NEW YORK -- For as much as Gregg Berhalter’s hiring as the new U.S. men’s national team coach has been talked about, until his inaugural press conference Tuesday, not much was known about how he himself sees the job.
Plenty of outsiders would like to paint on that blank canvas. Even U.S. Soccer Federation Carlos Cordeiro did a bit of it, saying Berhalter would “push our men’s team forward with an identity and an approach that will be uniquely and fiercely American.”
But Berhalter has a right to his own palette. On Tuesday, he got to show the nation its colors.
“I’m excited for the opportunity to turn this group of men into a team,” Berhalter said. “I’ll be focusing on the players and the team, how we can compete first and foremost. I’m focused on building a style of play and I’m focused on team cohesiveness. I know it’s going to be a challenge, but I know there’s quality in this group.”
Many of the most promising players he referred to are quite young, and still raw at the top level of international soccer. Top striker prospect Josh Sargent and top winger prospect Tim Weah are both 18. Tyler Adams, who recently moved from MLS' New York Red Bulls to Germany’s RB Lepizig, is 19. Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie are 20.
Berhalter has the opportunity to play a major role in their development, and he knows it.
“In watching the team over the last year ... you could see that guys were getting opportunities to play at the international level for the first time … and they were getting to terms with what the international level is about,” he said. He called it “a group with potential," but also "a group that needs development, that needs direction.”
Asked what his style might entail, Berhalter gave a clear answer.
“The idea is that we’re an attacking-based team that wants to create goal-scoring opportunities by dis-organizing the opponent,” Berhalter said. “We want to see ball circulation, breaking lines."
It’s fair to ask, though, whether his team will be able to do that against world powers -- or against Concacaf minnows whose home fields are as rough as the teams that play on them. And indeed, Berhalter was asked. His answer drew straight from his many years as a national team player.
“I think we played on a field in Barbados where the grass is five inches tall and there’s mud in half the spots," he said, recalling a World Cup qualifying game in 2000. “You have to be realistic about where you’re going to play and when you’re going to play. But first and foremost I think we want a team that’s going to compete, we want a team that’s going to be prepared, and we want a team that’s going to understand our style of play and be able to execute it.”
The playing style will also be influenced by general manager Earnie Stewart. During his time as Union sporting director, Stewart was known for his belief in a rigid tactical system that was employed from the senior team down to youth squads. He viewed it as a backbone, and even as a fall-back for players when things weren’t going right.
Berhalter seemed to allude to being more flexible than that. So the question went to Stewart: are things different in international soccer from the club game?
“You’re trying to create this way that you make things really simple for your players, and the higher the level of your players goes, the more flexible you can be,” he told the Inquirer and Daily News after the press conference.
So, yes. But he was clear that there will still be a backbone.
“It’s creating all these relationships between players that they all understand what they need to do, and the first sense of everything is trying to make it simple for them,” he said. “When it comes to organization, yeah, you have to have to have something to fall back on. You have to have responsibilities to fall back on. And not only that you know it and that I know it, but that we know it from each other, and what the qualities are of different people.”
Berhalter echoed the virtue of simplicity. This was not to say his style of soccer will be simple, but rather that it’s a coaching staff’s job to make his style easy to understand and execute. That matters even more as a national team coach, because you aren’t with players every day the way you are at a club.
“My job as a coach and our job as a staff is to make it as simple as possible,” he said. “Our game is based on very simple principles. ... The training sessions are very straightforward. I think it’s easy for the players to pick up on it. To execute at a really high level does take some time, but it’s based on simple principles. I hope that the group will appreciate that, and I hope that you’ll be able to see that when we play.”
He also expressed hope that it wouldn’t take too long to produce results.
“As with any team building it’s a process, [but] I don’t want to use that as excuse and say eight years from now we’re going to be good,” he said. “The process has to accelerate. When you have quality players, when you have players that have the ability to learn, you can accelerate that process a little bit. What I’d say is, we want to see progress. Each and every camp you should expect to see development amongst the team. That’s my job, that’s the job of this staff.”