Commentary

Gregg Berhalter's pro playing career started with a boost from Rinus Michels

Back when it was rare for an American to land a contract in Europe, Gregg Berhalter  moved to the Netherlands at age 21.

The New Jersey product had played three seasons at the University of North Carolina (1991-93) and captained the USA at the 1993 U-20 Word Cup. In 1994, he joined the U.S. U-23 national team, coached by Bob Gansler, on a Netherlands trip for four games. Gansler was accompanied by the legendary Dutch coach Rinus Michels, whom U.S. Soccer had hired as a technical advisor.

"I was playing well," Berhalter told Soccer America in 1995, "and I told Rinus Michels I wanted to play at a higher level. He told some Dutch clubs I was highly recommended. He's a god over there, so it helped a lot."

Michels, who died in 2005, coached the greatest Dutch teams in history, the Johan Cruyff-led 1974 World Cup runner-up and the 1988 European champions that featured Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard.

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Berhalter had impressed the Dutch club scouts and the endorsement from Michels helped seal the deal. FC Zwolle of the Dutch second division offered him a one-year contract. No tryout required. But first he had to convince his parents that leaving college before receiving a diploma was a good idea.

Gregg's father, Joe, told Soccer America in 1998, "We get a call from Holland and Greg tells us, 'I don't think I'm going back to North Carolina.' And I say, 'Get your butt on a plane.'"

But after Gregg's discussions with his father and mother, Dolores, they supported his move to go pro. "We knew that international players his age had already played a couple years of professional soccer. After talking with him, we realized we didn't want to take another year away from him and add to his disadvantage."


Gregg Berhalter earned 44 U.S. caps and was part of the USA's 2002 and 2006 World Cup squads. (U.S. Soccer/ISI Photos)

Gregg's introduction to soccer as a child stemmed from his parents' efforts to steer him and his brother, Jay, away from tackle football.

"If we would have told them not to play football," Joe said. "They would have run right out and done it. That's how kids are."

The ploy worked. By the time they were big enough for tackle football, they had fallen in love with soccer. "They were too good to give it up," said Joe.

Jay Berhalter, who now serves as U.S. Soccer's chief commercial officer, went on to play soccer at Notre Dame. Gregg played youth ball for Union County SC with Claudio Reyna on a team coached by Claudio's father, Miguel Reyna. Gregg also teamed up with Claudio Reyna at St. Benedict's Prep in Newark. Unlike Reyna, however, Berhalter wasn't highly recruited.

The North Carolina coach at the time, Elmar Bolowich, welcomed Berhalter to the Tar Heels without having seen him play. "He recruited the school," said Bolowich, who started Berhalter at sweeper his freshman year.

"He didn't get as much respect or as much notoriety as a lot of other players in the Northeast," Reyna said. "But those who grew up with him and knew him well knew how hard he worked and that he could make it at a higher level."

At their home in Tenafly, New Jersey, Gregg and Jay played constantly in the backyard. One-on-one, shooting contests, crossing games, heading and juggling. While at UNC, Gregg would use the recreation center's racquet ball court to work on his skills until it closed at 10 p.m.

Berhalter made a smooth transition at Zwolle, the Dutch second division club that averaged 5,000 fans, who cheered the central defender on with chants of "Greggy." After two seasons with Zwolle, he moved to first division Sparta Rotterdam and SC Cambuur.

He was Cambuur's Player of the Year each of his two seasons, but the team was relegated to the second tier in 2000.

Following six years in the Netherlands, Berhalter had a stint with second-tier Crystal Palace in England. He joined Bundesliga club Energie Cottbus after playing for the USA in its quarterfinal run at the 2002 World Cup. It was Berhalter's shot in the 1-0 quarterfinal loss against Germany that was infamously stopped Torsten Frings' hand without referee Hugh Dallas awarding a penalty kick.

Cottbus, one of the former East Germany clubs that struggled in the unified Bundesliga, was relegated during Berhalter's first season, but he helped it win promotion back to the top tier while serving as captain in the 2005-06 season.

Despite winning promotion, Berhalter left Cottbus for second division 1860 Munich, which named him captain up his arrival. He left Germany in 2009 for the LA Galaxy, after 196 games and 17 goals for Cottbus and 1860 Munich. With the Galaxy, Berhalter finished MLS Cup runner-up in 2009 and in his last season was player/assistant coach when it won MLS Cup 2011 under head coach Bruce Arena.

Much of Berhalter's career in Europe was a roller-coaster between the first and second divisions. The Energie Cottbus club he joined was called by Franz Beckenbauer "a hopeless case" for top-tier soccer. That Berhalter captained it back to the top tier has not been forgotten. Upon his appointment as U.S. national team boss, Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg headlined the news with: "Energie Legend becomes national team coach."

11 comments about "Gregg Berhalter's pro playing career started with a boost from Rinus Michels".
  1. Bob Ashpole, December 3, 2018 at 11:33 p.m.

    Good article, Mike.

    My disappointment with his selection as the next MNT coach is not a lack of respect for Berhalter, but rather disappointment in USSF hiring a "safe" coach that they expect they can control. Someone they view as unquestionably loyal to USSF and MLS. That is not the hallmark of an organization looking to advance. It is a hallmark of an organization whose top priority is to insulate itself from criticism.

    Although I doubt USSF will give Berhalter any control, no doubt he will be blamed for any failures. I don't think any prior MNT coach has been in a tougher situation.

