US Soccer went to Vegas and decided not to gamble.
Just as the national anthems were wrapping up at Allegiant Stadium before kick-off in Thursday’s bellicose USMNT-Mexico clash, The Athletic broke the story: Berhalter is back. This might be the rare occasion when a thumping victory for the US over their fiercest rivals was not the biggest news of the night.
Reappointing Gregg Berhalter as head coach was the least risky option available to the federation as its new sporting director, Matt Crocker, selected the man who, in all likelihood, will guide the US during the 2026 World Cup on home soil.
For many fans the return of the 49-year-old will be akin to sitting at a roulette table but keeping all your chips in your pocket: timorous and dull, a squandered opportunity to go big and bold. There was no shortage of intriguing international candidates out there, including Patrick Vieira, who was recently linked with the post. Jesse Marsch would have been a logical choice if Crocker wanted another American, but the former Leeds United manager’s agent tweeted on Thursday that his client was out of the running.
Crocker, though, is paying more attention to locker-room voices than social media snipers, so Berhalter is set to be anointed anew, five-and-a-half months after his contract was quietly allowed to expire amid an investigation into conduct from more than 30 years ago prompted by the jaundiced parents of a sulky substitute.
At a leadership conference last December, following the US’s 3-1 defeat to the Netherlands in the World Cup round of 16, Berhalter indiscreetly disclosed that a player later revealed to be Gio Reyna was almost sent home from Qatar for a poor attitude after being told he would not start in the opening game against Wales.
The armed gunships of helicopter parenting, Claudio and Danielle Reyna – both former US internationals and close friends of the Berhalters – told his employers that he kicked the woman who is now his wife, Rosalind, during an argument outside a bar when they were students in 1992.
US Soccer launched an investigation and Berhalter issued a statement in January saying there “are zero excuses for my actions that night” and it “was a single, isolated event”. Released in March, the detailed report contained details injurious to the Reynas’ reputation but concluded there was no legal reason not to employ Berhalter, paving the way for his possible return.
It’s still a surprise: Thursday’s rambunctious 3-0 win over a feckless Mexico in the semi-finals of the Concacaf Nations League was the team’s sixth game since the World Cup without Berhalter. He had begun to seem like a fading shadow. “If you go back with Berhalter then we’ve wasted a lot of time,” the former forward Clint Dempsey said on Paramount+.
In truth, with host status meaning no World Cup qualifying campaign to navigate and three years to go before the only tournament that really matters, there is plenty of time to waste. And US Soccer have form in this respect, having spent more than a year with an interim coach before hiring Berhalter at the end of 2018 for a rebuilding job.
That youth-driven overhaul is mostly accomplished, though relations with Gio Reyna will obviously need to be repaired. Berhalter clearly still retains the respect of most of the players. “I think he should be considered [for the post],” Christian Pulisic, the US captain in Las Vegas and an important influence on and off the pitch, told reporters this month in remarks that were unusually forthright for him. “He did a great job with the team. He brought us a long way. I think a lot of people – and a lot of guys in the team especially – would agree with that.”
If there is any roll of the dice involved in reappointing Berhalter, it’s a bet that he can continue to grow as a tactician while his young and gifted players mature and reach their primes with the world watching three years from now. That stagnation won’t be a risk come the summer of 2026; seven-plus years would be a long reign for any coach, anywhere.
The alternative was to hand the job to a proven veteran on the basis that Berhalter is not the man to hoist the squad to the next level: the world’s top eight, or even top four. The US met reasonable expectations in Qatar. The next challenge will be to exceed them, to haul this nation beyond its historical norms. Still, it would be remiss to argue that Berhalter was out-coached in the loss to the Netherlands and not also point out that with better finishing the US could have beaten England in the group stage.
This is where Folarin Balogun comes in. The forward made his debut on Thursday after switching his international allegiance from England to the US last month. Brooklyn-born, London-raised, he scored 21 league goals in Ligue 1 for Reims in 2022-23 while on loan from Arsenal. Balogun is not yet much more than a close-range finisher, but sharpshooting in the box is all the US need from their central striker given the abundant creativity on the wings.
It’s much too soon to tell whether he will be the missing puzzle piece but his lively presence clearly distracted the Mexico defense, allowing Pulisic to score either side of half-time in what was an unruly, hectic encounter. Reyna, sporting bleached blond hair, flitted around the field with the luminous urgency of a firefly in mating season.
Ricardo Pepi, the 20-year-old who looked like the answer to the team’s goalscoring problem when he burst on the scene in 2021, only to falter and be overlooked for the World Cup, scored the third soon after coming on for Balogun.
The US will face Canada in Sunday’s final without the suspended Weston McKennie and Sergiño Dest, who were sent off in a waspish second half that saw McKennie’s jersey ripped in a melee; César Montes and Gerardo Arteaga of Mexico were also dismissed, while play was paused because of homophobic chanting from Mexico fans which ultimately caused the referee to end the game before the full amount of stoppage time.
“The boys told me it was going to be intense, but I’m definitely still shocked by the events,” Balogun told reporters, referring to a fracas during which he was shoved to the ground.
The outcome was a resounding success for BJ Callaghan in his first game as the US’s second interim coach since the World Cup – and by extension, a triumph for Berhalter, who hired Callaghan as an assistant in 2019. In essence, this was Berhalter’s team and tactics, coached by one of his trusted sidekicks. And they outpassed, outfought and outsmarted Mexico to reach a tournament final.
Some allowance needs to be made for the dismal standard of the opponents. But this was a convincing performance that evoked the potential for future excellence; an argument for continuity, not transformation.
“Today is a testament of the work that [Berhalter’s] put into this team,” Pulisic told reporters, per the Athletic, adding that Callaghan “picked up right where he left off… if that’s not enough evidence, then that’s all right. People are gonna hate no matter what.”