My own case of Berhalter Fatigue kicked in around Dec. 17, 2022 — a day before the World Cup final, 10 days into the Berhalter-Reyna Family Barbecue, and two weeks after Holland dumped the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team (USMNT) out of the tournament.
The tawdry nature of Berhalter’s unprecedented bust-up with the Reynas could not be fully understood until last week, when the U.S. Soccer Federation released its third-party report. No one emerges unscathed from this full and seemingly fair accounting, though the manager’s infelicities — which include a drunken, physical encounter with his future wife back at college — pale beside venal helicopter parenting writ so large, it destroyed national reputations three decades in the making.
Between conclusion of Qatar 2022 and the Ides of March 2023, this unsavory din had subsided frankly. I no longer cringed upon reading or hearing Berhalter’s name. Later that month, I screwed up the courage to rewatch that Round-of-16 loss to the Dutch. In the moment, back on Dec. 3, I had feared we’d been toyed with. Upon review, the brass-tacks match takeaways proved rather more prosaic and heartening — even if they reveal thorny, big-picture issues Berhalter or any successor will be obliged to confront. Today, in light of this report, it seems unlikely that Berhalter is coming back to coach this team. Word also leaked last week that the Federation is courting former USMNT centerback Oguchi Onyewu of Belgian club R.E. Virton and Matt Crocker of the Southhampton F.C. to replace departed national team sporting director Earnie Stewart, now manning the same position at the Dutch club PSV Eindhoven.
At national soccer federations, sporting directors hire managers.
And so, as we prepare to install a new regime, we’re obliged to examine the prospect of a new coach, espousing new beliefs and deploying new systems ahead of the 2026 World Cup, which the U.S. will host alongside Mexico and Canada. Love him or hate him, Berhalter’s stamp on this team was pervasive. Deprogramming or building on the existing foundation will prove complex, and that fateful 3-1 loss to Louis van Gaal and the Dutch is the place we must start — if we’re to effectively assess the Berhalter Era and the renovation job awaiting him, or his replacement.
Happily, any re-examination of Berhalter and the USMNT performance in Qatar leaves well to the side the matter of this investigation and its shabby attendant circus, even as it identifies a potentially intractable and altogether different iteration of Berhalter Fatigue — a permutation enabled by and inextricably tied to the man’s tactics.
It’s a terrible, disheartening thing to lose a World Cup knockout match on account of defensive brain farts. Yet any sober analysis the Dutch encounter from Dec. 3 offers up no other conclusion: Three shameful bits of marking sent the USMNT packing from a tournament where it played very well.
The worst was the first: Tyler Adams’ 70-yard canter behind a meandering Memphis Dupay, into the U.S. box, where the Dutch striker first-timed the opening salvo completely unmolested. The post-match party line on this matter — that the estimable Adams was finally out of gas, after three heroic group-stage efforts — was never convincing. Not 10 minutes into a match. Not from a young fellow we’d been hailing as the full-body incarnation of a human lung. I love Adams, his game, his grit, his improving vision on the ball. But that goal’s on him.
Marking Muddle #2 did prove fatigue related. It arrived just before halftime and, as with the Memphis goal, it did not result from a lightning-quick counter but rather another late-arriving attacker, Daley Blind, once an initial Dutch foray had been dealt with. What of Blind’s would-be marker, Sergino Dest? He was dead tired. The young A.C. Milan man had been wreaking havoc up and down the right wing the previous 43 minutes. When the goal-producing cross arrived, Dest was too knackered to contest Blind for the ball. Similarly, Antonee Robinson worked his ass off in this match, up and down the opposite flank. He appeared well and truly exhausted by the 60th minute, much less the 80th, when the body-blow third goal was surrendered. Yet his complete unawareness of an arm-waving Denzel Dumfries alone behind him, for 15-20 seconds (!), was inexcusable and frankly unrelated to his fatigue — as I’m sure the American left back would be the first to admit.
If just one of these defensive mistakes had been averted, I reckon the U.S. performance would live in our collective memories very differently. What’s more, our conceptions of and worries over Berhalter Fatigue, of all shades, would be markedly diminished.
I had watched the Dutch encounter live that Saturday morning in a northern Maine bar called The Blue Ox. According to a stat graphic I didn’t notice during the original broadcast (blame the eye-opening double Makers on the rocks), USMNT ball recovery time averaged just 14 seconds during this match, compared to 28 from the Dutch, who clearly invited the Yanks to come at them. Yet throughout the 90 minutes, Berhalter’s side won the ball back quickly and repeatedly in dangerous central positions. This more randomized attacking off middle-third turnovers was something Van Gaal’s Oranje achieved, too. However, neither side scored off these giveaways. Indeed, what the Yanks did far more frequently, over and over again throughout the match, was play the ball calmly and methodically through the Dutch midfield defenses, into attacking positions where, ultimately, not enough was done from those positions.
