For the first time in his coaching career, Crew Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter will face the man who gave him his start in coaching, Bruce Arena, when the Black & Gold welcome the LA Galaxy to Columbus on Saturday. As a player, Berhalter was a regular call-up during Arena’s tenure as Head Coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team from 1998-2006, and the Crew boss ended his career with the Galaxy from 2009-11. In his final season in LA, Arena named Berhalter a Player-Coach for the club.
Ahead of the match, Berhalter is looking forward to a reunion with one of his mentors in the opposing technical area.
“It will be fun,” Berhalter said. “Obviously, I look up to him and he's had a big influence on my career both on the playing field and off. It'll be a good day.”
Though it’s likely Berhalter has learned one thing or another from each of the coaches he played under during his 16-year career, the former defender has taken more from Arena due to the success the National Soccer Hall of Fame coach has seen in Major League Soccer’s history, including four MLS Cup wins and three Coach of the Year awards.
“I take a lot from [Arena],” Berhalter admitted. “It's not just one thing. Something that stands out, however, is how he gets his teams to compete. He doesn't accept anything less than 100 percent. He makes that known.”
“I think Gregg will attest to it as well: he certainly takes things from Bruce, both from the length of time he was with the National Team and when he was with the Galaxy,” added Crew Assistant Coach Josh Wolff, who also played under Arena for the USMNT. “I'm sure he pulls from a variety of coaches he played for over the years. It's still a work in progress for Gregg and it's long-term. Where he is now, he will continue to grow.
“You can certainly tell with the detail and dedication he puts in every day is certainly a reflection of what Bruce Arena is about.”
More than just tactics or motivation skills, Berhalter learned how to treat his players thanks to his time playing under Arena.
“[Berhalter] is quick-witted,” Wolff pointed out. “Certainly, like Bruce, he tries to keep it light at times, but when you're in-between the lines, it's serious. He has that balance of having the right amount of tension within training and in the locker room to try to make sure guys are on their toes, but they're also enjoying it.”
Berhalter admits his sense of humor comes naturally, but playing for Arena taught him how to utilize a few laughs in a coaching setting.
“Having a sense of humor, I think it's something you need to have,” Berhalter explained. “You need to laugh, you need to enjoy yourself. We want players to be relaxed around here.”
He continued: “That's one thing I learned from him: treat players like men and make them responsible for themselves. When the whistle blows and when training starts, you're 100 percent focused. Outside the field, you can enjoy yourself. I think that goes a long way.”
A PLAYER’S PERSPECTIVE
Just two players have played for both Arena and Berhalter. LA midfielder Baggio Husidic spent time at Hammarby IF with Berhalter during a stint in Sweden. Additionally, Crew winger Hector Jimenez won MLS Cup in 2011 playing alongside Berhalter and now takes orders from the Sporting Director and Head Coach.
With Berhalter and Arena at vastly different points in their coaching careers, Jimenez said it’s hard to compare the two styles, but looks forward to the chess match between the two coaches on Saturday.
“They play different systems," said the midfielder. "Bruce has obviously been in the League for a while and won many titles and Gregg is just in his first year starting off. I don't know how to compare them, to be honest.”
He added: “It's a different system, and I enjoy playing here with the Crew. With Bruce, he's built an empire. In D.C., with New York and LA, he's won titles. It's going to be an exciting game for me – maybe even if I don't get minutes – just watching Gregg and Bruce go at it.”
Though he took some ribbing from the veteran Berhalter as a rookie with the Galaxy, Jimenez notices a different in having Berhalter as a coach.
“There's a huge difference,” Jimenez said. “As a player, you joke around. You tend to be bullying some of the younger guys. Now, as part of the coaching staff, it's all positive with him. He's very comfortable with the guys.
“I can really tell some of the other guys really enjoy what Gregg's been doing here.”
THE COACHING ITCH
A point comes in every player’s career in which he must ponder life following his playing days. For Berhalter, the choice to become a coach came long before he hung up his cleats.
“I think it was in my late 20s, I got interested and started looking at things from a coach's point of view,” Berhalter recalls. “Then in my early 30s, I started doing my licensing and things like that.”
Arena saw the potential in his then Vice Captain for the Galaxy, pitching a Player-Coach role to the veteran Berhalter ahead of the 2011 MLS campaign.
“[Arena] approached me about [being a Player-Coach],” said Berhalter. “It was out of the blue. I was surprised. It was something that I didn't realize at the time how beneficial it would be.”
For Arena, the decision wasn’t so “out of the blue.”
“The reason I gave him that opportunity is because there is no question in my mind that he was going to be a coach once his playing days ended,” Arena explained. “I think you can see he's started off well. I see nothing but positive things from him as he continues to move on in his coaching career.”
Part of Berhalter’s responsibilities was to oversee the Galaxy reserves. The impact he had on young players, like Jimenez, was a lasting one.
“Toward the end of his career, when he was a player-coach, I always got feedback from him playing with the reserves. I have a lot to thank him for, and I'm glad I'm with him here.”
Even before his role as a Player-Coach, Arena looked to Berhalter to mentor young players. Berhalter’s most important protégé: his partner during the 2009 MLS season, rookie Omar Gonzalez.
“Bruce talked to me and said, 'Listen, we need to get this guy and get him going.’" Berhalter recalled. “Me and Omar have a good relationship."
Jimenez saw Berhalter’s influence on Gonzalez directly, often serving as opposition during their post-training workouts.
“After practice, [Berhalter and Gonzalez] would do a lot of repetition,” he said. “A lot of times, it was me against Omar. Gregg and Omar have a great relationship and you can see how well Omar's been doing these last couple years.”
Gonzalez went on to be a crucial cog in the Galaxy’s MLS Cup wins in 2011 and 2012, and also earning MLS Rookie of the Year honors in 2009 and the Defender of the Year in 2011. The centerback became a regular in Jürgen Klinsmann’s backline for the USMNT, playing in all four of the Yanks’ matches at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
Berhalter beams with pride when talking about the player Gonzalez has become.
“I’m proud of the way he's grown and how he's matured, the person he's become and the type of player he's become. He's one of the best defenders in the game. Just his understanding of the game and the professionalism he brings, he's done a great job.”
GOOD THINGS TO COME
In his first season at the helm of the Crew, Berhalter finds his side in the thick of a tight Eastern Conference playoff race. Though the Crew has seen a fair amount of success, Berhalter’s colleagues – including Arena – believe his best days are ahead of him.
“He's hard-nosed, dedicated, bright guy,” Arena says of his former pupil. “Enthusiastic, and I think as a coach, that carries over. He's well-prepared. He's got a great thirst for knowledge and he's looking for the most modern techniques in the game whether it's in tactics or conditioning. He tries to stay ahead of the game and ahead of everyone else by working hard being creative.
“I would think that he's going to do some great things with the Columbus Crew, and create an outstanding reputation as a coach.”
Not sure exactly what he was getting into joining Berhalter’s staff from D.C. United in the offseason, Wolff agrees that the future is bright for Berhalter and the Black & Gold.
“Not knowing exactly how it was going to go, I think once you got into it right away you saw his vision and level of commitment and detail to everything you're going to do not only on the field, but off the field,” Wolff said.
“Those things have come through in the way that we play,” he continued. “We're still a work in progress, but I think you've seen a change in philosophy and approach to the game with the Columbus Crew. That doesn't happen overnight. We try to have patience.
“We have urgency to compete and win games in the now, but it is a long process.”