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Christian Pulisic says Reyna-Berhalter saga was 'childish,' backs Berhalter amid USMNT uncertainty

DOHA, QATAR - DECEMBER 03: head coach Gregg Berhalter of USA and Christian Pulisic of USA looks dejected after the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 match between Netherlands and USA at Khalifa International Stadium on December 3, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Mohammad Karamali/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
Gregg Berhalter and Christian Pulisic after the USMNT's World Cup elimination. (Photo by Mohammad Karamali/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Christian Pulisic offered a fairly strong endorsement of Gregg Berhalter in an interview with ESPN published on Friday.

In response to a question about the U.S. men's national team's uncertain coaching search, with Berhalter out of contract and U.S. Soccer indicating that a new hire could wait until the summer, Pulisic gave a wide-ranging, reasoned answer in which he said that Berhalter "has been extremely unfortunate to get into the position he is in now."

Pulisic was, of course, referencing the saga triggered by the parents of his USMNT teammate, Gio Reyna, which culminated this week with the release of an investigation into Berhalter's past domestic violence and the Reynas' meddling and threats during the World Cup.

"In my opinion, everything that happened with Gregg, first of all, [was] handled in an extremely childish manner," Pulisic said. "I think we all have seen what's been going on. I think it's childish, it's youth soccer, people complaining about playing time. I don't want to go too far into that, but that's what we'll say."

Before that, though, Pulisic spoke extensively about Berhalter's leadership, the "brotherhood" he created within the USMNT, and his qualities as a coach:

"So I would say Gregg Berhalter is someone who has grown on me a lot over the years. I've learned a lot from him, I think I've grown so much as a player. I think it's underappreciated what he's done to create that environment that I was talking about that was so special within that team [in Qatar]. I think he's helped a lot of players improve in a lot of ways. I think he's very passionate about the sport. I think he's done some incredible things in a short amount of time.

"There were times, there were moments when he benched me and I wanted to kill the [guy] — I hated him. I was so angry. But then next game comes along, and then I find myself in a better place. And the way he handled a lot of situations, I have to give him a lot of credit. I think he created a team that not only was probably the best brotherhood, family, unit, that I've been a part of. But also on the football side of things, when it came down to it, in a World Cup time, I think you could say a lot of people were impressed with what we were able to do out on the field as well."

When asked about the difficulty of doing all that with a national team, as opposed to a club team, with far less time together with players, Pulisic said, in part:

"I think he did a good job of showing the team and helping everyone to understand, 'look, this is how we're gonna play in a short period of time.' And is it gonna be perfect? Of course not. No national team is. Look at Argentina, lost their first match [at the World Cup]. Tough moments are gonna come, and we had some of those. But at the end of the day ... yeah, he was a winner."

How Berhalter helped Pulisic

Pulisic also gave an example, one that he said he'll "never forget." In March of 2019, during his first camp under Berhalter, he scored in a friendly against Chile but then picked up the latest in a long line of niggling injuries. After a trip to a nearby hospital for a scan, he returned to the USMNT camp late at night, and Berhalter called him down to the coach's office.

"And he said, 'Look, maybe a reason is, you need to train harder. You need to train more like you play,'" Pulisic recalled. "And after I just scored a goal, I'm thinkin, 'Who's this guy to tell me this?' [But] that's a moment stuck with me for a long time. Because it changed the way I look at training, even today. I want to train like I play. And listen, it wasn't easy, and it took me a little while, but I said, 'You know what, let me take this onboard.' And since then, I've been in a much better place."

It was an example, Pulisic said, of "the way [Berhalter] deals with players: you can tell he's passionate, and he cares about his players. He's not going to tell you it easy, or what you wanna hear. He's gonna tell you what he feels is going to improve you."

Pulisic's take on USMNT coaching search

And as as for the coaching search, which U.S. Soccer says Berhalter could still be a part of, and which is dependent on the search for a new sporting director, who will be primarily responsible for picking the next coach, who might not arrive until after two regional tournaments in June and July?

Pulisic said, first of all, that he'd "give 100%" for whoever it is, and acknowledged: "I'm not here to appoint the next manager. It's not my job."

But then, after saying that Berhalter has been "extremely unfortunate," he advocated against the prolonged timeline that U.S. Soccer has offered.

"Do I feel like we should just wait and wait? You know, I don't think it's necessary," Pulisic told ESPN at his home in London. "Because I don't feel we're in a phase like we were after not qualifying [for the 2018 World Cup], where we need a complete rebuild. We don't need a bunch of new guys coming in, and this and this. We have a strong core, in my opinion, and I think a lot of people have seen that. And we need to carry on with that.

"And that's why — it's a tough one for me. Because I think we just want to continue that as soon as we can, and build off of this World Cup, this World Cup which I think had a lot of positives in it, I will say. And I think we want to get going with that as soon as we can."

He was then asked whether, if Berhalter were re-hired, he'd be "reasonably content that you've got a talented coach, a reliable man, a winning coach, and somebody able to take the gains you all and he have made and push forward," Pulisic said:

"Yeah, no doubt about it. I think the strides that we've taken in recent years with him appointed has been evident. I think it's quite clear. So, yeah, that's what I'll say."

Pulisic, recently recovered from injury, will join 12 of his World Cup teammates and a supporting cast of other young, European-based players at a short USMNT training camp in Florida next week, their first since Qatar. But they'll be led by interim coach Anthony Hudson, a former Berhalter assistant who is doing the head job on a window-to-window basis.

U.S. Soccer has said that the interview process for the sporting director position has started, but hasn't offered a firm timeline for that hire. It's also unclear how long the coaching search would then take once the new sporting director is in place.

That process could be expedited, of course, if the new sporting director simply chooses to bring back Berhalter — who was widely praised by Stewart, the outgoing sporting director, in an interview with Yahoo Sports as he prepared to depart U.S. Soccer.

But with Stewart and former USMNT GM Brian McBride having departed, and with the baggage of the Reyna-fueled saga, the external assumption has been that Berhalter is now a long shot to reclaim the job.

After two games later this month, the USMNT's next competitions are (likely) the Nations League finals on June 15 and 18, followed by the Gold Cup shortly thereafter. If a new coach isn't hired before then, his or her first matches would be friendlies in the fall.