An Exacting Man: Columbus Crew Coach Gregg Berhalter

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

New Crew coach Gregg Berhalter isn't one to let details escape notice. That kind of discipline-which he applies to the front office as much to the pitch and the locker room-might be just what the Crew needs to escape its slide to mediocrity.

Most days last winter, even excruciatingly frigid Polar Vortex days, Gregg Berhalter arrived at the coaches' office inside Columbus Crew Stadium around 7 a.m., an hour before the rest of his staff. Hired as sporting director and coach and tasked with rebuilding a once-great soccer club, he had an enormous pile on his plate: Get to know his current players and scout new ones; formulate strategies and establish structures; field an endless stream of questions, such as whether the Crew's equipment manager should purchase cones or dummies for training sessions (dummies, of course, because they better replicate the experience of dribbling around opponents).

There he was every day, applying his laser focus to one task after another, hour after hour, sunrise to sunset. He haggled with agents, wrote detailed training regimens and sat down for countless meetings. Then he returned home to spend time with his wife, Rosalind, and their four children, his only constants besides soccer during these two decades of playing and coaching around the world. After that, he crashed into bed to recharge and do it again.

Berhalter's brain never seems to stop working, and neither does he. He has been handed the keys to the kingdom, and for someone as aggressively meticulous as he, that means nonstop effort. Though he's younger (40 years old) and taller (6 feet 1 inch), Berhalter is, in some ways, a benevolent analog to anti-hero Walter White of "Breaking Bad": He's cerebral, scientific and detail-oriented, and he has learned by experience not to settle for half-measures. Berhalter's posture is rigid but relaxed, his stare probing yet disarming, his light brown hair and beard cropped to stubble with surgical precision. He's a quiet man with a loud presence. Or as Crew defender Josh Williams puts it, "He's laid back, but you can kind of tell he has that burning fire in him."

On the other hand, while TV's favorite meth kingpin ruined the lives of everyone close to him, Berhalter seems to make the people around him better. That's one of the traits that stuck out to Asher Mendelsohn, Berhalter's new right-hand man, when they met at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. "It was a very nice combination of professionalism, the way he carried himself and also the care he had for the people he had around him," Mendelsohn says.

Those qualities have served Berhalter well so far. They carried him to one of the most impressive playing careers in American history. They helped him become the first American head coach in European soccer. And they set him apart when the Crew was considering candidates to build something massive in Columbus again after five seasons of steady decay.

In November, Berhalter beat out a pair of Crew legends, Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Brad Friedel, for this job. He also beat Brian Bliss, a former Crew player himself, who had been serving as interim coach since the dismissal of Robert Warzycha, yet another former Crew star. Those men all had deep history with the club; Berhalter had none. But Anthony Precourt, the Bay Area investment management tycoon who bought the Crew and Crew Stadium last summer, has no attachment to those old-school Crew guys either, so: Out with the old, in with the new. As the Crew Stadium banner bearing Precourt and Berhalter's mugs announced to Interstate 71 drivers all winter, this is "a new era of Crew soccer."

They have a lot of cleaning up to do.

In 2008, the Crew ascended to the pinnacle of Major League Soccer. Coach Sigi Schmid's team clinched the franchise's second Supporters Shield (awarded to the team with the best regular season record) and stormed through the playoffs to claim the Crew's first MLS Cup. Veteran attacker Schelotto, a superstar in his native Argentina, conjured constant wizardry on the way to league MVP honors. The magic wasn't limited to him; the whole team played like superstars, and a critical mass of Crew fanatics came together to form an electric new supporters section.

"It was the kind of season you always dream of," says Frankie Hejduk, the wildly charismatic Californian who captained the 2008 team and now works in the front office.

That dreamy feeling dissipated fast. Schmid departed the franchise weeks after the MLS Cup to coach the expansion Seattle Sounders. His replacement was Warzycha, under whom the Crew declined steadily. The results worsened marginally every season until, in 2012, Columbus couldn't even crack the postseason. In 2013, the downward trend persisted.

