Sports

Gregg Berhalter Is Back. Can He End the Drama and Take the US Men's Soccer Team Forward?

In an exclusive interview with Vanity Fair, the returning US Soccer coach opens up about his difficult break from the team, patching things up with young star Gio Reyna, and, as the World Cup comes to the States in 2026, advancing to a round “that no US team has ever gone to.”
Head Coach Gregg Berhalter of USA gestures during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group B match between England and USA at...
Head Coach Gregg Berhalter of USA (C) gestures during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group B match between England and USA at Al Bayt Stadium on November 25, 2022 in Al Khor, Qatar.By Markus Gilliar/GES Sportfoto/Getty Images.

In the six months after the US men’s national team was eliminated from the World Cup, Gregg Berhalter endured what could only be described as a professional nightmare. Berhalter’s contract as the team’s coach expired on December 31, 2022, four weeks to the day after the side was defeated by the Netherlands in Qatar. The US Soccer Federation opted not to renew his deal at that time, as Berhalter found himself engulfed by a public feud with the family of one of his team’s brightest stars, the 20-year-old Gio Reyna—a falling out that ultimately surfaced a decades-old domestic violence incident between Berhalter and his now wife.

But by spring, with the US yet to appoint his full-time successor, Berhalter, 50, reemerged as a candidate. And by mid-June, after a half-year away, he was brought back to lead the national team as it begins its march to the 2026 World Cup, which will be held in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. He’ll be back coaching when the US suits up for a pair of friendlies against Uzbekistan and Oman in September.

During his time off, he went to Europe for a month and a half, where he met with some of the sport’s top coaches to hone his craft and watched US internationals like Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Antonee Robinson, and Tim Ream play for their clubs. Last month, Berhalter met Folarin Balogun, a heralded young striker who recently switched his international allegiance from England to the US. In an interview, Berhalter told me he has “had calls with almost every player.” But the most significant exception is Reyna, with whom Berhalter has still not spoken since the World Cup.

Their continued estrangement reflects what is an extremely fraught situation between not only player and coach—but their two families. As we spoke, it was clear that Berhalter is still nursing wounds over the ordeal. He called it “an unfortunate period” for his family to go through, but said it also “brought us together and helped us communicate.” Berhalter said he has consulted experts in mediation work to ensure the dispute with Reyna is handled “in the right way.” It’s all still raw, and Berhalter is proceeding cautiously. “It’s not something where you just pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey bud, here’s how it’s going to be,’” he said. “There is work to be done.”

The drama is partly why many US fans are upset by Berhalter’s return. (There were audible jeers from the crowd when Berhalter appeared in a prerecorded video message at Lionel Messi’s welcome celebration in Miami last month.) It is, without question, a gamble by the US Soccer Federation, and perhaps also a case of stubbornness. Appointing a fresh face would have been easier, and much less acrimonious. But the federation was, it seems, determined to let Berhalter see out a project he embarked on in 2018, after the US failed to qualify for that year’s World Cup and he began to integrate a new generation of players into the national team.

Now, as he returns to the touchline, it will be up to Berhalter to find a way to integrate a mercurial talent. “We both want the US to win the World Cup and be very successful,” Berhalter said of Reyna, “and now it’s figuring out a way to cooperate to do that.”

Gregg Berhalter, Head Coach of United States, gives instruction to Giovanni Reyna during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.By Patrick Smith/FIFA/Getty Images.

The US men’s national team has not had many like Reyna pass through its ranks. An attacking player for Borussia Dortmund of Germany’s Bundesliga, Reyna possesses both the technical ability and on-ball imagination to break down even the most rigid of oppositions. He has also demonstrated a capacity for brilliant individual goals, like the half-volley he buried from the edge of the box in a January match against Augsburg. That type of player is always invaluable in soccer but especially so in international cup play, where opposing defenses often sit in low blocks in a bid for extra time and penalty kicks. At his best, Reyna can unlock a defense in a way that none of his American teammates can. But Reyna scarcely played in Qatar, a decision that mystified many US fans as the team produced a mere three goals in four matches at the World Cup.