Post-match analysis has fixated not on the fatigue of U.S. players but rather on LVG’s decision to funnel U.S. buildup into central, congested areas, away from Dest and Robinson. In the rewatching, one recognizes this strategy rather more clearly. Yet this much also shines through: The effect and success of this effort has been greatly exaggerated.
Before and after halftime, the U.S. cannily played through the Dutch midfield inside and outside, pretty much at its whim. The Netherlands didn’t pressure American centerbacks at all; the Tim Ream/Walker Zimmerman pairing patiently and effectively exploited creases, switched play, and far more often than not found a way forward. To say we bossed the game would be to oversell the case: The Dutch allowed us the ball. Nevertheless, I defy anyone to argue that our build-up was somehow bottled up, or in any way blunted or frustrated. Robinson and Dest saw plenty of the ball, often serviced by Ream or Zimmerman. A half-dozen times on either side of halftime, the Fulham centerback in particular found someone centrally, who pivoted in possession and found Robinson going in behind Cody Gakpo, his would-be/funneling marker. The adventuresome Dest was perhaps even more effective just running at/by wing defenders with the ball in tow.
After revisiting all 90 minutes, especially the first 44 — after seeing all the U.S. chances and half chances — a neutral observer would judge the Americans unlucky not to have scored twice.
This sort of speculative banter is, of course, the foundation of futbol what-iffery. Chances often go begging. What’s more, the U.S. attack in particular looked promising but proved meager throughout this World Cup. It was the American defensive effort — such an obvious strength during group play; a single goal conceded in three matches (from the penalty spot vs. Wales) — that proved their undoing in the Round of 16. Not any clever maneuvers from the Dutch Brain Trust. Nor any lack of ambition from Berhalter himself. Nor even, as has been lazily suggested, a U.S. side that was “simply out of gas.”
There are, however, elements of relevant truth in the fatigue assessment, and they require our attention.
Ahead of this tournament, American fans recognized their side would rise or fall according to the performance of its young, dynamic midfield trio: Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie and Adams. This proved plenty accurate. In all four matches, this unit broke down whatever defensive alignment Wales, England, Iran or Holland might have presented. The whole world witnessed this impressive display of box-to-box midfield action, and one must credit Berhalter for setting up his side up to enable and maximize these precocious talents.
However, it’s more accurate to observe that Berhalter put his faith not in a three-man midfield engine, but rather a core of five. As Van Gaal recognized, U.S. midfield progression relied on Robinson and Dest to work their possessive, intrepid magic in concert with MMA. The U.S. has never produced a midfield trio as athletic and skillful on-the-ball as this current edition; the same goes for this pair of outside backs. They each want the ball at their feet. They take people on. They eagerly get in behind defenses. The second and third Dutch goals notwithstanding, Dest and Jedi take their defensive responsibilities seriously and ably. If Robinson ever learns how to whip his crosses in — replacing his rather spinny, looping efforts with something more driven — he’ll soon find himself at a bigger, more ambitious club.
Nevertheless, the Dutch match — indeed, all four U.S. fixtures at World Cup 2022 — underlined the physical toll Berhalter’s system took on these five USMNT pillars.
McKennie wasn’t fully fit and could only do his box-to-box thing for an hour. Dest, too, was good for just 70 minutes before coming off — and his fatigue just prior to halftime against the Netherlands directly led to the deciding goal. Musah was subbed off in three matches. He played the full 90 only vs. Iran and barely made it to the finish line.
There’s no shame in being subbed off. Yet here is where the rubber of squad depth meets the road: Each time McKennie left the pitch, the offensive capability of the vaunted American midfield went straight into the toilet. Ditto for the side’s balance and attacking capability when Dest took a seat. It is here that we should take issue with some of Berhalter’s tactics in Qatar.
Look: It’s a simple and quite universal truth that starters are typically more capable than substitutes. Another box-to-boxer of recognized quality, Brenden Aaronson, was a logical replacement for McKennie. Unfortunately, the Leeds man was ineffectual during this World Cup (sadly, he has continued his run of poor form these last three months at Leeds United). He was, however, worlds better than Kellyn Acosta, who, when he came on for Musah vs. Wales, then McKennie vs. Iran, never adapted to the speed of play. As such, he didn’t want the ball at his feet — and neither were his Americans colleagues eager for Acosta to have it.
One assumes that Berhalter recognizes better than anyone the importance of McKennie to the midfield engine. One assumes he recognizes how Weston differs from Aaronson and Acosta in term of style and quality. And yet, Berhalter accompanied these substitutions with no adjustments to his midfield alignment or tactics. He treated them as “like for like” changes, and that — more than anything else I saw from Berhalter in this World Cup — reflects a managerial naiveté.
The Acosta example is most illustrative because an in-form Aaronson-for-McKennie change could have worked out better. But swapping Acosta for Musah late in the Wales game immediately ground the entire U.S. attack to a halt. Berhalter could have rotated his midfield three to push Adams up the field, allowing Acosta to simply search/destroy ahead of the centerback pairing. Berhalter could have played Aaronson at the point of a midfield triangle, setting Acosta beside Adams in a more defensive mode.