Stats aside, the swagger was gone. The confidence and grace that guided the championship team had evaporated. Players murmured about locker-room unrest. Fans wondered loudly how long the front office would let the bleeding continue and feared Dallas-based Hunt Sports Group, the franchise's investor-operator, had de-prioritized the Crew.

Then, with minimal warning, Precourt Sports Ventures stepped in last summer with an offer to buy the organization. The deal went through July 30. Suddenly, the Crew's entropic era was over.

"Even before the ownership change, I was really getting a little bit antsy with the status quo," says Crew President Mark McCullers, who joined the club in 1998. "I felt like we were a little bit stagnant. And we were attacking that, and we were trying to change it. And Anthony took over the team, and then there's the catalyst."

Precourt took over with clear objectives: better results on the field, a better experience for the players and fans and a new brand to replace the Crew's blue-collar, underdog image. He and McCullers don't believe the current construction worker logo, set to disappear after this season, jibes with Columbus' young, educated, white-collar reality. Nor do they think the role of underdog is indicative of the Crew's track record: "We're one of the top four winningest clubs in the history of this league," McCullers says. "But I'm not sure that's the perception." They aimed to put the Crew at the forefront of a rapidly improving league and to establish the Black and Gold as an international soccer power.

Their first maneuver was to remove Warzycha. He was dismissed over Labor Day weekend, and Bliss was named interim coach, allowing the new regime time to commence a rigorous coaching search.

"We felt it was important to cast a very wide net," Precourt says. "We talked with a number of different coaches, players, folks at U.S. Soccer, league people, other investors, other owners, other technical directors and sporting directors across the league, and we built this list. And then Mark and I flew out and spent time talking with a number of people. I mean, over the phone and in person, I probably had 40 conversations."

Many fans would have skipped such an exhaustive effort and just hired Schelotto. But when you're charging into the future, you can't afford to be sentimental about the past.

"We knew that the popular choice would be Guillermo Barros Schelotto," McCullers says. "But look, in these sorts of decisions, you really have to trust your processes and your instinct."

Their relentlessly thorough search led them to a relentlessly thorough candidate, one who seems to have spent his entire life preparing for this moment.

Berhalter was born in Englewood, New Jersey, on August 1, 1973, just two years before the star-studded New York Cosmos sparked a local youth soccer craze. By the time Berhalter first laced up his cleats at age 5, Jersey was becoming the East Coast's most fruitful breeding ground for elite players and coaches.

He started at forward, but by age 10 he switched to central defense. In high school, he played for Newark's elite St. Benedict's alongside future U.S. teammate Claudio Reyna. He often traveled with youth national teams and regularly roomed with a young Frankie Hejduk. Even as a teen, Berhalter's mind was bursting with ideas about soccer. "We had endless, endless conversations about tactics," Hejduk recalls.

Berhalter played college ball at North Carolina, where he met Rosalind and a coach, Elmar Bolowich, whose philosophy left a lasting impact on him. Berhalter remembers getting a vote of encouragement from Bolowich when a European club recruited him after his junior year. "That's a guy who didn't have his self-interest in mind," Berhalter says. "He looked out for the well-being of his player, and I'm grateful for that."

In 1994, Berhalter signed with the Dutch club PEC Zwolle, skipping his senior year and moving across the world from Rosalind. "There wasn't Skype then," he says. "There wasn't cell phones. International calling was $4 a minute. So it was an easy decision, but it wasn't easy to do." About a month later, the U.S. national team summoned him for a match against Saudi Arabia. At age 21, he was playing professionally in Europe and for his country.

Rosalind soon joined him in Europe. They wed in 1997 and had their first child in 2001. "That was a big factor in surviving just being away from home for 15 years in countries [where] you don't speak the language," Berhalter says. "The best guys go through a lot of ups and downs. There's a lot of scrutiny from the press, from the media. It was great to have someone there with me."

During his six seasons in Holland, infatuated with Dutch soccer's fastidious attention to detail, Berhalter caught the coaching bug. As he progressed to clubs in England and Germany, he began thinking like a coach, absorbing whatever strategies and techniques he could.

