Matt Crocker, who fired USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter, now faces a difficult search

Matt Crocker knows he has to get it right this time.

The U.S. Soccer Federation’s athletic director had been on the job for just a month when he decided to rehire Gregg Berhalter as coach of the men’s national team last summer. It was a surprising decision, given the baggage Berhalter brought with him from a messy end to his first term and the danger that things could get stale after four years in charge.

But Crocker, a Welshman who arrived at the USSF with extensive experience of English football, put the candidates through a series of managerial, statistical and psychological tests before deciding no change was necessary.

Berhalter continued his regional successes last year, but struggled to take the American team to the next level, which was evident when the team was eliminated in the first round of the Copa América last summer.

The music stopped during Berhalter’s second dance on Wednesday when Crocker announced he had fired him, with two years left on his contract.

“It’s been a difficult week,” Crocker told a handful of reporters on a video call. “I know personally it’s been a difficult week for everyone associated with U.S. Soccer. It’s a really difficult decision.”

But it was inevitable. As much as he wanted the arrangement to work, Crocker wouldn’t get much more out of the team with Berhalter at the helm. The young U.S. team had made significant strides in Berhalter’s first term, rebounding from a failed 2018 World Cup run to advance to the knockout stages of the 2022 tournament.

If we use the Copa América as a benchmark for global progress, we see that the Americans have not improved.

Now it’s up to Crocker to find the right replacement. This time, he can’t go wrong. The stakes are too high. The next World Cup — which will be held primarily in American stadiums, along with a few Mexican and Canadian ones — is less than two years away. That may seem like a long time, but with no competition even close to the caliber of the Copa América, a new coach will have to instill his convictions and implement his tactics in regional tournaments and friendlies.

How will this quest differ from last year’s?

“I’m 12 months into the program,” Crocker said. “Now I’ve been around a lot, both on the men’s side and the women’s side, primarily because we’ve made some significant changes in both programs over the last 12 months. I’m much clearer and much more confident in what I see … in what I think we need going forward.”

Crocker added: “I think I’m in a better position now to conduct a much more targeted search, where I’m more likely to go hard and early with specific candidates that I feel meet the criteria that we’re looking for.”

Crocker seems to have done well with the women. After that team’s historic early elimination from the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, coach Vlatko Andonovski stepped down.

Crocker then hired Emma Hayes, who had a lot of accolades and was highly regarded around the world at Chelsea FC. Hayes’ appointment was seen by many as a coup for the American program, even though it meant she had to wait six months until she took over this summer, having completed her Chelsea tenure.

The U.S. women have a fresh energy and enthusiasm heading into the Olympics, though expectations are tempered as both the coach and the newcomers find their feet. In the big picture, Hayes’ goal is the 2027 World Cup in Brazil.

The USSF made Hayes the highest-paid women’s coach in the world, putting her on a financial level with Berhalter. Would such equality efforts limit what Crocker could offer a men’s coach?

“My job is to find the best head coach to move this program forward,” he said. “I know it’s a very competitive market in terms of salary and we have to be competitive to get the level of coach that I think can move the program forward. I’m also very aware [the] must continue to strive for higher standards and equality. But I don’t think that will be a stumbling block for our investment.”

Crocker believes the men’s program will benefit from a new perspective. The program is full of potential in the form of young players employed by European clubs playing in top leagues. The 2026 World Cup is coming up when many of those players should be in their prime.

Crocker will need to hire someone to tinker with the tactics and personnel that, while aggressive in theory, have yielded five goals in the last five games. He will need to hire someone to conduct a deep analysis of the talent pool and perhaps acquire players who have been overlooked.

So where will Crocker go? Even before Berhalter’s announcement, he was exploring options, though no names were shared on Wednesday. Online fan talk about former Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp seems fantastical. MLS coaches are deep into the season. European club coaches are opening training camps. Some coaches at the European Championships and Copa América may be looking for work.

Coaches who are deeply rooted in club football — which involves preparing for matches and building squads 24 hours a day — are like chefs in a chaotic kitchen. International work is a slow process.

Crocker will have to find the right chef.

“I just want the best possible coach that can help the team win, and whether they’re from the U.S. or somewhere else, they have to fit the profile, which is a serial winning coach, someone who can continue to develop this potential group of players, someone who has a tremendous interest and passion for player development,” Crocker said. “It’s still a young group … but also a group that is now kind of in the neighborhood of having some appropriate experiences that we should be getting out of the group. That’s my intention.”

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