COLUMBUS, Ohio — It isn’t an absolute requirement in life that a successful career depends on deciding what you want to do early on. But it also doesn’t hurt to know at a young age. You could say that second-year Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter, whose team meets Portland in Sunday’s MLS Cup final, got an earlier start than most players when it came to seeing the game from a manager’s perspective.
“It started in my mid-20s,” says Berhalter, who’s now 42.
In those days, Berhalter was a defender in the Netherlands for Zwolle, having left the University of North Carolina after his junior year to try his luck as a pro in European soccer. Berhalter fell in love with the non-stop discussions of tactics in Holland, and he started keeping a notebook where he recorded the team’s training sessions, along with his preferred attributes for each position on the soccer field and the systems he would use had he been a coach.
Later, when he played at Energie Cottbus in Germany, the coach decided to switch from using a sweeper to a flat back four, and Berhalter—who’d just come from England’s Crystal Palace and its 4-4-2—ended up explaining the finer points of the system to his teammates (and even the coach himself). By the time Berhalter played for 1860 Munich from 2006 to ’09, he was hitting the road to write scouting reports for the coaching staff.
In other words, Berhalter was working as a de facto player-assistant coach long before he became one in name with the LA Galaxy during his last season as a player in 2011. The dual role was the idea of LA coach Bruce Arena, who’d named Berhalter to his U.S. World Cup squads in 2002 and ’06.
“It had the potential to be uncomfortable, but Bruce made it great,” says Berhalter. “Because I knew the players really well, they knew exactly where I was coming from, and there was never a line that was crossed. Bruce would do things to test me. I remember writing out a whole preseason plan for him, and he looked at it and [eventually] said, ‘Great,’ and then he tossed it.”
Berhalter laughs. “He did it on purpose because he wanted me to prepare and think about it. He was receptive to ideas, and he and [Galaxy No. 2] Dave Sarachan guided me through the process. At first I started out way too vocal as an assistant coach trying to get my point across. Then I learned just to wait and see first and observe.”
The Galaxy won the MLS Cup title that year—Berhalter even scored the game-winner to send LA to the final—and he took his first head-coaching job, with Sweden’s Hammarby, the following year. But you’d be mistaken if you thought Berhalter went straight from player to head coach without paying his dues.
“He’s put in the time,” says Arena. “He’s a throwback, because all the guys today, they say, ‘This guy’s a very good player, so he should be a head coach, and he doesn’t want to do any of that other s---.’ This guy has done it all. He’s worked hard, he’s done the basics, he’s moved up the ladder. To me that’s how you become a coach. You follow him. That’s the model.”
Yet that’s not to say Berhalter’s route to Sunday’s MLS final (4 p.m. ET, ESPN, Unimás) has been a direct one. Not when your first head-coaching job ends up with you being fired.
If you ask Berhalter about his experience managing Hammarby, in Stockholm, you might be surprised by the reaction you get. It’s a completely positive one.
“The experience was amazing, man,” Berhalter says. “The first game that they have every season, there’s 15,000 people who march through the streets for two miles and arrive at the stadium. The fan culture at Hammarby is insane. It really is. It’s something special. I was lucky enough to be a part of it. It was a great place to start, because you’re in the fire right away.”
Despite being one of the best-known clubs in Sweden, Hammarby—which is 49% owned by AEG, the Galaxy owner—had fallen into the country’s second tier. It was Berhalter’s job to earn promotion. That didn’t happen. The club finished fourth in his first season, in 2012, and it was nine points from the promotion zone when the club let Berhalter go midway through 2013, the last season of his contract.
“Gregg has brought order to our defensive game and has good discipline in the squad, but unfortunately we have not seen good enough dividends in the offense,” said Hammarby chairman Kent Hertzell in a statement that combined a Darwinian decision with renowned Scandinavian politeness.
“Anytime we played, it was the other team’s biggest game of the year,” says Berhalter. “So their main objective was to be compact and not get broken down. Every game we were facing the same thing, and it was challenging. I still wanted the team to play very organized. Sometimes you have to take more of a chance and leave yourself more open, and I didn’t want to do that. That was the reason why the second year we weren’t scoring any goals.”