In the days following the team’s ouster from the tournament, the reasons behind Reyna’s lack of playing time came into focus. Speaking at a gathering in Manhattan hosted by the HOW Institute for Society on December 6, Berhalter said he had considered sending a player home for “clearly not meeting expectations on and off the field,” but instead decided to offer him a second chance, provided that he apologize to his teammates. Berhalter shared the anecdote seemingly as a way to laud how the US team’s leaders “took ownership of that process,” confronting the player themselves to make it known that he needed to change. “And from that day on,” Berhalter said then, “there were no issues with this player.” Berhalter’s comments, although they weren't intended for the public and didn’t name the player involved, were published in a newsletter days later. The Athletic later ran a story that filled in the gaps, citing sources who said that Reyna “showed an alarming lack of effort” in training at the World Cup and that it “caused significant frustration within the team.” According to the story, Reyna apologized to his teammates in Qatar.

Reyna acknowledged that he let “emotions get the best of me and affect my training and behavior for a few days after learning about my limited role” at the World Cup, but said he was disappointed that it had spilled into public view. “Coach Berhalter has always said that issues that arise with the team will stay ‘in house’ so we can focus on team unity and progress,” Reyna said in a post on Instagram in December. His agent, Dan Segal, called out Berhalter, saying it was “disappointing and disrespectful for certain parties to be commenting on private team matters publicly.”

Reyna’s parents, former US national team players Claudio and Danielle Reyna, went after Berhalter behind the scenes. Claudio, a former captain of the men’s national team who played alongside Berhalter, reached out to Earnie Stewart, then the federation’s sporting director, to discuss Berhalter’s remarks. On a subsequent call, Danielle informed Stewart about a physical altercation between Berhalter and his now wife, Rosalind, more than 30 years ago. According to a later report, when they were students at the University of North Carolina in 1992, while arguing outside of a bar, his then girlfriend struck Berhalter in the face. He then pushed her to the ground and kicked her twice. (No police report was filed, arrest made, or medical attention sought. Both have acknowledged the facts of the incident, and Gregg Berhalter has since taken responsibility for his actions.) Stewart, who stepped down as sporting director in January to take a role at the Dutch club PSV Eindhoven, reported the allegation to the federation’s senior counsel, prompting an independent investigation by the powerhouse law firm Alston & Bird.

The findings of the inquiry, which were released in March, cleared Berhalter, determining that there was no discrepancy between his account and his wife’s. It also found no evidence that he has engaged in physical violence toward anyone since then. (The Berhalters have been married for 25 years, and have four children.) Investigators said there was “no basis to conclude that employing Mr. Berhalter would create legal risks for an organization.” And the report produced by Alston & Bird cast the Reynas as meddlesome parents, detailing a history of Claudio making complaints to the federation about Gio’s playing time. In a statement on behalf of the Reynas following the release of the findings, Segal said it was “grossly unfair to see the family turned into one-dimensional caricatures to progress a narrative that benefits others.”

The Reynas, through Segal, declined to comment for this story.

Berhalter has expressed regret for the comments he made at the HOW Institute. “The most important thing to me is that players trust the staff, and if this in any way was taken as a betrayal of trust, then of course I regret it because that wasn’t the intention,” he said. The anecdote, he maintains, was meant to highlight the US’s “great team culture,” with players holding an off-kilter teammate accountable.

Berhalter is confident that he and Reyna can emerge on the other side of this in harmony, saying their “goals are much bigger than any individual relationship.” He called Reyna a “super talented player who can help this team.”

“We started this process of how to set expectations a little and figure out how we’re going to move forward together,” Berhalter said of his relationship with Reyna.

“Some of it will involve him, some of it will involve us, and eventually, hopefully, it leads towards Gio being comfortable in the team, comfortable that he’s being evaluated fairly and coached fairly and held to the same norms and standards as everybody else,” he added.

Reyna is in contention to make the roster for those upcoming friendly matches, which will be announced on Wednesday, although Berhalter also noted that Reyna just returned to training at Dortmund last week after an extended injury. The reunion may have to wait for the October international break, when the US is scheduled to play Germany and Ghana. Berhalter told me he intends to meet with Reyna before his next call-up, whenever it comes, saying it remains a “priority.”

I wondered if there might be a simpler explanation for their lack of communication––specifically, the innate impulse that steers most of us away from awkward and unpleasant interactions. Berhalter dismissed that. “It’s just being deliberate and strategic,” he said.

When I asked if he would be able to reconcile with Claudio and Danielle Reyna, Berhalter looked anguished as he considered the question for several seconds. “I don’t think that’s a subject I’m comfortable talking about,” he said.

