In November, 2018, as the Columbus MLS franchise was in the process of being saved from a cake-eating horse thief, Gregg Berhalter hung tight to the reins. The front office had been gutted by the outgoing owner, the sale of the team to the Haslam and Edwards families was not yet rubber-stamped and the organization was in chaos.
There were roster decisions to be made, scouting reports to be written, camps to be conducted, draft preparations to be made. There were also searches underway to find replacements for Berhalter, the Crew’s coach and sporting director. January training was right around the corner. It was a crazy time.
Meanwhile, the job of US Men’s National Team coach remained vacant and fans were howling about a lack of progress. Howling. This was in the wake of the disaster that was the Americans’ failure in 2017 to qualify for the World Cup. There was talk that Berhalter was to take over for Jurgen Klinsmann (or, to be more accurate, interim Bruce Arena). But the process appeared to be dragging.
On Dec. 2, 2018, Berhalter was finally introduced as the coach of the USMNT. Fans continued to howl because they saw US Soccer as a puppet of MLS – and they weren’t exactly wrong. Many viewed the hire as a nepotistic act, because Berhalter’s brother Jay was, at the time, a high-ranking official in the federation. Social media screamed.
Here in Columbus, we had a different view. I did anyway.
What Berhalter did with the Crew from 2014-2018 marks him as the best coach in franchise history. Is it sacrilege to say that? Sigi Schmid, for whom the MLS Coach of the Year award is named, led the Crew to its first MLS Cup title in the magical, Massive year of 2008. We will always love Sigi (RIP). But don’t forget: He left for Seattle about half a minute after he raised the Cup in Columbus. There was no shame in this. Sigi got to return to the West Coast, and he got paid. But he still left.
Berhalter stayed when he was most needed.
The cake-eating horse thief of a former owner already had plans to steal away with the Crew by the time Berhalter led the team to the MLS Cup final in 2015. By the start of the 2017 season, there was a tweet by Grant Wahl ( RIP), and it was all out in the open: The league was conspiring with the cake eater to rip the MLS’s first chartered team to Texas.
Save the Crew mobilized. If there is one immutable constant about MLS, it is this: Do not mess with Crew fans.
The coaching job done by Berhalter in the 2017 and 2018 seasons should be recognized as extraordinary, and as a testament to the man.
Soccer is a game which, if it is working properly, creates a symbiotic relationship between a team, its fans and their community. They share major organs. In 2017 and 2018, the cake eater was trying to corrupt the community, the fans were at war and the players were caught in the middle. What was the relationship between the team and the city? Which city? Berhalter showed them.
Their 2017 playoff run to the Eastern Conference final – before they ran into Tim Bezbatchenko’s Toronto club – is the stuff of a terrific documentary. (The first-round victory over Atlanta, the birthplace of soccer, is a story in and of itself. )
The 2018 playoff run was also something else. The Crew’s upset of Wayne Rooney and DC United, in Washington, made Crew fans weep with joy and pain. The Crew’s ultimate elimination at the hands of the New York Red Bulls was almost inevitable. Berhalter had pushed this team as far as it could crawl and, when it was all over, the players wept.
Berhalter could’ve, should’ve left, as soon as he could. Instead, he did the right thing. He was like Sully Sullinger, gently guiding a damaged jetliner to an emergency landing and saving all the passengers and crew. After that, he took the helm of the national team in the wake of a disaster and took it back up to altitude.
Berhalter is about to lose his USMNT job because of something that happened 31 years ago.
The mother of Gio Reyna, perhaps the most talented player in the US pool, was moved to inform Berhalter’s boss that Berhalter kicked his then-girlfriend during an argument outside a bar in 1992. Berhalter sought counseling after the kicking incident. He reconciled with his then-girlfriend, Rosalind. They’ve been happily married for 25 years and have four children.
The Berhalter and Reyna families have, or had, been extremely close for decades. Gio’s father, Claudio, a national-team legend, played high school, club and international soccer with Berhalter. Gio’s mother, Danielle, was a college soccer teammate of Rosalind’s. These two royal American soccer families were basically intertwined, and now they’re terribly split.
The Reynas were not happy about Gio’s playing time at the World Cup. Berhalter was not happy with Gio’s attitude. There was a lot said behind closed doors in the aftermath. Ultimately, Berhalter alluded to problems with an unnamed player while speaking off-record at a leadership conference last month. That was a mistake. Danielle took umbrage and pulled a skeleton out of the closet. That was payback.
It’s a sad, sad story. It will end with more than one divorce, including a separation between US Soccer and Berhalter, who will carry his penance into another decade, again in search of atonement. If you know the man as Columbus does, it’s almost heartbreaking.