The ambitious young owner has found his ambitious young coach.
This is not the Columbus Crew you were used to – the quiet, conservative organization that prioritized loyalty and promotion from within. Anthony Precourt, the 43-year-old investor who purchased the club over the summer, has said he wants to build “a small market team that is globally relevant and has a consistent winning tradition.”
Stadium improvements and a new logo already are on the way. Then on Wednesday, Precourt handed the responsibility for the on-field product to Gregg Berhalter, an American coach with global sensibility who was the only leading candidate lacking ties to Crew 1.0.
Berhalter, 40, was named head coach and sporting director. He will shape the club’s soccer structure from top to bottom, requiring Crew president Mark McCullers to relinquish his role as GM. Investing that much power in one individual wasn’t necessarily part of Precourt’s plan, but Berhalter was so impressive during the interview process that it became the obvious way forward.
McCullers said Berhalter emerged as the club’s “clear choice” following a “very thorough” search that included long-time Crew technical director and interim coach Brian Bliss, former midfielder and 2008 MLS Cup MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Ohio native Brad Friedel, a one-time Crew goalkeeper who’s on the books at Tottenham Hotspur.
A source familiar with the interview process told SI.com that Berhalter “blew away” the Crew during his detailed presentation, during which he outlined his vision for the club. On a Wednesday conference call, Berhalter said he was on the “same page” with Precourt “right away” and that while “first team success is first and foremost a goal in mind,” he’s also interested in “defining the whole structure of the club.”
A member of the U.S. national team at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, Berhalter played professionally in the Netherlands, England and Germany before ending his career as a player-coach with the L.A. Galaxy in 2011. He served as captain at both Energie Cottbus and 1860 Munich in Germany. The New Jersey native’s work with Bruce Arena then paved the way for an historic 2012 move to Sweden’s Hammarby IF, a second-tier club that's part-owned by AEG.
Thought to be only the second American named head coach of a European club, Berhalter managed the Stockholm-based side to a fourth-place finish in the Superettan, Hammarby’s most successful season since its 2009 relegation. But he was fired in July, midway through his second year, while the team was in eighth.
“After I was dismissed from Hammarby, I took a step back and re-evaluated the basically year-and-a-half of work to see what was good, what could’ve been improved, then after that I went throughout Europe and studied different clubs,” Berhalter told SI.com during the conference call.
“I met with a lot of different people in Europe. I studied youth academies. I studied first teams, the structures within the teams and the clubs. It was a good time to get away. After my career and starting to coach, I hadn’t had a break like this in over 20 years and that was beneficial for both me and my family.”
It gave Berhalter the time to put together a plan that might impress a prospective employer. It worked in Columbus, where Precourt and McCullers decided they were willing to alter corporate structure and club tradition to land a promising young coach with experience and connections on both sides of the Atlantic.
“This year will go down as a year of change for the Columbus Crew. … New ownership has invigorated our organization. I’ve described it as refreshing,” McCullers said.
Regarding Berhalter, he added, “Leadership was an important factor in looking at candidates. Gregg’s vision really resonated with all of us on the search committee [that also included Crew legend Frankie Hejduk and club youth development executive Andrew Arthurs]. He has a clear vision. He has a detailed plan. He has a voice to communicate that plan and he has the personality and attitude to inspire those around him to rally around that vision and that plan.
"He’s very highly respected in the industry. We talked to a lot of people in the soccer world and Gregg was lauded as a really quality choice for this position. He has a tremendous pedigree, a vast amount of experience – European, domestic, national team and Major League Soccer – and all of those qualities make him a perfect fit with our brand moving forward.”
It’s a brand that’s changing. Bliss is a smart soccer man who’s been a loyal servant to the Crew. He’d have been the safe choice. Schelotto would’ve been sexy but impractical – he’s under contract to coach Argentina’s Lanus, would face a greater MLS learning curve and lacks the language skills required to be the public face of the franchise. Friedel knows the game and remains a big name in Ohio, but he’s still an active player and has no full-time coaching experience.
“Gregg is an innovative person. He’s a progressive coach,” McCullers said. “It just makes sense for the organization to have him guiding that part of our club.” Similar words have been used to describe Precourt. It’s a partnership that makes sense. It’s full steam ahead for Columbus.