Gregg Berhalter and Jesse Marsch: An ‘ultra-competitive’ USMNT relationship plays out in public

Managers make decisions and pundits critique them — in international football, that’s nothing new.

But what if one of the commentators wanted your job? Does that cut through the swirl of constant debate about your performance every manager experiences? Do those barbs land a bit harder?

When it comes to the simmering back-and-forth between USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter and former Leeds United boss Jesse Marsch, it’s a compelling possibility.

The latter has been vocal about Berhalter’s selections and the team’s performances last week, as the United States edged past Jamaica with an underwhelming display in the CONCACAF Nations League semifinal before winning the competition with a 2-0 victory over Mexico.

Marsch, who has been out of management since being fired by Leeds in February 2023, is a correspondent for CBS’s soccer coverage in the U.S., and contributes to the network’s Call It What You Want podcast.

During an episode last week, he was asked about Berhalter’s selection of midfielder Gio Reyna, who has barely featured for Nottingham Forest since joining the Premier League club on loan in January. Marsch questioned Berhalter’s decision to call up a player who had not been featuring regularly for his club.

“Would Gio be called in if the scenario of everything and the background wasn’t what it is? Even though he has hardly played?” he said, referring to the manager’s complex backstory with Reyna that involves the coach’s private criticism of the playmaker during the Qatar World Cup going public and the subsequent falling-out with the midfielder’s family after mother Danielle reported Berhalter to U.S. Soccer for kicking his wife in 1992.

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Berhalter was criticized at the 2022 World Cup for not playing Reyna (ANP via Getty Images)

Berhalter’s side reached the last 16 of the 2022 World Cup before the allegation against him was made that December, with his original contract expiring at the end of that month. He released a statement along with his wife Rosalind, taking responsibility for the incident that happened when they were teenagers. The USMNT played six months under interim managers BJ Callaghan and Anthony Hudson before Berhalter was rehired in June 2023. 

After all that, Berhalter said there was “work to do” to “rebuild” his relationship with Reyna. When the player has been fit, he has been selected for the U.S. in all but one fixture since.

Things have been more difficult at club level. Reyna has found it difficult to play as integral a part for his club Borussia Dortmund, and Forest, leading to long spells on the bench that prompted Marsch to express uncertainty over whether he would include him if he was USMNT coach.

“This would be a tough one for me,” he said on the podcast. “Really, it would be a tough discussion because… even if you put someone off the bench (in a) game: rhythm, sharpness, fitness everything plays a factor.”

If the topic of Reyna was a sensitive spot for Berhalter over the last 18 months, it remained so for different reasons last week. This time the midfielder came from the bench to transform the Jamaica game by creating both of Haji Wright’s late goals.

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It prompted the manager, in an apparent reference to Marsch, to say in the post-game press conference, “I heard somewhere that someone asked, ‘Why did Gio get called into camp?’. Did you guys hear that?” Berhalter asked the media. “Anyone? He showed why tonight. It’s clear he deserves to play on this team.”

That, in turn, led Marsch and his podcast team to respond. “He’s wrong, first of all, because we didn’t say that Gio shouldn’t be brought into camp,” said Marsch, 50. “We made a list, all three of us, of all the players that we thought were locks that should be coming into camp and Gio was on there. 

“We were having discussion on how when you are putting together a national team squad at any moment, and now you have to evaluate form, fitness, everything else, and what you need from the team. And we talked later about understanding the togetherness and the mentality and the growth and development of the team now continuing to push — not just from the footballing standpoint, but from a togetherness and a real team belief standpoint.

“And to be fair, this is what we saw last night. As much as the game was anything that any of us, I’m sure, including Gregg, would have hoped for, you still saw this American belief that helped us find a way to get the result.”

He added: “I don’t want anyone to take anything too personally because that’s not what it’s meant to do. We’re just here trying to give a little bit of insight.”

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Marsch has moved into punditry since being sacked by Leeds (Mick Walker – CameraSport via Getty Images)

Berhalter was asked about his comments in the press conference before the final against Mexico. He said he was simply backing one of his players.

“And this is an example of where, OK, things haven’t worked out exactly the way Gio planned when he was moving to Nottingham Forest, but that doesn’t take away from his quality,” Berhalter said. “That’s all it was, just saying all he does is his talking on the field. He showed why he is important to the group, and that’s why I thought it was worth mentioning.”

Those familiar with the dynamic between Marsch and Berhalter, who did not wish to be identified to protect their positions within the game, described it as one with little love lost. One termed it “ultra-competitive”.

Marsch, keenly aware of his media profile in the U.S. while coaching in Austria and England, had been heavily linked as a top option for the permanent USMNT job during Berhalter’s suspension, and was keen on succeeding him. Marsch was a candidate for the position before it ultimately went to Berhalter, and his agent Ron Waxman tweeted that Marsch would not be the next head coach of the national team on the night before Berhalter was officially announced to be returning.

More recently, Marsch has denied wanting the role.

“No, I don’t want that job,” he said on the podcast last week. “And by the way, our job when I do this, so I’m new to this media thing, and I do it because I want to continue to be part of the game, and support what’s going on with U.S. Soccer, as a fan of U.S. Soccer and of MLS and everything else… I don’t think I’m always right but I have opinions based on my experiences, the players I know, and what I’ve seen watching.”

The split between the pair runs even deeper, as the two have traditionally been allied to two influential figures in the U.S. game who did not always see eye to eye.

Marsch’s mentor was former USMNT and Swansea City manager Bob Bradley, while Berhalter was more influenced by another ex-U.S. boss, Bruce Arena.

The subsequent prevalence of podcasting and social media adds extra fuel to such feuds and, even at halftime of the victory over Mexico, Marsch was contributing further critical insight: questioning the team’s rotations and why Reyna was getting the ball so far away from goal.

Tyler Adams, whose sensational goal sparked Monday’s win before Reyna sealed it, could be considered caught in the middle. The Bournemouth midfielder was brought to the Premier League and Elland Road by Marsch and continues to be captain and a consistent pick by Berhalter.

Amid the celebrations on Monday, he was quick to defend the latter when asked about his critics.

“I mean, it’s like, ‘What are you really judging him off of?,” he said. “We continue to win in certain situations. Our first World Cup experience was a positive in a lot of people’s minds. He’s developing us in the right way.”

For his part, Berhalter refrained from singling out any detractors.

The feud may be at a low simmer, but winning is an excellent way to apply a temporary full stop.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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