Soccer

Who will coach the USMNT next? The job is not as enticing as you think.

As soon as the final whistle blew at Khalifa International Stadium, ending the USA Men’s National Team’s 2022 World Cup in Qatar with a 3-1 loss to the Netherlands, the speculation began: Who would coach the US men heading into the 2026 World Cup? Who would guide a talented young team that should be in its prime when the sport’s quadrennial mega-event lands on American shores for the second time?

The Dec. 31 expiration date on incumbent head coach Gregg Berhalter’s contract came and went without a word. While Berhalter and the U.S. Soccer Association made the usual noises about taking “time to reflect,” it appeared the two sides would continue together for another term. Union officials said they were pleased with Berhalter’s performance. He more or less rebuilt from scratch a team that had missed out on the 2018 World Cup, then molded it into an exciting and cohesive outfit that matched up against juggernauts like England at the big dance. That made Berhalter the presumptive national team manager for another cycle. Until just three days after December 31, he was enveloped in a rolling scandal that cast doubt on the future. Fearing what he viewed as a thinly veiled threat of extortion, Berhalter issued a statement admitting he kicked the woman he would later marry during an argument in 1991, prompting an ongoing investigation by U.S. Soccer .

In the absence of clarity from the federation, which has said nothing of substance beyond confirming that Berhalter remains a candidate and that US Soccer is conducting the head coaching search “broadly,” speculation has run wild. In the void, every top executive in the sport – from Jürgen Klopp to Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, whose alleged stalking of American football was reported by The sun-has been invoked by American fans eager to see an ambitious appointment. The desire was only reinforced when news broke that two-time Real Madrid manager and three-time Champions League-winning coach Zinedine Zidane had been approached, without success. Maybe US Soccer really did go for a big hitter.

Berhalter delivered a competent World Cup performance and reconstructed a national team culture that his players regularly cite as a competitive advantage. And although he is now surrounded by the controversy of his past, he remains a leading candidate to take on his old job. If he is not brought back, finding a new manager for the US men’s national team is more complicated than it seems. On its face, coaching the abundantly talented home team at a World Cup seems appealing, but several factors conspire to make the pool of alternatives desperately shallow.

The job is unlikely to go to a Major League Soccer coach with no experience at the international level – they would face the same steep learning curve that Berhalter has already navigated – leaving only retreads like Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley, who neither seems to be. in the conversation. (Arena famously failed to save Jürgen Klinsmann’s 2018 World Cup qualification campaign.) The only American working abroad at a high level, Jesse Marsch, already has a job at the top of the Premier League club game. And even if Leeds United sack him, it doesn’t look like that will happen until the national team place is filled in the coming weeks or months; moreover, Marsch will have struck out in two consecutive positions. Almost all the other names doing the rounds – Klopp, Guardiola and Mourinho, to name a few – are also paid.

You can only hire who is available. In the best of times, that tends to leave fewer than a dozen candidates who fall into the Venn diagram of those who are qualified and those who are interested. And December and January, right in the middle of the European club season, are not the best times. There are few experienced managers available, and fewer still who have suggested they might be lured by international management.

U.S. Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart maintains an ongoing shortlist of potential managers because it would be malpractice not to. This means that you occasionally have to test the waters on who can be obtained. That’s why Zidane, who has flirted with the France national team job for years, was likely to be asked – and there’s no downside to being caught trying to land such a big name. But the reduced attractiveness of coaching a national team makes recruitment more difficult. The unemployed Mauricio Pochettino and Thomas Tuchel, most recently of Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea respectively, are long-shots to leave the club game anytime soon.

Quick little trivia. How many head coaches at the 2022 World Cup had recently managed an elite club team?

Answer: only Germany’s Hansi Flick, who left Bayern Munich at the end of the 2020-21 season. Brazil’s Tite had never worked outside his homeland and the Middle East. Ditto for Croatia’s Zlatko Dalic, albeit with a brief excursion to Albania. England’s Gareth Southgate last managed a club in 2009, which saw Middlesbrough relegated from the Premier League. France’s Didier Deschamps has been out of the club game for a decade. The list goes on and on: Portugal, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands all employ managers who haven’t coached a club for at least five years. Argentina’s Lionel Scaloni, now a World Cup winner, got his first senior team head coaching job, largely because Lionel Messi likes him.

