Now entering his seventh year as the radio play-by-play announcer for Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew, Neil Sika has also spent the past nine years providing coverage of numerous NCAA Division I athletics.
Additionally, he has worked several national and regional events on television (Big Ten Network, STO, TWC) and radio (Monarch Sports).
Buckeyes, Blue Jackets and more
Just 10 days into his first offseason as Crew Chairman, Anthony Precourt has put his first stamp on the franchise he acquired from the Hunt Sports Group back on July 31 with the hiring of Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter on Wednesday morning. Berhalter was the first choice for Precourt and club President Mark McCullers from a distinguished list of candidates including Columbus legends Brad Friedel and Guillermo Barros Schelotto, along with Interim Head Coach Brian Bliss.
The former U.S. Men's National Team defender joins the Black & Gold following an 18-month tenure with Hammarby IF in the Swedish Superettan, where he was one of the first Americans to be a Head Coach in Europe.
"We've found an author for our new book, which is about to getting back to our winning ways and building consistent culture and having repeatable processes in place to be a relevant team in Major League Soccer once again," Precourt said in a conference call on Wednesday afternoon.
Coming from the pedigree of four-time MLS Cup-winning Head Coach Bruce Arena, Berhalter offers a breath of fresh air and change in culture in Columbus. Having played in Holland, England and Germany before finishing his 18-year career as a player-coach with Arena and the LA Galaxy, the new Crew Head Coach will oversee all soccer operations in a dual role as the organization's first Sporting Director.
"My role will give me the flexibility to structure the technical side of the organization as I see fit," Berhalter told local and national media. "It will streamline the decision-making process and integrate player acquisition with the technical department. This is, for me, is crucial because we want to be efficient, we want to be able to make fast decisions and we all want to be on the same page. I think tying this together will do that nicely."
In his stint with Hammarby IF, Berhalter went 18-11-16 and boosted the club from 12th place when he inherited it to fourth place at the end of his first season. The former U.S. International was let go in July 2013, despite posting the lowest goals against average mark of any Swedish side during his tenure. Though owned in part by Galaxy owner Anschutz Entertainment Group, the Swedish majority of ownership at Hammarby chose to part ways with Berhalter, citing a lack of offensive production.
The New Jersey native is confident his tactics can provide a spark for the Crew attack in 2014 despite his past side's inability to find the net.
"Every opponent that [Hammarby] played, that's their biggest game of the year," he said. "We were facing 11 guys in their box, trying to defend to prevent goals. Having said that, in the 15 games this year that I coached, we out-shot teams by 150 shots, so we were an offensive power without actually getting the goals. That comes down to a little bit of the quality.
"I believe that there's quality within the [Crew] to score goals. Obviously we're going to look to address that a little bit, but there are some qualities when you look at some guys that have put up decent numbers: Dominic Oduro and Federico Higuaín. There are some guys that can score. I'm excited to work with these guys. There are some things you can't teach players and we have guys that have qualities you can't teach which is a good thing."
Though the First Team is the highest priority, included in Berhalter's responsibilities is the mandate to help grow and develop the Crew's already successful youth system.
"When I look at the players coming out of the Crew [Soccer Academy], it's exciting and I think it can only improve," the new Head Coach explained. "I believe in this area. I believe in the areas surrounding Columbus. I believe in Ohio and its ability to produce players. I'm excited with that process. My first thing will be to evaluate the work that's being done already and then move from there.
With [Homegrown] guys like [midfielder] Wil Trapp and [goalkeeper] Matt Lampson, there's definitely quality guys to move forward with."
Berhalter is set to arrive in Columbus early next week from Stockholm. Filling out his staff and addressing offseason roster concerns are near the top of the new coach's to-do list in the coming weeks. Communicating with his inherited players may prove to be a difficult task however, as Wednesday was the last day the team could train per the MLS Players' Union's collective bargaining agreement.
"My first priority is to reach out to the players," Berhalter stated. "It's going to be difficult for me to physically be there and talk to them, but I want to reach out to all of them either by phone or email and hear from them and talk to them. That's my first thing.
"The second thing, obviously I want to put together a staff. I've had a little bit of time to start gathering my thoughts and thinking about that, but that's going to be my focus in the next month I would say. And then things move quickly. You have the Re-Entry Draft, you have the college tournaments that are finishing up in November and then you have to prepare for the SuperDraft. So there are a lot of activities that I'm going to need to focus on in the upcoming months."
