The former U.S. national team defender talks to Goal.com about his experience as the first American-born head coach in Europe.Hammarby IF has opened its season undefeated with two wins in Sweden's Superettan, the country's second tier. The club was expected to be in a rebuilding year but led by a first-year American coach Gregg Berhalter, the team has posted some surprising victories.
"Our result in our first game was a good one considering that Halmstad is a team that is expected to get promoted to the top division year," Berhalter told Goal.com.
Berhalter's transition in Europe has been seamless so far, which is good news stateside. The former U.S. international became the first American-born coach to lead a club in Europe and his success could open doors for others to follow in his footsteps.
Despite his early successes, Berhalter remains focused on the task at hand.
"I'm just a person doing a job. There will definitely be more opportunities for Americans to coach in Europe. As far as I'm concerned, I'm just trying to do the best I can do," he explained.
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Recalling how the opportunity came to be, Berhalter said that he learned about Hammarby's interest midway during his final season with the Los Angeles Galaxy. Once he helped the club win the 2011 MLS Cup as a player-coach, Berhalter accepted the job when the Swedish side formally approached him in December.
With the Swedish football season starting in April, Berhalter spent the offseason studying the country's style of play. He notes that MLS is ahead of the second division as the players are more athletic in North America but states that the teams in Sweden are very tactical organized and focused on defense.
"In MLS, you have open games because they are very good athletes out there. They can cover a lot of distance and its more of an up and down game I would say," said Berhalter. " The typical Swedish style is well organized. It's very defensive and not very open."
Berhalter decided to model his approach after his mentor, Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena. Hammarby plays a very similar style to Berhalter's former team, focusing on having quick counters after winning the ball on defense. He also emphasizes a direct passing game.
"I think part of it is just looking at what you got and the strengths and weaknesses of the players that you have. Then looking at a gameplan on how we can play. I've been encouraged that we've been able to do that and we've executed it well," he said.
Berhalter regularly keeps in touch with Arena, who he says has been very supportive of his decision to ply his trade in Scandinavia.
"He's someone that I look up to and for him to be supportive was important to me," Berhalter stated.
If there one advantage of Americans joining in the coaching ranks of Europe, Berhalter believes it will be the adjustment of U.S. players coming abroad. He pointed to his young American protegee Billy Schuler as an example. Schuler was widely considered to be the top prospect available in the MLS draft but he turned down playing in the league to join Berhalter.
Berhalter says that Schuler wanted to play in Europe and the opportunity to play in a system that he was familiar with helped his decision.
"He had aspirations of playing in Europe. I think the comfort level was there because there was an American coach which is very unique for someone stateside," Berhalter said. "I think one of the biggest problems for young Americans abroad is being homesick and not being used to the style of coaching. He was comfortable with the setup."
As for Berhalter's expectations for the first season, the New Jersey native has tried to keep the expectations low in his first year. While Hammarby isn't in Sweden's top flight, the club has a storied tradition and still draws the third best attendance in the country. Fans would like to see the team return to the top ranks but Berhalther remains measured in the team's objectives.
"I think it's really tough [to expect promotion this season], this is a rebuilding year and we have goals for our team. It's going to be difficult but we'll give it a shot."
If Berhalter can continue to turn heads, maybe the next American coach on a European sideline won't be as unexpected.