After crashing out of Copa America, it's time to give Berhalter the boot

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The fallout began with a shake of Gregg Berhalter’s head, and thousands of boos, and dozens of bereft stares. Nobody knows how it will end, but it began here Monday night with U.S. soccer fans winding down Arrowhead Stadium ramps and chanting: “Fire Gregg! Fire Gregg!”

It continued an hour later with downcast players trudging through a post-match interview zone. All who stopped to talk with journalists were asked some version of the same question: Do they still have faith in Berhalter? Should he continue as their head coach?

“Ahh … that is quite a blunt question,” defender Antonee Robinson said. “Obviously that decision doesn’t fall to me and the boys.” He understood, though, why it was being asked — “because I think the minimum expectation for us was that we get out of the group, and we didn’t.”

Instead, they crashed at the 2024 Copa América, a tournament that once packed so much promise, but now might cost Berhalter his job.

In January 2023, when it was first announced, the Americans looked like potential third-favorites, behind only Argentina and Brazil. They had recovered from a modern-era nadir. They had ushered in an unprecedented wave of talent. They had gone to Qatar, leaned into their youth, reached the Round of 16, and left believing they could “be giants eventually.”

The U.S. men’s national team, at the time, was rising.

And U.S. Soccer officials attributed portions of their growth to the man steering the ascent, Berhalter.

So, now, they surely must hold Berhalter accountable for the program’s stagnation.

They — U.S. Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker, president Cindy Parlow Cone and CEO J.T. Batson — watched here at Arrowhead Stadium on Monday as the USMNT lost 1-0 to Uruguay and slumped out of the Copa América. They watched the latest in a growing line of disappointing games that have led a majority of pundits and fans to conclude that Berhalter must be fired.

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He was rehired last June to sustain the program’s ascent, and to guide it toward the 2026 World Cup. A year later, it has flatlined.

The players, on paper, are better than ever; the team is not, and has shown little to no evidence of second-cycle progress.

Since Berhalter returned last fall, it lost to Germany and nearly to Jamaica; it got humiliated by Colombia and punked by Panama. It beat the worst Mexico team in decades, sure, and stood up to Brazil; but it stumbled through and out of its 2026 dress rehearsal, the 2024 Copa.

In the aftermath, Berhalter said, “we’re bitterly disappointed with the results.” He added multiple times that “we’ll do a review, and figure out what went wrong, why it went wrong.”

But will he even be given a chance to partake in that review?

“That’s not up to me,” Berhalter said.

It is up to Crocker, the Welshman who chose Berhalter, and who now must acknowledge that his first big bet at U.S. Soccer was a losing one.

It wasn’t, to be clear, a foolish bet. In the spring of 2023, Berhalter was a safe and relatively sensible pick to (re)take charge of the team. There were reasonable — and perhaps now vindicated — doubts about his ability to drive the USMNT into another gear, to a new level. But there were equally reasonable beliefs that he could — that the culture he’d created was strong; that he’d “developed a really young, dynamic, front-footed team,” as Crocker said; and that he deserved a chance to shape the next stage of development.

So Crocker gave Berhalter that chance.

Thus far, Berhalter hasn’t taken it.

And the belief is no longer reasonable. Even if the stagnation isn’t entirely Berhalter’s fault, it now seems clear that replacing him would raise the USMNT’s ceiling in 2026.

And even if replacing him comes with risk, the bigger risk is in not chasing upside, and continuing on this now-flat trajectory.

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - JULY 01: Gregg Berhalter, Head Coach of United States looks on during the CONMEBOL Copa America 2024 Group C match between United States and Uruguay at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium on July 01, 2024 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Shaun Clark/Getty Images)KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - JULY 01: Gregg Berhalter, Head Coach of United States looks on during the CONMEBOL Copa America 2024 Group C match between United States and Uruguay at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium on July 01, 2024 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Shaun Clark/Getty Images)

We may have seen the last of Gregg Berhalter as the head coach of the USMNT during Monday’s 0-1 loss to Uruguay. (Photo by Shaun Clark/Getty Images)

Whether Crocker agrees is another story. Most of his work in his first year on the job has been private and somewhat secretive. He was not made available for interviews ahead of or during the Copa América. He has never explicitly and publicly defined his expectations for Berhalter and the USMNT.

In the aftermath of Monday’s loss, a U.S. Soccer spokesman distributed a statement attributed to Crocker. It read: “Our tournament performance fell short of our expectations. We must do better. We will be conducting a comprehensive review of our performance in Copa America and how best to improve the team and results as we look towards the 2026 World Cup.”

The review, of course, will be much deeper than anything that anyone outside U.S. Soccer could undertake. It will delve into metrics and human factors. And it could yield a kinder view of Berhalter than the one currently held by most fans. Crocker could, for example, explain away the Copa América flop as a fluke primarily triggered by Tim Weah’s red card, by misfortune, and by underperforming players.

