USA kicks off 2026 World Cup journey amid in-fighting, uncertainty
The United States men's soccer team sets out on a three-year journey to the 2026 World Cup on Wednesday against a backdrop of bitter infighting and uncertainty over the squad's head coach.
Seven weeks ago, US Soccer was basking in the glow of what was broadly regarded as a successful World Cup campaign following the team's last-16 exit against the Netherlands in Qatar.
Yet the feel-good factor from Doha evaporated, as an acrimonious feud between coach Gregg Berhalter and talented midfielder Gio Reyna exploded into public view.
Berhalter barely used Borussia Dortmund star Reyna in Qatar, suggesting at the time there were concerns over the 20-year-old's fitness.
It later emerged that Reyna had almost been sent home after a lacklustre approach to training.
Berhalter effectively confirmed the reports in a lecture given at a conference on "moral leadership" in New York after the tournament where he referred to an individual -- clearly Reyna -- who was "not meeting expectations on and off the field."
"We were ready to book a plane ticket home," Berhalter told the conference.
Reyna unsurprisingly took umbrage at Berhalter's public comments, saying he believed the matter would remain "in-house."
The forward explained he had "let my emotions get the best of me" after allegedly being told by Berhalter before the tournament he would only have a "limited role" in Qatar.
But the controversy took a dark turn in early January after US Soccer announced it had launched an investigation into allegations of decades-old domestic violence by Berhalter.
Berhalter, whose contract expired after the World Cup but who had been considered likely to continue in the job, later admitted in a statement on Twitter to kicking the woman who he would later marry during an argument in 1991.
- 'A terrible decision' -
"It was a single, isolated event over three decades ago and a terrible decision made in a bad moment by an 18-year-old," Berhalter wrote.
"(Wife) Rosalind and I have been on an amazing journey together. We have raised four wonderful children, who are aware of what happened. We are very proud of our marriage, our relationship, the family we have built, and the people we have become."
A further twist to the revelations came however when it emerged that US Soccer had been alerted to the 1991 incident by Gio Reyna's family. Father Claudio Reyna is a former US captain and team-mate of Berhalter's.
Though the US Soccer investigation into the allegations is ongoing, the controversy has dealt a severe blow to Berhalter's chances of renewing his contract in the build-up to the 2026 World Cup, which is being hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Former US national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann said last week the dispute has been "sad to see."
With Berhalter's status in limbo, the affair has overshadowed preparations for this week's friendlies against Serbia on Wednesday and Colombia on Saturday.
Because the games are taking place outside the international window, the low-key fixtures will involve only US-based players, meaning that hardly any of the 2022 World Cup squad are taking part.
In Berhalter's absence, assistant Anthony Hudson will take charge of the squad.
Hudson, a 41-year-old English-American, admitted this week that he finds himself in an awkward position.
"I have to give a huge amount of gratitude and respect to Gregg Berhalter for bringing me in the first place and trusting me and allowing me to experience the last few years," Hudson said.
"So that in itself makes it a little bit difficult.
"However, I've been asked to take the team for a couple of games and amongst all of it is a feeling of immense pride.
"Having worked here for the time I have and been in the game here for a few years, one thing I know is very clear is that there's just a huge amount of passion and people that care about the national team.
"The people on our staff love the team, care about the national team, and want the team to do so well."