Just 10 days into his first offseason as Crew Chairman, Anthony Precourt has put his first stamp on the franchise he acquired from the Hunt Sports Group back on July 31 with the hiring of Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter on Wednesday morning. Berhalter was the first choice for Precourt and club President Mark McCullers from a distinguished list of candidates including Columbus legends Brad Friedel and Guillermo Barros Schelotto, along with Interim Head Coach Brian Bliss.
The former U.S. Men's National Team defender joins the Black & Gold following an 18-month tenure with Hammarby IF in the Swedish Superettan, where he was one of the first Americans to be a Head Coach in Europe.
"We've found an author for our new book, which is about to getting back to our winning ways and building consistent culture and having repeatable processes in place to be a relevant team in Major League Soccer once again," Precourt said in a conference call on Wednesday afternoon.
Coming from the pedigree of four-time MLS Cup-winning Head Coach Bruce Arena, Berhalter offers a breath of fresh air and change in culture in Columbus. Having played in Holland, England and Germany before finishing his 18-year career as a player-coach with Arena and the LA Galaxy, the new Crew Head Coach will oversee all soccer operations in a dual role as the organization's first Sporting Director.
"My role will give me the flexibility to structure the technical side of the organization as I see fit," Berhalter told local and national media. "It will streamline the decision-making process and integrate player acquisition with the technical department. This is, for me, is crucial because we want to be efficient, we want to be able to make fast decisions and we all want to be on the same page. I think tying this together will do that nicely."
In his stint with Hammarby IF, Berhalter went 18-11-16 and boosted the club from 12th place when he inherited it to fourth place at the end of his first season. The former U.S. International was let go in July 2013, despite posting the lowest goals against average mark of any Swedish side during his tenure. Though owned in part by Galaxy owner Anschutz Entertainment Group, the Swedish majority of ownership at Hammarby chose to part ways with Berhalter, citing a lack of offensive production.
The New Jersey native is confident his tactics can provide a spark for the Crew attack in 2014 despite his past side's inability to find the net.
"Every opponent that [Hammarby] played, that's their biggest game of the year," he said. "We were facing 11 guys in their box, trying to defend to prevent goals. Having said that, in the 15 games this year that I coached, we out-shot teams by 150 shots, so we were an offensive power without actually getting the goals. That comes down to a little bit of the quality.
"I believe that there's quality within the [Crew] to score goals. Obviously we're going to look to address that a little bit, but there are some qualities when you look at some guys that have put up decent numbers: Dominic Oduro and Federico Higuaín. There are some guys that can score. I'm excited to work with these guys. There are some things you can't teach players and we have guys that have qualities you can't teach which is a good thing."
Though the First Team is the highest priority, included in Berhalter's responsibilities is the mandate to help grow and develop the Crew's already successful youth system.
"When I look at the players coming out of the Crew [Soccer Academy], it's exciting and I think it can only improve," the new Head Coach explained. "I believe in this area. I believe in the areas surrounding Columbus. I believe in Ohio and its ability to produce players. I'm excited with that process. My first thing will be to evaluate the work that's being done already and then move from there.
With [Homegrown] guys like [midfielder] Wil Trapp and [goalkeeper] Matt Lampson, there's definitely quality guys to move forward with."
Berhalter is set to arrive in Columbus early next week from Stockholm. Filling out his staff and addressing offseason roster concerns are near the top of the new coach's to-do list in the coming weeks. Communicating with his inherited players may prove to be a difficult task however, as Wednesday was the last day the team could train per the MLS Players' Union's collective bargaining agreement.
"My first priority is to reach out to the players," Berhalter stated. "It's going to be difficult for me to physically be there and talk to them, but I want to reach out to all of them either by phone or email and hear from them and talk to them. That's my first thing.
"The second thing, obviously I want to put together a staff. I've had a little bit of time to start gathering my thoughts and thinking about that, but that's going to be my focus in the next month I would say. And then things move quickly. You have the Re-Entry Draft, you have the college tournaments that are finishing up in November and then you have to prepare for the SuperDraft. So there are a lot of activities that I'm going to need to focus on in the upcoming months."
Berhalter was the right choice for Precourt and McCullers in the end. The other names on the shortlist had their benefits: Friedel has 20-plus years of experience playing in Europe and for the U.S. Men's National Team; Schelotto, who would have been the fan-favorite, led the Crew to three trophies and has gone on to success coaching Lanus in Argentina, while Bliss re-energized the Black & Gold to become a postseason contender in 2013 following the departure of Robert Warzycha.
Despite the pros, each candidate came with a slight hesitation. Friedel lacked coaching experience and is still playing for Tottenham Hotspur. Schelotto is still under contract with Lanus and would have faced communication issues in the locker room with limited English-speaking ability after falling out of practice since his MLS playing days. Bliss found success in the interim role, but ultimately Berhalter was the clear-cut first choice for the Black & Gold brass.
A new era has arrived in Columbus and Gregg Berhalter is leading the charge. Strap-in for the ride.