Postcard from Europe: Berhalter's American revolution
AMSTERDAM – When LA Galaxy owners AEG invested heavily in Swedish side Hammarby 10 years ago, it didn’t create much of a local stir. That’s likely because the boardroom turnover didn't affect the on-field product.
That all changed last December when AEG named one of their own – former Galaxy defender Gregg Berhalter – as the club’s new manager.
The Swedish second division may not be the English Premier League, but the new boss knows the pressure to win in suburban Stockholm is no pale imitation of that demand currently being experienced by US ownership in England or Italy. Six months into his new gig, he’s still feeling the heat despite an undefeated start to the 2012 season.
"It's a big club," Berhalter told MLSsoccer.com by phone on Tuesday from Sweden. "It probably has the best fan support in all of Sweden. Part of my job is to manage expectations."
It wasn't easy at all upon the breaking news that Berhalter would be manager. Bajen supporters have short memories and loud voices; they remember the 2001 Allsvenskan championship and playing in the UEFA Cup with Charlie Davies just four years ago, and they want to be back in the honor division competing for silverware immediately.
Of course, cheering a budding American striker was one thing. Turning over the keys to an American coach – something still rare in Europe – is quite another.
"I think people were inquisitive: Why did we hire this American with no experience?" said Berhalter. "Then, they dig a little deeper and find out that I had 16 years experience in Europe, that I worked with the most successful coach in the history of US soccer."
Like former Galaxy boss Bruce Arena, the 38-year-old New Jersey native and veteran of two World Cups entered his current job needing to air out the organization. Some of that included bringing in some familiar faces in two American players, former Chicago Fire midfielder Baggio Husidic and North Carolina star striker Billy Schuler.
But a turnaround took more than just players. Perhaps what made it easiest to Americanize the club was that Hammarby's recent system clearly wasn't working.
"What I heard from the other players is that the last three years have been very disappointing," said Husidic, who has gone the distance in all six Hammarby matches in 2012. "It seems that the attitude wasn't right.
"This year, it's a completely new outlook on the team and our goals. Everyone keeps mentioning how things are so different this year, so it's good that we're going in the right direction."
Husidic (at right), who made 52 appearances for the Fire over three seasons, says the way of going that correct direction is rather familiar – and not just because everyone in blustery Stockholm speaks impressive English. In fact, he imagines Hammarby training being quite similar to Galaxy methods.
"[Berhalter's] sessions are pretty short and very intense," said Husidic, echoing comments often heard about USMNT training under Arena. "Really, there's not much difference from what I'm used to in the States. The only thing we spend more time on is the tactical stuff, watching videos and studying the other team."
Berhalter admits to influence in his coaching from Arena and MLS, but says it's not exclusively American. Like the United States itself, our nation's soccer has been gradually adopting culture from abroad into our game.
"Obviously, last year prepared me somewhat to take over the head job," said Berhalter, who played in the Bundesliga, English Championship and Dutch Eredivisie. "I learned a lot from [Arena].
"To me, it's more of an influence of Germany and my time there. The trainings have a lot of European influence as well. You pick and choose what exercises grant you the most during your time of playing. I try to implement some of them."
Despite starting 5-0-1 on the season, the initially questioned Berhalter is spending a lot more of his energy managing those expectations.
"Our plan is to rebuild things and put the club on solid footing, to build a solid core of players to move forward with," he said. "We're a little surprised that we're ahead of where we thought we'd be, but our job is to keep improving. We're not getting excited, we're focusing on the next game."
Husidic, however, says that's one American directive that hasn't quite grabbed the exuberantly eager Hammarby fans yet.
"They're really excited about it, with the new players brought in and the new coaching staff,” he said of the grand project. "The way we started has them believing [promotion] will happen this year."