Hayes’ appointment shows US Soccer’s ambition. So why keep Gregg Berhalter?

The appointment of Emma Hayes was the biggest statement the US women’s national team could have made. Still hurting from a dismal 2023 Women’s World Cup, US Soccer turned to one of the best coaches in the game to remodel the USWNT. This is in stark contrast to what US Soccer did after the 2022 World Cup, when they retained Gregg Berhalter as coach of the men’s team.

Of course, the US men’s national team didn’t fail in Qatar like the USWNT did in Australia and New Zealand. Berhalter’s team did not exceed expectations at the World Cup, but they did not fall short of them either. Nonetheless, US Soccer had the opportunity to make a more exciting appointment after Berhalter’s contract expired.

Instead, they rehired Berhalter, albeit after an ugly off-the-field scandal involving Gio Reyna and his family that saw the USMNT play under two different interim head coaches over six months. US Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker, not long through the door after his arrival from Southampton, said a “really comprehensive and evidence-based” hiring process led to Berhalter’s return, but the message was clear: stay the course.

That aggravated some who believed US Soccer should have done more to find a manager better equipped to get the best out of a so-called golden generation at a home World Cup in 2026. The stakes are higher now for the USMNT than at any other point in history. In 1994, the US entered a home World Cup as relative unknowns. Making the last 16 was a success. In 2026, though, the US will be expected to make a deeper run – Berhalter has targeted the semi-finals.

Any comparison between the appointments of Berhalter and Hayes requires an understanding of the different landscapes in men’s and women’s international soccer. Despite only making the last 16 of the 2023 Women’s World Cup, the USWNT remain a dominant force. The squad is packed with talent. Hayes will coach some of the best players in the world. The USWNT head coach position was, in her own words, the “only job” Hayes would have left Chelsea for.

For the USMNT, though, there was no obvious statement appointment to make because the job isn’t as attractive. There was no Hayes on the market for them. Zinedine Zidane was apparently sounded out, but turned down US Soccer’s advances before any serious discussions could take place. Luis Enrique, Joachim Löw and Tite’s names also appeared in gossip columns, but none were realistic targets.

Not so long ago, Jesse Marsch would have been the homegrown statement appointment, but the former RB Salzburg and Leeds United manager’s career took a downturn just as the USMNT job became available. Jim Curtin, who has done an impressive job at the Philadelphia Union, was another American candidate, but he didn’t satisfy fans who wanted a big name.

Big names cost big money and this is another reason why US Soccer ultimately settled for Berhalter. Hayes will reportedly receive the same $1.6m salary as Berhalter when she takes over as USWNT coach before next year’s Olympics, making her the highest-paid manager in women’s soccer. In the men’s game, though, Berhalter isn’t even among the 10 highest-paid managers.

To hire one of the best managers in the men’s game, US Soccer needed to offer a competitive salary and that would have meant tripling the contract handed to Berhalter. For context, Gareth Southgate earns a reported $7.2m as England manager with Didier Deschamps on a salary of $4.7m as France boss. It would have cost US Soccer even more to lure a big name from club management. The highest paid coach at the last men’s World Cup was Hansi Flick ($8.1m), who the German Football Association tempted away from club football – though that did not end so well.

The highest paid international coaches at the 2022 World Cup.

Germany are now paying a reported $5.2m to Julian Nagelsmann for six months’ work, hoping he will restore some order and credibility to the national team ahead of hosting the 2024 European Championships. Nagelsmann was one of the biggest free-agents available on the coaching market, and Germany stumped up to keep him away from a return to club management. In that landscape, US Soccer’s salary commitment falls well short of the going rate for top international coaches.

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Berhalter might well prove to be the right man for the job. The 50-year-old is a popular figure within the camp, and seems to have come to some sort of truce with Reyna. His players like him. The USMNT environment is a healthy one when that hasn’t always been the case under different managers in the past. Berhalter has also achieved a lot of success in recruiting dual-nationals to fill the gaps in his squad – see how centre forward Folarin Balogun was pursued to solve the USMNT’s most problematic position.

There’s no denying the USMNT is in a better place now than it was in 2018, when Berhalter inherited a program in crisis after the failure to make the World Cup. Progress hasn’t always been linear, there have been setbacks and some criticism is valid, but there has been steady evolution over the last five years. Berhalter deserves credit.

“He’s come in and won the Nations League, won the Gold Cup, we win the Nations League again. Had a solid World Cup,” said Pulisic in defence of Berhalter. “Are there things that you can criticise here and there? Sure. And I think he’d agree with that, but it just seems a bit crazy to me.”

If the 2026 World Cup goes badly, though, everything will be reexamined. The progress under Berhalter to this point will count for nothing and US Soccer will face questions over its decision to stay the course rather than try something different. Hayes winning the Women’s World Cup with the USWNT in 2027, as she has been hired to do, would only further stoke the retrospective rage.

source: theguardian.com