U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter has silenced critics at World Cup, but his biggest test is next: Iran

AL KHOR, Qatar — The fierce collective loathing of Gregg Berhalter among American soccer fans is a phenomenon whose roots aren’t difficult to trace.

Criticism has dogged Berhalter ever since U.S. Soccer, which for two decades employed his brother as a top executive, hired him in late 2018 to become the U.S. men’s national team head coach.

It’s been fueled by MLS haters, but sustained by some truly putrid USMNT performances, some curious decisions and an overly idealistic approach. The extent of it has always been difficult to gauge, but as the 2022 World Cup neared, it threatened to go mainstream.

But it isn’t part of the narrative trailing this USMNT after two group games in Qatar. Because Berhalter, after months of obsessive preparation, has gotten almost everything right.

He hatched two game plans that allowed the USMNT to pounce on Wales and England. He showed an adaptability and pragmatic streak that so many critics thought he lacked. He made some bold but logical calls that put his team in position to stun a World Cup favorite. He has been done in primarily by his players’ inability to execute in vital, unscripted moments.

He knows, though, that the most consequential challenge lies ahead. He knows he will be judged by the masses based on his ability to chart a path past a parked Iranian bus in Tuesday’s Group B finale. He now has three days to implement a plan to optimize 90 minutes that will, in turn, breed moderate success or unambiguous failure.

And that, he knows, is what he “signed up for,” as he said here Thursday. “For us, this is the job. The way I look at it is as an opportunity.”

Head coach Gregg Berhalter of the United States follows the game during the World Cup group B soccer match between England and The United States, at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, Friday, Nov. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
Gregg Berhalter, the USMNT's most polarizing man, has concocted game plans that have the U.S. a win away from advancing at the 2022 World Cup. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Berhalter proves he’s willing to adapt

The chief critique of Berhalter, from the fan base’s rational factions at least, had for years been that he was an ideologue, a stubborn system coach who refused to mold his tactics to suit his personnel.

He never quite gave Jordan Pefok a legitimate look at striker, for example, even as Pefok scored regularly in top European competitions, because he didn’t align with Berhalter’s desired “player profile.” He froze out Tim Ream for a year even as Ream started incessantly in England’s top two leagues at a position of need.

But when it came time this month to stop building and start winning, Berhalter deprioritized “system guys”; he selected a roster and lineups based in part on form, in part on established quality, and in part on Group B opponents; and he tweaked what so many thought was his “system” to make it hum at the World Cup.

Through 180 minutes, the USMNT has played at least three distinct styles here in Qatar. It seized control of the first half against Wales with possession, and broke down a dense Welsh defense to take a first-half lead. Over the second 45 minutes on Monday, it soaked up pressure and played in transition, and really should have scored a second to kill off the game.

Berhalter had prepared them to do all of those things. Then, on Thursday, the day before the England match, according to players, he outlined a completely different approach. Previously, they’d had “no idea” that Berhalter would turn to an adaptive 4-4-2 formation against England, captain Tyler Adams said. “That's a coach's decision. He does the analysis.”

McKennie, when asked about the shape and where it came from, said: “Ooh, that one, you might have to ask Gregg. … I mean, obviously, the coaching staff analyzes the opponents, and we just roll with the plan.”

But “obviously,” McKennie said, “it worked.”

Berhalter’s innovations against England

The players have believed in and executed most of what Berhalter, a certified tactics guy, has thrown at them. On Friday, it was a 4-4-2 defensive block whose aim, essentially, was to shut off central channels from the very top of the formation. It was immediately noticeable, in the game’s very first minute. Tim Weah and Haji Wright worked tirelessly to press England’s center backs, but also to shadow defensive midfielder Declan Rice — which allowed Adams and Yunus Musah to handle Jude Bellingham and Mason Mount, and prevented England from building through its midfield pivot.

“They did an unbelievable job tonight,” Adams said of the U.S. forwards. “I mean, the amount of running that Haji did — I almost feel bad for him, man. A striker should never have to do that. But he worked his ass off.”