Some players might even agree. “I don’t think this tournament really had anything to do with the staff or the tactics or the way we play,” Gio Reyna said Monday. “I think it was more individual mistakes.”

Individual mistakes that become chronic and contagious, of course, could be signs that a coach has lost his players; that his voice has worn thin.

Berhalter, when asked whether he was still the right voice for this group of players, responded with a single word: “Yes.”

Crocker could come to a different conclusion.

Or he could stand by his initial conclusion last year: that Berhalter’s human-centered leadership skills are a strength. That players like him and fight for him. He’s “a coach that players would run through a brick wall for,” Weston McKennie said Monday. “Players listen to him.”

Crocker could also consider complicating factors. He might have to consider money. Firing Berhalter would presumably cost the federation some, depending on the terms of Berhalter’s contract, which runs through 2026. And hiring a replacement would probably cost more. Berhalter makes roughly $1.6 million per year, according to sources briefed on his current deal. A foreign coach of the stature that many fans crave — Jürgen Klopp? Pep Guardiola? — would likely command a significantly higher salary.

It’s also unclear who, exactly, would want the job, or whom Crocker might pursue as a replacement. The only other known, legitimate and interested candidate during last year’s search, Jesse Marsch, now coaches Canada. It’s unclear how truly “global” that search was, or how global a second one could be.

There is also no guarantee that a replacement would be better than Berhalter. Change can be disruptive. Disrupted chemistry can quickly spiral.

But the overriding thought, now, is that, intangibles aside, the USMNT’s performances simply haven’t been good enough. Berhalter and his team have still not beaten a top-20 Elo foe. Their attack has gone stale. And the staleness, it seems, is not for a lack of effort or talent. So is it structure? Is the problem Berhalter’s system?

Reyna, when asked those questions Monday, smiled and shook his head. “I don’t really know at this point,” he said. “These are tough questions to answer. I think just overall, staff, players, we all just gotta grow from this, get better.”

Coach Gregg Berhalter of the United States greets goalkeeper Matt Turner after losing 0-1 against Uruguay at the end of a Copa America Group C soccer match in Kansas City, Mo., Monday, July 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffman)Coach Gregg Berhalter of the United States greets goalkeeper Matt Turner after losing 0-1 against Uruguay at the end of a Copa America Group C soccer match in Kansas City, Mo., Monday, July 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffman)

There is another line of thinking that the expectation of a continued ascent is unfair; that many of the players had already entered their primes in 2022; and that simply listing off the clubs they play for oversells how good they actually are.

It’s a thought worth entertaining. And it is indeed unfair to expect the USMNT to rise from 2022 to 2026 as much as it did from 2018 to 2022. Development is never linear.

But it was absolutely fair to expect the trend line to remain a positive one, even if the rate of progress slowed.

This is absolutely the USMNT’s most talented roster ever, even if it is not quite as good as club names suggest.

Several of the supposed stars are indeed supplementary role players at their clubs. But Christian Pulisic just had the best season of his career at AC Milan. Weston McKennie just had the most productive year of his career at Juventus. Chris Richards established himself in the Premier League at Crystal Palace. Robinson was better than ever at Fulham. Folarin Balogun has been a major upgrade at striker. Reyna is finally healthy and brimming with potential.

Their collective progress in red, white and blue, however, hasn’t matched their individual progress. Have they improved at all since Qatar?

“It’s not for me to say,” Pulisic said Monday. “I’m doing my best, always, to improve myself. Everyone on the team is. Yeah, we didn’t get the results we wanted in this tournament, and that hurts, but that doesn’t mean that we’re a bad team or we haven’t improved.”

Berhalter argued that they have. He cited their defensive solidity and their Expected Goal margins. I pressed him, though, on whether he would’ve expected more improvement in the final third, and he more or less dodged the question. That is where this USMNT has fallen furthest away from its talent level. Perhaps they don’t have enough alphas; perhaps they haven’t jelled. But a big chunk of responsibility for that shortcoming, surely, has to lie with Berhalter.

Many will still back him as a mentor and perhaps even a friend. But, speaking Monday, they seemed more equivocal or non-committal than they had been last spring, when many endorsed him to reclaim the job.

“We quite vocally said that we enjoyed having Gregg as our manager,” Robinson said. “The way that his [first] tenure kinda came to an end … was due to circumstances that wasn’t necessarily to do with the way the team was performing. Now, obviously, it’s a little bit easier to evaluate how we’ve done as a team under him, and the last couple of years since the World Cup. So, yeah, that doesn’t really fall to me.”

Pulisic, the captain and Berhalter’s most influential endorser last spring, said: “I mean, look, we have a good relationship with him. And, whatever the next step looks like, that’s not my job to decide.”

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