After decades of American soccer players failing to catch on with clubs in Europe, America’s brightest young players are finally getting the chance.
In the 1990s, many of the US national team players were college players or guys that were signed full-time to be with the national team. Very few exceptions played in Europe.
But now, guys like Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Steve Cherundolo, Michael Bradley and Carlos Bocanegra are fixtures on teams in the most elite leagues on the continent. Youngsters like Brek Shea, Tim Ream and Juan Agudelo are knocking on the door, all training with teams in the English Premier League.
Playing in Europe is no longer an improbable dream but a realistic possibility. So naturally, it’s time to start venturing to the next frontier—coaching in Europe.
Gregg Berhalter, a former USMNT defender, has been hired by Hammarby IF of Sweden’s Superettan (second division) to be its new head coach. Berhalter signed a two-year deal with an option for a third. He is the first American-born former national team player to coach a team in Europe.
Hammarby, the former club of Charlie Davies, is not top-flight European soccer, but it’s a start, and a necessary one at that. While not even currently playing in Sweden's top division, the club has the third-highest attendance in the country.
Former USMNT player and National Soccer Hall of fame inductee Marcelo Balboa commented on how Americans coaching in Europe could help develop the game in the United States in an interview with Potomac Soccer Wire in October of 2010.
“We challenged our players many years ago to play at the highest level, to go overseas and make their craft,” Balboa said. “I think now we’re at a point where that same challenge needs to be put out to our coaches. Our coaches now need to expand their horizons out of MLS and look for that European job or that South American job, to get that kind of experience and bring that back to the United States.
“Our players have a little more experience than our coaches do. It’s time that our coaches start getting that experience overseas.”
Berhalter is a surprising candidate to be one of the first guys to make the jump. He spent the first 15 years of his professional career in Europe, playing in the lower leagues in the Netherlands, Germany and England. Those experiences certainly helped shape his game and earned him two trips to the World Cup, which must give him some clout in Europe.
The surprise is that Berhalter just retired from playing at the end of the 2011 MLS season, where he held the dual responsibility of player and assistant coach.
A European club is giving a young (Berhalter is 38 years old) American with very little coaching experience a chance to lead their team as they attempt to get back to first-division soccer for the first time since 2009.
“[Hammarby] looked at where I’ve been the last couple years with the Galaxy and with Bruce Arena and my role there and then they looked at my background as a player,” Berhalter told ExtraTime Radio. “I obviously spent 15 years in Europe and they felt like that diversity in terms of being in three different countries and experiencing these different soccer cultures will be a real plus in the long run.”
Even more surprising is that initially the team was looking for an experienced manager who had previous ties to Hammarby, according to Berhalter on ExtraTime Radio.
Former USMNT player and current AZ Alkmaar (Jozy Altidore’s team) technical director Earnie Stewart thought this moment was still a long way away, commenting on the situation in an interview with MLSsoccer.com in 2010.
“First of all, there's a problem in the way football in the United States is looked upon, and that reflects upon the coaches,” he explained. “We're still making progress, still getting better, still getting to where we want to be.”
Stewart added that any coach that does get an opportunity would have to have some kind of connection in Europe to help get that job.
Berhalter’s connection was former LA Galaxy midfielder Chris Klein, who sits on the board of Hammarby as an AEG representative and assisted with the coaching search. AEG owns the Los Angeles Galaxy and holds a 49 percent share of Hammarby.
For those that are surprised Berhalter would be the first American to coach in Europe, ahead of famous national team coaches like Bruce Arena, Bob Bradley and players-turned-coaches Jason Kreis, Tab Ramos and Claudio Reyna, keep in mind that John Harkes was the first American to play in the English Premier League. He did not have any professional experience before moving to Sheffield Wednesday, but his career turned out just fine.
It’s a historic moment for U.S. soccer, and Berhalter has a rather large challenge ahead of him. But it’s a challenge that Berhalter and American soccer need to be ready to face.