Gregg Berhalter greets Yunus Masah of USA after during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group B match between IR Iran and USA at Al Thumama Stadium on November 29, 2022 in Doha, Qatar.By Stefan Matzke/sampics/Corbis/Getty Images.

At a certain point this year, Berhalter reached peace with the idea of never returning to the US national team. He considered other jobs—most notably a managerial post at Club América of Liga MX. “Mentally, I put myself in a position where if it happened it happened, if it didn’t happen it didn’t happen,” he told me. “There was always a massive place in my heart for [the national team] job, and it was always going to be a dream opportunity, but at a certain stage I think you disassociate a little bit.”

Berhalter was officially back in contention for his old job after US Soccer released the findings of the Alston & Bird’s investigation in March. The federation hired Matt Crocker to replace Stewart as sporting director in April to lead the search.

Crocker, a native of Wales who previously served as director of football operations at the English club Southampton, insists that the search was exhaustive and included a “really chunky good list” of candidates, some of whom “were actively coaching in the top leagues in the world.” Also reportedly in the mix was American soccer coach Jesse Marsch, who most recently coached Leeds United in the Premier League and has also had stints in Austria and Germany. Crocker has said that the number of candidates considered was in the double digits––he refuses to provide a specific figure––and that Berhalter, whom he met for the first time shortly after he was appointed in April, simply outshone all the others. “Obviously, Gregg wanted to be considered in that process and we did the same due diligence as we do for all candidates,” he told me.

“I’m sure people went, Oh, he’s done the job before. Where’s the new name?” Crocker said. “The most important thing to me is that I stuck to the process. Would there have been a better external noise around the appointment of a so-called ‘name within the game?’ Probably. My job is to have a due diligence process, and that we stick to that process. In the end, whoever is the best candidate gets the job.”

Berhalter’s candidacy was bolstered by public endorsements he received from several top US players. Pulisic, who joined the Italian giants AC Milan this summer, said in March that the situation with Berhalter was “handled in an extremely childish manner.” Appearing to comment on the complaints from the Reynas, Pulisic said they were like something straight out of “youth soccer.” In June, a little more than a week before the hire was announced, Pulisic said that Berhalter “should be considered.” But not everyone shares Pulisic’s support for Berhalter. News of the hire broke just as the US was kicking off its CONCACAF Nations League semifinal match against arch-rival Mexico in June, sparking stunned and dismayed reactions within the American soccer community. Clint Dempsey, the joint all-time leading scorer for the US men’s national team who is now a commentator, said on-air that night that he was “confused” by the decision. He lamented that the federation “wasted so much time” only to go “back to who we had in the beginning.” Roger Bennett, cohost of the popular American soccer podcast Men In Blazers, tweeted at the time that the reaction to Berhalter’s return on the show’s social media was “largely not positive.”

It was a chance to make a clean break from the Reyna saga, to usher in a fresh start under someone who could offer a new perspective. In rehiring Berhalter, the federation essentially deemed him worth the trouble.

Is he? Berhalter boasts a formidable record of 37-11-12 in his first four years as coach. He has brought home hardware for the national team, winning the 2020 Nations League and the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2021. But under Berhalter, the team’s record against sides outside its region and in matches away from American soil has been far less stellar. In last year’s World Cup, the US underwhelmed; the team often looked hapless in front of the goal and was ultimately undone by a more clinical Dutch side.

Berhalter gets a bit defensive about the team’s performance in Qatar. He reminded me that the US had the second youngest squad at the World Cup. Berhalter contended that, in its four matches at the tournament, the US was the better team in most of them, including a spirited 0-0 draw in the group stage against England. He pointed out that the US lost in the round of 16 to a stout Netherlands team, which entered the match on a 19-game unbeaten streak and took eventual champion Argentina to the brink in the next round. “We did a great job,” Berhalter said of the team’s performance in Qatar.

As Berhalter looks ahead to the next World Cup, he said that the “goal is for us to go to a round that no US team has ever gone to.”

The US men’s team reached a semi-final before finishing third in 1930, which remains its best showing at the World Cup, although the competition that year featured only 13 countries. It has not won a match in the knockout rounds since the 2002 World Cup, when the team reached the quarterfinals before bowing out in a heartbreaker to Germany. Berhalter was in the starting XI that day, as was Claudio Reyna.

If the US is to replicate that showing––or perhaps even eclipse it––another Berhalter-Reyna pairing will probably be required.