Meanwhile, he remained in the U.S. national team picture. In 2002, he was part of the most successful American World Cup squad since 1950, advancing to the quarterfinals. Four years later, he was on the World Cup roster again, but he didn't make it on the field, and the U.S. failed to advance out of group play. Such an ugly result was a wake-up call for Berhalter regarding the dangers of complacency and the value of chemistry.

In 2009, Berhalter signed with the L.A. Galaxy to play for former U.S. coach Bruce Arena. Two years later, Arena promoted Berhalter to player-coach, mentoring him in the ways of coaching throughout his final year as a player. It was an ideal learning environment: Arena is widely regarded as America's greatest coach ever, and the Galaxy won the MLS Cup that year.

"A week before preseason started, Bruce said to me, 'OK, I want you to plan out a training session for the week, a plan for the week.' So I did that," Berhalter says. "I wrote up this whole thing, prepared it. And he took it, looked at it, glanced at it, and that was the last I heard of it. But to me, it was the exercise that was very valuable-actually taking the time to do that, get your thoughts down on paper. And I saw what he was doing. He did that often throughout that year."

Arena was hugely influential on Berhalter-"sometimes maybe too influential," Berhalter says. "I sometimes think, 'What would Bruce have done in this situation?' when I should be thinking for myself." Still, Arena's imprint helped Berhalter land a job at Hammarby, a Swedish club owned by Anschutz Entertainment Group, which also owns the Galaxy. Three weeks after the MLS Cup, he became the first American to coach in Europe.

Things got real very fast in Stockholm, where he was tasked with getting a floundering club promoted to the first division. "People have the tendency to say, 'Oh, second division Sweden. That's nothing.' But this is one of the biggest clubs in Sweden, and the fan support is bordering on maniac," Berhalter says. The experience taught him a lot. More than anything, it taught him how much he still had to learn.

So when Berhalter was fired last summer after failing to get the club promoted to Sweden's first division, he went on an educational expedition. He spent three months visiting some of Europe's greatest clubs, studying organizational structure, tactics, training methods and everything else he could soak up. "I went to Chelsea, Barcelona, Valencia, Levante, clubs in Holland, clubs in Sweden," he says. "I hadn't had that much time off in 20 years, so it was actually a welcome break."

He wouldn't be unemployed for long.

When Precourt called to discuss the Crew job, Berhalter was prepared. He showed up with an exhaustive plan for the Crew's present and future, one that touched on every aspect of the organization. When he presented it to a committee including Precourt, McCullers, Hejduk and Andrew Arthurs, who oversees the Crew's youth academy, they were amazed at the clarity and depth of his vision. Furthermore, they appreciated Berhalter's communication skills, his vast network of connections and his hard-working character. He was the complete package.

"We all looked at each other and were like, 'Wow,'" Hejduk says. "We knew almost immediately after that Gregg was the guy."

Berhalter was hired on Nov. 6 and promptly began assembling a staff of like-minded individuals. Within his first two weeks he hired Mendelsohn, 31, a U.S. Soccer employee whom he'd kept up with since they met at the 2006 World Cup, and Josh Wolff, 36, a former teammate with the national team and at the German club Munich 1860. In December, the Crew added as goalkeepers coach Pat Onstad, 46, one of the most successful goalies in MLS history. Rob Maaskant, 45, a teammate of Berhalter's during his first professional season at Zwolle, came on in January, loading the Crew technical staff with former players at each on-field position: goalkeeper (Onstad), defender (Berhalter), midfielder (Maaskant) and forward (Wolff).

Mendelsohn, the Crew's first director of soccer operations, comes from a slightly different background. He played in college, but afterward, he spent two years doing performance analysis for Fortune 500 companies before a quarter-life crisis had him applying for every soccer job he could find. That led to an eight-year career with U.S. Soccer in which Mendelsohn repeatedly conceptualized new programs and brought them to life, including a youth academy system and a pro referee organization.

