NEW YORK -- Fourteen months after the U.S. men’s soccer team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the coach who will try to lead the team to the 2022 World Cup finally took the reins on Tuesday.
And to no one’s surprise, one of the main questions at Gregg Berhalter’s first press conference on the job was also one of the simplest: What took so long?
Earnie Stewart, the former Union sporting director who became the men’s national team’s general manager in August, took the brunt of that as he sat alongside Berhalter on the podium.
It wasn’t all Stewart’s fault. Five months passed between the World Cup qualifying disaster in October of 2017 and the end of former U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati’s term the following February. (He could have resigned sooner, but chose to see the term out.)
Gulati’s successor, Carlos Cordeiro, oversaw the hiring of Stewart while also tending to North America’s winning bid to host the 2026 men’s World Cup. And while Stewart’s hiring was announced in early June, the Union negotiated to keep him through July. That gap was clearly a factor.
After taking his new job on Aug. 1, Stewart spent two months going through what he said on Tuesday was a list of 33 candidates -- some domestic, some international. By October there were five names left, then three with whom Stewart formally spoke. Berhalter was one, and said he first heard from Stewart in September.
Reports along the way said Stewart didn’t talk to too many other outside voices. Stewart tried to refute those reports, and the criticism that came with them. But he might have made his critics' point.
“I did not necessarily need to speak with [all the candidates] because you see them on the playground every single day,” he said. “You see what they are doing with their teams, you see how they are trying to implement their style of play."
Stewart said he did “connect with a lot of domestic and international coaches,” and also spoke to a group of former U.S. players “that had over 100 caps and have captained our national team more than five times."
The three finalists were Berhalter, former FC Dallas manager Oscar Pareja, and one candidate Stewart left nameless because “he had already made a different choice” by the time Stewart got to him.
“Unfortunately in soccer -- and sports in general -- people make other choices, and that’s just the way it is,” Stewart said.
In early November, Stewart knew Berhalter was the one. After a few weeks of contract talks, U.S. Soccer’s board approved the hire this past Saturday.
“Gregg isn’t just the right choice, he’s the best choice,” Cordeiro said. “We have no regrets at all.”