In the midst of another tailspin of results just two years after the U.S. men’s national team failed to qualify for World Cup 2018, U.S. Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart gave a vote of confidence to coach Gregg Berhalter during a conference call with reporters on Tuesday ahead of Friday’s Concacaf Nations League home game against Canada.
When asked if Berhalter’s job is safe no matter what happens this week results-wise, Stewart said: “We’re looking at the future, so yeah, I would say when I evaluate Gregg and the coaching staff and what I’ve seen today, I’m a pleased man. And an individual result [last month’s 2-0 loss at Canada] is not going to change that. It’s just not … I’ve seen that progress.”
The loss to Canada, the USMNT’s first to its northern neighbor in 34 years, raised major questions about Berhalter’s future in the job, not just with the result but also with the lackluster way the U.S. played throughout. Even Berhalter has described Friday’s game against Canada as a “must-win” situation, the obvious follow up being: Must-win or what? Or Berhalter loses his job?
It remains to be seen what Berhalter himself would choose to do if the U.S. doesn’t win on Friday. But now we know the thoughts of Stewart, his boss and the man who hired him last December. Stewart argued on Tuesday that he approves of the process that Berhalter has undergone with the national team, and while he said he wasn’t happy with the loss to Canada, Stewart cited the first 25 minutes of the Gold Cup final against Mexico as an example in which he was “very pleased” about the style of Berhalter’s team against difficult opposition.
Whether the USMNT should be hanging its on-field performance hat for the year on a 25-minute stretch of play in a game the U.S. eventually lost 1-0 is a question that fans will have every right to ask.
But Stewart wanted to make sure he showed full support for Berhalter’s attempt to install a possession-heavy approach for the team, even if that hasn’t always worked well and even if the U.S.’s top players—Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and others—seem better-suited to a high-pressing style that would win the ball in the opposing half.
When I asked Stewart for his thoughts about those U.S. players not necessarily fitting Berhalter’s style as well as a pressing style, Stewart said: “Everybody looks at the last result that we had, that’s really simple. That wasn’t good enough. We can all be very short about that. However, I have seen in games we’ve played, and I’ll reference the first 25 minutes against Mexico, our players showed they can perform at a really high level, and there’s been some other games.”
“Now the question for us more is not so much: Can these players do that? Because they’ve already showed that they can. However, what I would say is that we need to do that over 90 minutes, and that’s something we’re constantly talking about. How can we get there? How can we progress to having our players keep that and maintain that for 90 minutes?”
“I would say the style that has been implemented, and having the ball, and making sure that we’re breaking lines … Because when you have the ball, I feel you have the most control of everything. But also giving them an organizational umbrella that when things break down and don’t go well that we have something to hang our hats on.”
U.S. Soccer had initiated the call with Stewart, which seemed designed for him to express his full support for Berhalter’s continued role with the team as it progresses toward qualifying for World Cup 2022 in Qatar. “I have no fear at all that we are not going to qualify for the World Cup,” Stewart said. “I’m very confident about that.”
Stewart also added that he has been bothered by any implication that the presence of Jay Berhalter—U.S. Soccer’s chief commercial officer and a candidate for the CEO job—would have any impact on Stewart’s decision on whether or not to retain Gregg Berhalter, Jay’s brother.
“This is obviously the banter there is, and everything is this perception of who’s in charge about technical decisions or anything like that in the federation,” Stewart said. “I just want to be really, really clear that when it comes to the technical decisions within the federation, in the role that I have now as the sporting director I want to be clear that I’m the one making the decisions.”
“So all the conspiracy theories that are out there in my mind are very disrespectful to me, and I’ll just name them, to Jay Berhalter and Gregg Berhalter and to myself. When people insinuate these things, that kind of goes against my internal feelings that I have. I’ve worked a little bit too hard to be in the position that I am today to have people actually think that.”
The fact remains, though, that if Jay Berhalter gets the CEO job, the man who determines the fate of Gregg Berhalter (Stewart) would report to the coach’s brother—which is simply an institutional conflict of interest that should never happen and has nothing to do with Stewart’s ethics, which have never been in question in this space.