Yet no such modifications were made. The Iran scenario stands out: The U.S. thoroughly bossed that match until McKennie exited on 65 minutes. Acosta’s introduction instantly transformed the last half hour into a desperate, aimless, rear-guard action. Three games into a World Cup tournament, knowing Acosta’s qualities or lack thereof, Berhalter should have known better.
It’s not the manager’s fault the U.S. midfield boasts so little effective depth of quality. But it is his responsibility to recalibrate based on his knowledge of the options available to him — and the prevailing form of those options. I applauded (and still applaud) his use of Aaronson, especially up 1-0 after 66 minutes against Wales, when the U.S. was beginning to sit back. An offensive-minded midfield substitution was exactly the right instinct there. But throwing on Acosta for Musah — without realigning? Big mistake. Berhalter repeated and compounded the error vs. Iran, when Acosta replaced McKennie.
We can have the debate whether Berhalter was too beholden to his vaunted “system”. We can publicly ponder how many rigidly maintained alignments or frameworks even make sense in the context of international soccer, especially at World Cup finals. We can perhaps agree most systems are far better suited to club futbol, where managers can cultivate and bring in players who fit a specific scheme, then train up that talent in how to excel within it — over the course of months.
National teams don’t enjoy any of those luxuries, of course. And I don’t think it’s carping to point out that even those national team managers who do rely on systems are obliged to adjust them in the course of a match or tournament. Berhalter showed little instinct for these recalibrations.
Forget the midfield for a moment. Look at the way El Mister deployed his attacking trio in Qatar. He insisted that whoever occupied the point of that strike-triangle — be it Josh Sargent, Jesus Ferreira or Haji Wright — play in advance of Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah on the flanks. This enabled the system’s pressing component, Berhalter explained.
Well, I’ve watched Berhalter’s USMNT since 2019, and even when this side was winning games and scoring goals, its vaunted press troubled no teams of quality. None in this World Cup, certainly. One time, late in the inaugural Nations League final vs. Mexico, I was impressed that Berhalter’s side was able to press El Tri so effectively, so high up the field, in a game the U.S. was winning 3-2 in extra time. That was June 2021. I can’t say that I’ve witnessed that sort of display again, at any point, in any USMNT match since. As noted above, this team excels at turning opponents over in the middle third. In the attacking third? Not so much.
The cruel and uncomfortable irony at this World Cup: The American roster offered perhaps more pieces, more options, more depth of quality in the attacking third than anywhere else on the pitch. And yet, when goals proved hard to come by, Berhalter did not withdraw that central striker to play behind Pulisic or Weah, an alignment that would have suited someone like Aaronson or, frankly, Gio Reyna. He didn’t even tinker with the idea of using said central striker in a non-pressing fashion — not until the Dutch match, where Ferreira didn’t play so high up the pitch and actually caused some defensive problems for Holland, though not many.
This is not a call for Gio Reyna to have played more minutes in Qatar. Not specifically. Clearly there were other enormously sticky factors at play there. Yet after watching his team struggle to score goals against Wales and England, after watching this press bother absolutely no one, Berhalter didn’t do much of anything to modify his team’s modes of operation. Not according to the talent on hand, nor in response to specific match situations.
And so, there is one last overarching, system-related matter to ponder this winter, as we look back on a World Cup performance and consider who should lead this team going forward: Clearly, Berhalter’s midfield system — his deployment of these five excellent young players, three central and two at wingback — performed like gangbusters. When foreign futbol observers heaped praise on the U.S. performance in Qatar (and they did, much though it may annoy and confuse Berhalter’s domestic critics) this is what they were talking about.
American soccer observers must be clear-eyed going forward, however, about the physical demands of a system that so many members of our remarkable five-man core cannot endure for 90 minutes. We must ponder, and Berhalter’s replacement must ponder, whether that system can be effectively deployed and relied upon when any one of the Fab Five is not involved.
Yes, McKennie was not 100 percent in Qatar. But the balance of this U.S. side was fully fit. Indeed, it was reputed to have been among the youngest, most athletic units in the tournament. It should give us pause that against world-class opposition, the midfield troika could not finish games; that post-substitution, its shape and effectiveness evaporated. The right-flank component also crumbled each time Shaq Moore came on for Dest. It’s possible this system, while potent, simply asked too much of a squad with such patchy depth of quality in these key positions.
Immediately post match, Holland’s cancer-battling septuagenarian manager, Louis Van Gaal, took Berhalter to task for not making the necessary in-game adjustments on Dec. 3. LVG rarely fails to amuse or antagonize at pressers, but his critique struck me as merely convenient. The Americans ably adjusted to any and all central funneling from the Dutch. His opponents just didn’t have the horses, the endurance, or the marking discipline to see Berhalter’s chosen course to the finish.