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

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

The U.S. Soccer Federation’s sporting director was barely a month into the job last summer when he chose to rehire Gregg Berhalter as men’s national soccer team coach. It was a surprising decision, given the baggage Berhalter brought with him after a messy end to his first term and the danger of things growing stale after four years in charge.

But Crocker, a Welshman who came to the USSF with extensive experience in English soccer, ran the candidates through a battery of managerial, statistical and psychological tests before deciding no change was necessary.

In the past year, Berhalter continued his regional success but struggled to take the U.S. team to the next level, as vividly demonstrated with its first-round exit in Copa América this summer.

The music stopped on Berhalter’s second dance 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. “Personally, I know it’s been a difficult week for everybody attached to U.S. Soccer. It’s a real difficult decision.”

But an inevitable one. As badly as he wanted this arrangement to work out, Crocker was not going to get much more out of the team with Berhalter in charge. The young U.S. team had made considerable strides in Berhalter’s first term, rebounding from the failed 2018 World Cup cycle to advance to the 2022 tournament’s knockout phase.

Using Copa América as a gauge for global progress, the Americans had not gotten any better.

Now it falls on Crocker to find the proper replacement. This time, he can’t miss the mark. Too much is at stake. The next World Cup — to be staged primarily at U.S. stadiums, along with some Mexican and Canadian venues — is less than two years away. That might seem like a long time, but with no competitions close to Copa América’s level, a new coach will need to instill his beliefs and install his tactics in regional tournaments and friendlies.

How will this search differ from last year’s?

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

Crocker added, “I think now I’m in a better place to have a much more of a targeted search, where I’ll be more inclined to go hard and go early with specific candidates that I feel meet the criteria that we’re looking for.”

Crocker seems to have gotten it right on the women’s side. Following that team’s historically early exit from the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, coach Vlatko Andonovski stepped down.

Crocker subsequently hired Emma Hayes, highly decorated at Chelsea FC and highly regarded in global circles. Hayes’s appointment was seen by many as a coup for the U.S. program, even if it meant waiting six months for her to take the helm this summer as she completed her Chelsea tenure.

The U.S. women have a fresh energy and excitement entering the Olympics, though expectations are tempered as both the coach and newcomers gain their footing. In the big picture, Hayes’s target is the 2027 World Cup in Brazil.

The USSF made Hayes the highest-paid women’s coach in the world and put her on financial par with Berhalter. Would such equity efforts limit what Crocker could offer a men’s coach?

“My job is to get the best head coach to take this program forward,” he said. “I know it’s a really competitive market out there salary-wise and we have to be competitive to get the level of coach I believe can take the program forward. I’m also really conscious of [the] need to continue to drive for higher standards and equality. But I don’t think that’s going to be a stumbling block in terms of our investment.”

The men’s program, Crocker believes, will benefit from new perspective. The program is loaded with potential in the form of young players employed by European clubs competing in top leagues. The 2026 World Cup comes around when many of those players should be hitting their prime.

Crocker will need to hire someone who will tinker with the tactics and personnel that, while aggressive in theory, produced five goals in the past five matches. He’ll need to hire someone who runs a deep analysis of the talent pool and perhaps turn to players who have been overlooked.

So where will Crocker turn? Even before the Berhalter announcement, he had begun exploring options, though no names were shared Wednesday. Online fan chatter about former Liverpool boss Jürgen Klopp seems fantastical. MLS coaches are deep in the season. European club coaches are opening training camps. Some coaches at the European Championship and Copa América might be looking for work.

Coaches deeply entrenched in club soccer — which involves match preparations and roster building round-the-clock — are like cooks in a chaotic kitchen. International work is a slow boil.

Crocker will need to find the right chef.

“I just want to get the best coach possible that can help the team win, and whether they’re from the U.S. or elsewhere, they’ve got to fit the profile, which is a serial winning coach, somebody that can continue to develop this potential group of players, somebody that’s got a huge interest and a passion for player development,” Crocker said. “It continues to be still a young group … but also a group that now is sort of in the realms of having a number of apt experiences that we should be getting out of the group. That’s going to be my intention.”

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