England found early paths into the penalty area down the U.S. left, but after 15 minutes, the U.S. settled into the unfamiliar shape and “defended incredibly well,” England manager Gareth Southgate raved. “Their front six make it so difficult to play through and get at their defense.”

They even adjusted as England alternated between a single-pivot and a double-pivot in possession. “And throughout the game, we switched it up a little bit just to keep giving them different looks,” Berhalter said. He sometimes triggered the adjustments with shouts and hand gestures from the sideline.

Berhalter, meanwhile, had also seen something in England that was exploitable in attack. It “was something that we saw with their defending in the last game, and we wanted to key in on it, basically triple-stacking the right side of the field,” he explained. Weston McKennie, typically a central midfielder, drove up and down the right wing to overload England’s left side. He, Sergiño Dest and Tim Weah forced either Raheem Sterling or Mount, two primarily attacking English players, to defend.

McKennie, in this modified role, was the best player on the pitch in the first half. The U.S. also progressed the ball out of a 4-2-2-2 (or unbalanced 3-2-2-3) through Musah and Christian Pulisic, and created the best chance of the game at the end of a 15-pass sequence during which nine of 11 players touched the ball.

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They also shape-shifted between the 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3 without the ball, in part to get Pulisic higher as a counterattacking outlet. “We wanted to hit them in offensive transition,” Berhalter said, and “I think we gave them some problems in that.”

For the better part of 70 minutes, the plan was humming, until legs tired and England’s subs disrupted flow, and the game ground to a virtual halt.

Berhalter’s lone fault on Friday was not chasing a win more aggressively. The draw actually lowered the USMNT’s probability of advancing from Group B, compared to what they’d been pregame. There was very little difference between a draw and a loss.

But the U.S. created enough to win the game. It certainly defended well enough. And that was all by design. It was impressive. And it was intentional.

“We wanted to make it compact, we wanted to work from a compact block in the beginning of the game,” Berhalter said. They did that, and much more.

Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Group B - England v United States - Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor, Qatar - November 25, 2022 U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter with Christian Pulisic after the match REUTERS/Paul Childs
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter and Christian Pulisic after the draw versus England. (REUTERS/Paul Childs)

‘Disorganizing’ Iran is the ultimate test

Their problem, now, is an opponent who can and will make Tuesday’s Group B decider even more compact than the U.S. made Friday’s game versus England. And Berhalter’s USMNT will have to do what they’ve so often found difficult.

Throughout his first year in charge, Berhalter spoke idealistically about “disorganizing the opponent with the ball,” and that, ironically, is the one thing his USMNT have so often failed to do.

They have controlled games with the ball and without it. They have pressed teams ravenously and won second balls. They have shored up a once-leaky defense. But they have scored just four goals in nine 2022 games against World Cup-caliber opposition, and have struggled just as mightily against middling opposition as they have against top-tier foes.

They’ve struggled against low blocks, and that’s exactly what Iran will construct on Tuesday. It’s what Iran often constructs, regardless of situation. But it’ll be especially sturdy with the USMNT needing to win, and the Iranians only needing a draw to reach the Round of 16.

And so, at the end of four fascinating years, comes a final exam for Berhalter — perhaps the first of a few, perhaps the only one. Will he go to Jesús Ferreira up front? Will he play Gio Reyna from the start, perhaps in place of Yunus Musah, whose midfield ball-progression might be unnecessary? What wrinkles will he cook up this time?

For all the confusion and fan consternation surrounding Reyna, Berhalter’s first two lineups were uncontroversial in retrospect. The plans have worked. The big calls — most notably, bringing Ream in from the cold to anchor the defense — have paid off. The lack of goals and wins aren’t his fault.

But Tuesday requires an entirely different set of decisions, of structures, of choreographed movements and perhaps players. If they don’t yield three points, Berhalter might lose his job, and all his good work, fairly or unfairly, will be forgotten.