  2. Brad Ackles, December 4, 2018 at 12:25 p.m.

    Spot on Bob. Most of what is being written currently is pretty harsh, Greg needs to be given the chance to see what he can do in a severly flawed system. Its not a job that his highly coveted by any means. I wish him well.

  3. uffe gustafsson, December 4, 2018 at 5:11 p.m.

    To frank schoon
    if you think he is such a stiff of a player why would Dutch soccer clubs sign him especially since he was one the first youth to go over and play Dutch soccer?

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, December 6, 2018 at 6:27 a.m.

    I can tell you what I think. "Stiff" is literal. It is the opposite of supple. Soccer is full of random movements, turns, stops and starts. All movement in soccer, including ball skills, is heavily dependent on the core, especially the hips. So "stiff" literally describes how a player moves and plays the ball. 

    Berhalter was recruited as a sweeper by a second division Dutch club, not a midfielder or forward, not by a top club. Not a dig at Berhalter--I was a "stiff" player myself. My ball skills were good enough for attacking on the flank, but there were always better players to choose for the center zone.  

  5. frank schoon replied, December 6, 2018 at 9:29 a.m.

    Uffe, don't use the term 'stiff' too literal, it is more of an expression in describing a player who is not very good, just adequate perhaps, meat and potatos type of a player who are usually found more so on defense like a centerback . Now Beckenbauer was a played in the defense but he was stiff,not by a long shot. Ronald Koeman played in the defense at Barcelona but he's no stiff.
    The teams Michells send Berhalter to Cambuur is a joke, a second division team that located in the Northeast of Holland right in the middle of farmland, a team made up of basicly farmboys who play an unsophisticated  English type of game...that should say enough of what Michell's thought of Berhalter's capabilities were.

  6. frank schoon replied, December 6, 2018 at 9:55 a.m.

    Bob, as I explained to Uffe, 'stiff' has nothing to do with the flexibility of the player, you're interpretation is too literal. And perhaps, I don't make myself clear enough which is a criticism my wife usually gives me, LOL.
    I remember playing a small sided pick up game years ago with against a German player on the opposing team. The moment he got the ball, my first reaction was to see what options were open to him, was he able to score, or could he pass it off to another player who could score, keeping in mind that we played with small goals. I noticed the angle of his position to the goal likewise was in no way conducive for an attempted shot , besides I was in between the goal and him. I quickly yelled out 'he's got nothing!' in order to stop my teammates from reacting defensively towards him and creating unnecessary open space. The German player ,immediately, took offense to my comment, thinking I was insulting him, instead of realizing I was referring to the tactical situation at hand...
    Remember, the joke about a German asking, Why do you call him tiny, when he's so big?'. It is so true, Germans are 'stiff' in different ways and humor is a perfect example of it, and it also reflected in their soccer, you dont find great ball handlers in German either as compared to the Dutch....

  7. Bob Ashpole replied, December 6, 2018 at 4:17 p.m.

    Frank, the way I am thinking about it is this. If a player is not almost as mobile with the ball as he is without the ball, then the player has not reached his full potential. 

    I guess you are using "stiff" like some people use "piano mover" vs "piano player". From my perspective "stiffness" is also literally a performance problem. 

    In every group of players, people are going to have different abilities. I think, however, to play good soccer a team needs everybody to be able to play some piano.

    Back to literal stiffness, stiffness slows a player down. Literally, tense muscles hold back speed. I don't know how to explain it, but I have experienced it. Flexibility is important to speed and agility, as well as core strength. Flexible hips are important to striking and first touch, as well as movements off the ball.

    Players trying too hard tense up and think too much. It causes problems. I don't know how you felt it, but when I was "in the zone" I was relaxed and playing faster than my conscious thoughts. When I am trying to move faster, I will deliberately relax my muscles instead of push them harder. It works (up to a point).

    You might think I am just talking subjectively, but as a drummer I would objectively measure my speed exercises. 

  8. frank schoon replied, December 6, 2018 at 5:24 p.m.

    Bob, you're right about stiffness as related to speed of movement. If you feel loser your can be quicker. The secret to shooting hard is not to stiffen your leg but kick with a loose not a stiff leg. This is not that easy to do for you have to acquire feel for it. In the penalty area you can make a quick shot that the goalie is unable to react to by employing the bottom of the leg,below the knee which requires a certain stiffness.

  9. Craig Cummings, December 4, 2018 at 9:31 p.m.

    Rinus michels, I believe also coached the LA Aztecs of NASL in the late 70s. Maybe Johan Cruyff played a game or 2  for him in LA. Ask Ric, he will know.

  10. Wooden Ships replied, December 6, 2018 at 12:55 a.m.

    You’re right Craig, a club mate of mine Larry Hulcer played for him, along with Cruyff and Hugo Perez.

  11. frank schoon replied, December 6, 2018 at 10:03 a.m.

    Craig ,you're right Cruyff played for LA Aztecs. I have an anecdote about Cruyff as told by one of my former high school player from Jamaica, who went to LA to tryout for the Aztecs. He stated as they were playing they noticed a small guy in the distance smoking a cigarette approaching the soccer field, it was Cruyff. Michells stated to Cruyff "you want to play a little'...Cruyff, proceeded to beat everybody on the other team, then proceeded to walk back to the locker room..

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