That's where he fits into Berhalter's scheme: Both men believe deeply in the value of developing processes to maximize value and minimize risk. This applies to everything: how to train, how to plan for the future, how to cull the useful information out of piles of facts and opinions. Mendelsohn is around to help create structures so every person in the organization understands how he or she contributes to the Crew's success.

As Mendelsohn explains it, "My expertise is in setting up process and thinking about not necessarily what the next step is, but what the step after that is and the step after that. And trying to mitigate risk, which is a lot of what we do. We're operating in an industry that involves low batting averages and draft picks that pan out, free-agent signings that come in and don't pan out-not just with the Crew, but with soccer in general. So the extent to which we can minimize our losses on those and reduce our error rate, we'll be more successful."

In other words: There's a lot of brain power in the Crew brain trust these days.

"[Berhalter's] soccer brain is really second to none, and I really believe that someday he's going to be a national team coach," Hejduk says. "That's the level that I see this guy potentially being at."

Everyone agrees Berhalter is a man with a plan. But making a plan is one thing; getting people to follow it is another. Onstad says he's seen every kind of strategy succeed-the trick is getting the guys in the locker room to buy in.

One of the first players Berhalter sold on his vision was Williams, a defender who was weighing whether to test the free-agent market. "I was keeping my options open as far as staying here or going other places," Williams says. "After my first meeting, I loved his passion. I loved his view for not only me but for the whole organization."

Berhalter kept up that pattern with other players. By the time they convened for preseason training in late January, their excitement was palpable. The mood was noticeably lighter and more optimistic than last preseason. They are hopeful for an administration that's all business, no politics.

"The level of professionalism, I think, is going to be a very positive change," goalkeeper Matt Lampson says. "The players should just have to worry about what they do on the field, that's it. And before that wasn't always the case."

Berhalter's mere presence represents a fresh start, but his personnel moves mark this season as a different kind of clean break. Last December, he chipped away the last remaining piece of the 2008 championship team by trading defender Chad Marshall to Seattle.

Berhalter says the Marshall trade wasn't a case of marking his territory; he believes strongly in holding onto most of the players he inherited and assessing them over time. Rather, he says the deal was a natural part of an MLS ecosystem that typically sees complete turnover every four years. Berhalter saw a chance to clear salary cap space and do right by a player: "In Chad's case, I just felt that it was a chance for him to invigorate his career, have a new perspective."

Whatever the motive, the result is a team completely disconnected from that much-heralded 2008 squad. That's probably not what McCullers means when he talks about moving forward, but it does render Columbus a hungry young team with a lot to prove. As star midfielder Wil Trapp put it, "We're tired of hearing about 2008. This is 2014, and it's our turn to win a championship."

Six weeks and two Florida trips later, the new-look Crew already had one trophy, throttling reigning MLS Cup champions Sporting Kansas City 4-1 to claim the Disney Pro Soccer Classic title and complete an undefeated 4-0-1 preseason. Technically, those matches were meaningless, but the psychic benefits of starting strong are significant.

Back in the resilient Ohio chill, the mood was chipper during the club's final week of preseason training. While the bundled-up team scrimmaged on Westerville Central High School's artificial turf, Berhalter ironed out details in a series of one-on-one chats with players. Shrouded in a large yellow parka and matching yellow winter cap, he grasped a clipboard in one hand and gestured wildly with both, rarely breaking eye contact with his conversation partner. As the team walked off the field, he turned his attention to Lampson.

"He was explaining where he wants the ball on goal kicks-and why," Lampson says. "That's one of the biggest things-he's not just going to tell you what you need to do, he's going to tell you why you need to do it so you understand and you don't need to question it. You don't need to think about it when you're playing. It's very helpful."

All those short, pointed conversations are adding up to something. Method has replaced madness.

"We know we're not fully developed as a team," Berhalter says. "We've made good progress, but we know there's still some work to do. There's a certain amount of apprehension going into the [season], but I think the overall feeling is confidence. The guys are believing in themselves, and that's important."