next year. And when that happens, we will have a selection committee, a board committee that will spend time identifying potential candidates. We’ll have an outside search firm working with us. We will have a very open, transparent process that will come back to the board. We’ll have internal candidates -- Jay could be one of them -- we’ll have external candidates, and we’ll make an independent assessment of who we feel is the best person, man or woman, in order to take Dan’s place.”
There it is in plain English: Jay could be one of them.
That remark didn’t go over well, and it shouldn’t have. Why does it make sense for the Federation to open itself up to more conflict-of-interest accusations than it already faces from the entity’s years of cozy financial ties with MLS?
Soccer fans can only hope Cordeiro keeps his promise of transparency. Right now, it’s transparent to many outsiders that Jay Berhalter’s role at U.S. Soccer has unfairly burdened his brother.
Gregg Berhalter is a plenty good enough coach to have earned the job on his own merits. Even fair-minded fans who’d have hired a different coach know Gregg deserves their support going forward.
But Jay keeps finding ways into the spotlight. For as long as he keeps doing so, the questions about his role won’t go away.