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Zidane approach shows the ambition US Soccer needs for 2026 World Cup

One wonders how long Zinedine Zidane stayed on the phone before hanging up on US Soccer. Recent reports claim the former Ballon d’Or winner was approached to gauge his interest in becoming US men’s national team head coach. Those same reports say he knocked back that approach. The phone call might well have been brief.

Zidane has been out of work since leaving Real Madrid at the end of the 2020/21 season and was believed to be interested in succeeding Didier Deschamps as France manager following the 2022 World Cup. Now that it appears Deschamps is set to stay on, Zidane might have to consider taking another job. That job, however, won’t be the USMNT one.

Nonetheless, US Soccer should be applauded for showing ambition in their search for the next men’s national team head coach. Zidane is an elite manager who has enjoyed a great deal of success in the club game. His appointment would have been a statement of intent by the USMNT ahead of the 2026 World Cup on home soil.

US Soccer can still make this statement of intent. Marcelo Bielsa has been mentioned as a potential future USMNT head coach with Jesse Marsch also seen by many fans as the ideal candidate to lead his country into the 2026 World Cup. Pep Guardiola has even been mentioned as a candidate despite the slim likelihood of the Catalan coach leaving Manchester City any time soon.

Of course, there is still the strong possibility that Gregg Berhalter will resume his role for 2023. The 49-year-old is currently out of contract and has been placed on the sidelines while US Soccer works through the fallout of the scandal involving Claudio Reyna and his son Gio Reyna, who didn’t feature much for the US at the 2022 World Cup. 

Berhalter led his team to the last 16 in Qatar and proved his approach can work at the highest level of international soccer. Despite the issue surrounding Reyna, he appears to have earned the trust of the US squad and is a popular figure within the dressing room. Berhalter might well be US Soccer’s first-choice to take charge of the USMNT for the 2026 World Cup cycle.

“It’s about being able to take that next step and the next step is doing something that no US team has ever done and that’s get to the semifinals and see what happens from there,” Berhalter explained in a recent interview, looking ahead to the 2026 World Cup. “So, there’s a lot of great challenges involved. Of course, I’d like to continue in my role.”

While the USMNT has undeniably moved forward since Berhalter took charge following the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the renewal of his contract wouldn’t be an ambitious decision. It might continue the USMNT’s incremental growth, but the likelihood of exponential progress would be low.

The US men’s national team finds itself at a crossroads following its run to the round of 16 in Qatar. They demonstrated their potential in matches against Wales, England, Iran and the Netherlands, but also highlighted the ceiling that exists above them preventing a deep run at World Cup level. A lot still has to be done to smash through that ceiling.

In stating that a run to the semi-finals is the target for the 2026 World Cup, Berhalter has set the benchmark high for either himself or whomever replaces him as USMNT head coach. Now, the decision is US Soccer’s to determine which manager is best equipped to make sure this benchmark can be reached. Significant progress is required.

Some of that progress will be out of the hands of whoever leads the USA into the 2026 World Cup. For example, there’s not much a head coach can do to ensure the emergence of a world class number nine, deep-lying playmaker or dominant central defender. That is down to grassroots development and good fortune. 

However, US Soccer must do everything in their power to truly explore the managerial market before reaching a conclusion in their search for a head coach. If that search leads them back to Berhalter, they must be able to justify their call. The approach made to Zidane suggests US Soccer is at least doing its due diligence.

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