Nowadays, of course, it’s crazy to think of a Berhalter team not scoring when you watch his Columbus squad, which poured in 58 goals in the regular season, No. 2 in the league. But sometimes we all should remind ourselves: Improvement is a process, especially when you’re just starting out. Or, as Berhalter says when asked how he went from having an attack that was too conservative to one that lights up MLS: “Well, your philosophy changes.”
During his four months away from coaching, Berhalter took a deep breath and studied the game. He thought back to his time with Arena, who stood out in Berhalter’s mind for two big things. One was Arena’s man management.
“He’s excellent at getting more out of his players,” Berhalter says.
The second was Arena’s risk-taking.
“You stretch players and get them out of their comfort zone,” Berhalter adds. “If you look at the 2002 World Cup, he wasn’t afraid to put in Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley [who were 20]. He always did things like that. Not everything worked, but by and large you had this sense that he wasn’t afraid.”
Berhalter also hit the road, venturing to a series of clubs to observe how they went about their day-to-day: Chelsea, Valencia, Barcelona, Levante, Djurgardens. One of his big takeaways: Everything the coaches did in training had a reason, a methodology that was defined. He needed even more clarity in his approach as a coach.
What’s more, after a career that had taken him to the Netherlands, England, Germany, Sweden and the U.S., Berhalter’s trips to different European countries reminded him of his love for the great global sport and the diversity within it. “When you’re in a foreign country, there’s a distinct culture of soccer,” he says. “It’s great. And once you crack that and understand that it’s amazing. You see the game in a totally different way. And I think that was really helpful for me.”
“The experiences you have, the countries I’ve been to, the cultures I was submerged in, I was like a sponge taking it all in. And at the end, what you have now is me wringing out that sponge and the water coming out. All the ideas and influences, that’s coming out now.”
Fullbacks sometimes get a raw deal. Just last weekend MLS released its Best XI for 2015, and it didn’t include a single fullback, just three center backs. Berhalter shook his head. He loves fullbacks. “For us, fullbacks are everything,” he says. “So I thought it was funny.”
Columbus under Berhalter has a clear identity. His fullbacks, Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis, push forward into the attack when at all possible. His wide midfielders, Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay, can stay wide or pinch in to give the fullbacks space to move into. His formation, a 4-2-3-1, provides balance—strength with the ball and without it—and his approach calls for short passes, possession and freedom for his central attacking midfielder, Federico Higuaín. Kei Kamara, the league’s top target man, provides a ruthlessly reliable finisher.
Columbus has reached the MLS Cup final, but Berhalter views the MLS playoffs as something of a crapshoot. More important to him as his team grows is consistency in the regular season. Do you stick to your plan?
“Last year we went through a spell where we had injuries and weren’t doing that well, and that was an important time for the team,” he says. “Because now you’re at a crossroads. Do we change? Or do we stick to the process? I think a lot of people would have the tendency to say we’ve got to do something different. And we didn’t.”
There’s a plan in place here. It applies to the Crew’s first team, and it extends to the development academy. Berhalter, who’s also Columbus’s sporting director, says he has found a kindred spirit—and unfailing support—in Columbus owner Anthony Precourt, who bought the team in 2013.
“All across the board he has increased funding by huge amounts,” Berhalter says. “So the academy budget has doubled, and it’s going to continue to grow. And we’re bringing in top coaches. The coaches we have in our academy have coached in La Liga in first-team soccer.”
If you’re a Columbus fan, you have to be elated these days. Your team has a chance to win its second MLS Cup title this week. The owner and the coach have a long-term strategy that could yield trophies and homegrown players. And yet there’s already talk that Berhalter has what it takes to be the U.S. national team coach, perhaps sooner rather than later.
Arena doesn’t want to go there yet: “You need to relax a little bit and let time take care of that,” he says.
Nor, really, does Berhalter.
“I’m humbled that anyone would even bring up my name in a conversation like that,” he says, “But the other thing is I’m completely focused on being here.”
"Here" is a pretty good place right now. A guy who grew up in the soccer hotbed of northern New Jersey has seen the world and learned from it and come to Ohio to win a championship. Sunday awaits.