The reason so few of the game’s elite leaders work at the international level is because that’s not where the cutting-edge coaching is done. There’s just no time with national teams to do anything other than figure out who’s fit, who plays well together and how to make it all come together. Outside of a few days or weeks with your team every other month, the job consists mostly of scouting and logistics. This was a constant struggle for Berhalter, a coach very much made in the ideologue mold. And it is likely to discourage all the great leaders who are treated as tactical oracles for their day-to-day work of fine-tuning their teams. That’s why whenever future national team jobs are brought up, your Klopps and Guardiolas and Mourinhos reliably reply: “In the future, maybe. Now? None.” They see it as a sort of semi-retirement gig. Because that’s what it is, compared to the intensity of an all-consuming Champions League and domestic campaign.

While the USMNT’s automatic spot at the World Cup as one of the three North American hosts guarantees a new coach, it also further reduces the number of competitive matches. For the most part, the next three and a half years will consist of playing friendlies against the same old CONCACAF teams because the global powers of the game, constantly linked with more competitive games, have become increasingly difficult to book. Meaningful competition will therefore primarily come in the form of the CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup. The Americans may participate in the 2024 Copa América, possibly moving the South American championship to the United States, as in 2016, but even that will not result in more than half a dozen high-level games.

“This cycle presents a lot of problems for those who might be interested,” says Herculez Gomez, a US national team veteran and co-host of Soccer America on ESPN. “No qualifying games; just friendlies and at low level. The good leaders are taken. International leaders are older. And that’s not attractive enough unless what you’re looking for is the American life experience.”

For an elite coach, spending more than three years – an absolute eternity in football time – on the periphery of the game is a big ask. And working for US Soccer, which has never paid a manager more than the $3.3 million Klinsmann earned in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2018, would likely mean a sharp pay cut. The five highest paid managers in the Premier League all earn north of $10 million a year. Mourinho, for his part, reportedly makes about three times the $1.3 million Berhalter made as USMNT head coach, and that’s before bonuses that could push Mourinho’s salary as high as $8.5 million. Just a few years ago, at Manchester United, Mourinho was reportedly earning around $25 million annually.

“A lot of these guys are already under contract,” says former USMNT player and Fox Sports and CBS analyst Mo Edu. “So to get them out of those contracts, you’re either looking at some kind of buyout, or you’re going to have to pay an insane amount of money to get them out of those positions. That’s where the difficulty lies. But the biggest challenge are a few other international jobs that are currently vacant without a manager, so now you are competing against them as well.” That would be No. 1-ranked Brazil and No. 4-ranked Belgium, among others.

And while there is certainly upside in this American team, how much is there exactly? The USMNT is already the defending Nations League and Gold Cup champion, so there isn’t much glory to be gained there. A deep run at an upcoming Copa América is a possibility, but participation could also result in the kind of 4-0 spanking the Americans took from Argentina in the semifinals in 2016. And then it would all come down to a handful of games at the World Cup, where expectations will tower over reason. Berhalter, for his part, has already done so

declared that the Yanks should aim for the semi-finals – a stage Brazil, Germany, Spain, England, Holland, Portugal and Belgium all failed to reach in 2022.

Then there are the extracurricular requirements placed on the US men’s head coach, which exceed the requirements of other federations. The American manager is expected to take on a very public role, doing a lot of marketing and heart-and-mind work in a nation with a vast media landscape and perpetual competition from other sports.

“I still think it would be seen as a plum job because there’s so much room for growth,” says former national team player and Fox soccer analyst Alexi Lalas. “But the U.S. head coach in particular is a very different type of role. It goes way beyond the X’s and O’s and the game day and ultimately the wins and the losses. We tend, and I think rightfully so, to put that person as a visual representation of who we are as a soccer nation. Maybe there is value in that, but I guess it takes the right person to recognize that and, more importantly, to see it as something they want to be a part of. And maybe there are a lot of people who just say, ‘I don’t need or want that right now.'”

This expectation is one of the reasons why the association prefers its head coach to speak English and live in Chicago at its headquarters. This was reportedly the reason why Tata Martino was not considered for the US job prior to Berhalter’s hiring in 2018 and took the Mexico job instead, to the consternation of many American fans. It would also likely rule out Marcelo Bielsa, Marsch’s predecessor at Leeds and the front-runner to succeed Martino with Mexico, who has a wealth of international experience but speaks little English and is nicknamed “El Loco” for his intensity and controlling nature.

Ironically, promotional work is where Klinsmann, the last big-name European manager hired by the United States, really shined. But he lacked the means to deliver his lofty vision on the field. It is rare to find a leader who can do both. Even rarer is the one who actually wants to. And is available. And affordable. And don’t mind the lack of meaningful games. Or the risk of taking charge of a team that has won a single knockout match at a World Cup for more than 92 years, but is now expected to do so several times.

Leander Schaerlaecken’s is a regular contributor on football to The caller. He is writing a book about the US men’s national team. He teaches at Marist College.

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