Gregg Berhalter's Galaxy connections, obviously, have paved the road toward his first professional head-coaching job, but he dives headlong into a sizable challenge with wisdom gained from a career spent largely in Europe.
Berhalter was hired Monday as Hammarby IF's new coach, assigned to return the Stockholm club to Sweden's top-tier Allsvenskan, and those who question the decision based on his inexperience aren't going to get an argument.
“I don't fight it,” Berhalter said Monday from Stockholm following a news conference for Swedish media. “It's true, I'm inexperienced. What I do bring is fresh ideas and a lot of energy. And every coach has had a first game. There has to be a beginning, and this is it.”
Berhalter, 38, takes the reins the first week of January, with the 2012 season slated to begin in early spring, and he says his season as assistant coach on Galaxy boss Bruce Arena's staff has made a difference. But in a sport in which Americans are still viewed with some skepticism, his time abroad -- 15 years in Holland, England and Germany -- means the most.
“My experience [playing] in America has been nothing but first class in terms of being with the Galaxy and being with Bruce and learning from him,” said Berhalter, who holds Class A coaching licenses from the German and U.S. federations. “But it was a brief time. Most of my time was in Europe, in terms of my career and shaping my ideas about soccer. It's more European pedigree than the American kind of thing.”
How much that means to Hammarby is uncertain. It's a old club, formed in 1889, with a passionate, largely working-class following but limited success. The team won its only Allsvenskan title in 2001 and has spent the past two seasons in the second-tier Superettan, narrowly avoiding the relegation playoffs with an 11th-place finish in the season that ended in October.
“I hope he does real well,” said Arena, who coached Berhalter with the 2002 and 2006 U.S. World Cup teams and brought him to Galaxy from 1860 Munich at the start of the 2009 Major League Soccer season. “We think it's real important. ... It's a team that's been floundering, that went to the last day of the season to stay up in the second division. They've expressed an interest in Gregg. We think the world of Gregg, and he has a great future in coaching, and we want to do everything on our end to support that move.
“We're just happy for him. He's going to work real hard, make that team better and hopefully move back to the first division in the next few years.”
Berhalter, a center back who played his final professional game to close the Galaxy's postseason trip to Asia and Australia, was added to Arena's staff last offseason. He worked diligently with the team's defenders -- he has played a significant role in Omar Gonzalez's development in his first three years into one of MLS's premier backliners -- and learned plenty from watching Arena, associate head coach Dave Sarachan and assistant coach Curt Onalfo work.
“[Working with Bruce] was everything,” Berhalter said. “I told Bruce that. Without him, none of this would have been possible. He's the best American coach we've had. I learned tons from him.
“Him giving me that responsibility and giving me that role was huge. Without that, I wouldn't have been anywhere close to prepared for this. The only reason I'm halfway prepared is the role he gave me and what he let me do this year.”
Galaxy owners Anschutz Entertainment Group own 49 percent of Hammarby, which entered talks with Berhalter in September after his former Galaxy teammate Chris Klein -- the Galaxy's academy director and a member of Hammarby's board of directors -- “put my name into the mix.”
Roger Sandberg, who was in charge on an interim basis following Roger Franzen's dismissal in mid-August, will serve as Berhalter's assistant. What the team will look like is unclear.
“The first thing I have to do is get a hold of the players in terms of analyzing them, deciding what system we're going to play,” Berhalter said. “It would be foolish of me to say this is the way we're going to play right now without seeing them and seeing how the players gel, how they form together. I guarantee the team will work hard and be passionate about the style of soccer we play.
“Hopefully, it will be a possession game, looking to get behind defenses. Hopefully, it will be an attractive style of soccer. That's my ideas.”
Arena thinks Berhalter's years on the field will help.
“The notion that if you've played at a high level, you're instantly a good coach is a bunch of baloney,” Arena said. “Gregg played for a number of years knowing he wanted to become a coach. He worked hard to get the license in Germany, and he's worked hard at understanding he requirements for players physically and tactically and now is learning some of the nuances you have to have as a manager and [to bring a] team along. He understands the psychology around it.
“It's going to be a little bit trial and error. It's still trial and error for me, and I've been at it a long time. This is a guy who's a natural, who will bring the work ethic and get the respect of his players.”