Julen Lopetegui played for 11 seasons as a goalkeeper in Spain’s La Liga and was on Spain’s roster for the 1994 World Cup. As a coach, he led his nation to under-19 and under-21 European championships, and Porto FC to the quarterfinals of the European Champions League.
He became Spain’s national coach in 2016 and was undefeated in 20 games – 14 wins, six ties, no losses – before dramatically being fired on the eve of the World Cup when the federation didn’t take kindly to learning he had secretly agreed to coach Real Madrid after the tournament.
Things didn’t work out at Ronaldo-less Real Madrid, and Lopetegui was back on the market a month ago.
And, through an intermediary, reportedly contacted U.S. Soccer about its still-vacant position with the national team.
And didn’t get an interview.
Neither did Tata Martino, the wildly successful coach of Major League Soccer’s Atlanta United whose resume includes stops at Barcelona and the Argentine national team. Or Juan Carlos Osorio, who has coached in MLS, speaks fluent English and had a nice run as Mexico’s coach.
Or Tab Ramos or Peter Vermes or Jesse Marsch or former U.S. national coach Bob Bradley or any of the other dozen or so names that surfaced as viable candidates.
We do know one person who got an interview: Columbus Crew coach Gregg Berhalter.
We know that because he got the job, made official by U.S. Soccer on Sunday after weeks of incredulous media reports that he was the lone candidate and nearly 14 months after the 2-1 loss at Trinidad (and let’s not forget Tobago) knocked the Yanks out of the World Cup for the first time in 32 years.
Berhalter’s only other head coaching experience was with Sweden’s Hammarby IF, where he was fired after 19 months because, the club chairman said, “we have not seen good enough dividends in the offense.” He has 92 victories in 239 career games, a .385 winning percentage. He’s never won a trophy.
That’s the guy U.S. Soccer came up with 415 days after Bruce Arena resigned as national coach in the post-Trinidad carnage.
“You’ve had 13 months,” ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman ranted. “The optics around this hiring make no sense to me whatsoever. You haven’t interviewed anyone. You haven’t gone through any process. And now you’ve put Gregg Berhalter on this mantle. Basically, you’re asking Gregg Berhalter to be Herb Brooks, to be Vince Lombardi, to be Bill Belichick.
“If you’d come out and said, ‘We’ve interviewed 20 or 25 people, Gregg Berhalter is our best choice, that’s what we’re going with,’ then, OK, you’ve done your due diligence and gone through the process. But the arrogance of the way they’ve handled the situation optically, you’re putting a needless amount of pressure on Gregg Berhalter now.”
But look at it from their perspective: Who else were they going to hire?
Go back to that soggy night in Couva, Trinidad, where the mighty Americans needed only a tie against the last-place island boys to advance from soccer’s version of the Missouri Valley Conference. They fell behind 2-0, nicked a goal back and nearly got an equalizer when Clint Dempsey’s shot hit the post in the 77th minute.
Not long after the final whistle, Sunil Gulati was asked about the future of his federation.
“You don’t make wholesale changes,” Gulati proclaimed, “based on the ball being 2 inches wide or 2 inches in … We have a lot of pieces in place that we think are very good and have been coming along.”
It was the first, desperate grab at the reins – and reign – of power suddenly slipping through his fingers. Gulati refused to resign as federation president and, in fact, was forced to admit he had solicited letters of nomination to run for a fourth term. It wasn’t until the last moment that he withdrew.
Instead, Carlos Cordeiro was elected. His vice president.
Cordeiro ran on a platform of “transformational change,” but in reality nothing much has for a group that views the botched qualifying campaign as more exception than epidemic. Gulati, multiple sources insist, still has a hand in major decisions after leading the bid to land the 2026 World Cup. MLS Commissioner Don Garber still pulls strings. U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn and Jay Berhalter still run the federation.
You read that name right: Berhalter. Jay is Gregg’s older brother.
He is essentially the federation’s No. 2 and, some say, a candidate to replace the retiring Flynn. He’s been with U.S. Soccer since 2000 and currently holds the title of chief commercial and strategy officer, which means he works closely with SUM – the MLS marketing arm that sells television and sponsorship deals for both the pro league and national team in what many consider a dangerous conflict of interest.
Jay Berhalter didn’t hire the new national coach. But he was instrumental in hiring the man who did, Earnie Stewart, to the newly created position of general manager. And Stewart, according to most accounts, interviewed exactly two people: Colombia’s Oscar Pareja, who recently left FC Dallas for the Tijuana Xolos, and the younger brother of the guy instrumental in hiring him.
Berhalter comes from MLS and won’t be spouting off how national team players need to be leave the cocoon of America for the cauldron of European soccer, as former national coach Jurgen Klinsmann did to the public chagrin of Garber. He’s not going to criticize the league’s flaws in cultivating young talent. He’s not going demand a reboot of U.S. Soccer’s pay-to-play development system. He’s not going to rock the boat, challenge the status quo.
He’s not going to make wholesale changes based on the ball being 2 inches wide or 2 inches in.
Time will tell whether Hammarby IF’s former coach is the ideal candidate for the federation. But the point is, he’s the ideal candidate for the egos of the men running it.
This was never about revolution or renovation or reinvention. This was always about redemption.