Berhalter was the right choice for Precourt and McCullers in the end. The other names on the shortlist had their benefits: Friedel has 20-plus years of experience playing in Europe and for the U.S. Men's National Team; Schelotto, who would have been the fan-favorite, led the Crew to three trophies and has gone on to success coaching Lanus in Argentina, while Bliss re-energized the Black & Gold to become a postseason contender in 2013 following the departure of Robert Warzycha.
Despite the pros, each candidate came with a slight hesitation. Friedel lacked coaching experience and is still playing for Tottenham Hotspur. Schelotto is still under contract with Lanus and would have faced communication issues in the locker room with limited English-speaking ability after falling out of practice since his MLS playing days. Bliss found success in the interim role, but ultimately Berhalter was the clear-cut first choice for the Black & Gold brass.
A new era has arrived in Columbus and Gregg Berhalter is leading the charge. Strap-in for the ride.
COLUMBUS – The Columbus Crew today announced that it has named Gregg Berhalter as its seventh Head Coach in club history. The former United States international, U.S. Men’s National Team veteran and Major League Soccer player joins the Black & Gold and also assumes the title of Sporting Director, overseeing all player personnel decisions following a club restructuring of its soccer operations. Berhalter becomes the club’s first Sporting Director, combining this role with his head coaching duties for the first time in Crew history. Per club and MLS policy, terms of the agreement were not disclosed.
Due to his transition from Europe, Berhalter will address the media today in a conference call alongside Columbus Crew Chairman and Investor-Operator Anthony Precourt and club President Mark McCullers at 12:00 p.m. ET. The call will be streamed live on TheCrew.com
The Englewood, New Jersey native made international soccer history in 2011, becoming the first American to manage a European professional club, when he was hired as the Head Coach of Swedish side Hammarby IF ahead of the 2012-2013 season. Berhalter was introduced to the sport’s technical side at 1860 Munich, where he scouted opponents for the German club from 2007-2009. From his time in Europe, Berhalter holds both UEFA A and B Coaching Licenses. Berhalter began his coaching career in earnest as a player-coach in his final season under Bruce Arena at Major League Soccer’s LA Galaxy in 2011. There, he prepared training sessions, video analysis and scouted opponents en route to the club’s MLS Cup championship. In the previous season, Berhalter helped the Galaxy secure the first of its two consecutive Supporters’ Shield titles.
In two years with Swedish side Hammarby IF, Berhalter posted a record of 18-11-16, securing points for his club in 34 of his 45 matches as boss. After inheriting a side that finished in 12th place in 2011, Berhalter improved the team to fourth position and during his tenure the club had the lowest goals against average in all levels of Swedish professional soccer during that timeframe.
“We are thrilled to conclude this expansive and thorough search for our next leader, a process that spanned three continents. Gregg's strong vision, passion, work ethic, intelligence, data-driven decision making, broad soccer network and playing credentials separated him throughout this search,” said Crew Chairman and Investor-Operator Anthony Precourt. “His unique skill-set gives us great confidence in boldly changing the structure of our soccer operations, with Gregg leading as our first-ever Sporting Director. I believe this structure will allow us to achieve a consistent winning culture and best practices that will lead to repeatable success, year-in and year-out. Gregg has been a winner and a leader at every level, and will fit in well with the Crew as a team of firsts. Gregg was a pioneer as an American captain of two Bundesliga teams, and as the first American to manage a European soccer club. I expect great success for the Columbus Crew under Gregg's leadership in the years to come.”
Berhalter’s 18-year run as a professional soccer player saw impressive stays in Holland, England and Germany. In 1994, Berhalter departed the University of North Carolina and signed with Dutch Second Division side FC Zwolle. From 1996-2000 he split time in Holland between two First Division clubs, suiting-up for Sparta Rotterdam (1996-1998) before playing for SC Cambuur where he was a two-time Player of the Year and was voted second-best defender in club history. In 2000, he had the opportunity to play for England’s Crystal Palace FC in the Football League Championship. After reaching the Quarterfinal of the 2002 FIFA World Cup with the United States, Berhalter signed with Energie Cottbus of the German Bundesliga, serving as team captain. While with the side from 2002-2006, the club was relegated and then promoted back into the Bundesliga and the American captain was later named to the club’s All-Time Best XI. He then signed with fellow German side 1860 Munich, playing at the club from 2006-2009 where once more he served as team captain. In his time in Germany, he made nearly 200 appearances as captain over the course of seven seasons. Berhalter returned to American soil in 2009, when he signed with Major League Soccer’s LA Galaxy from 2009-2011, serving as vice-captain.
"At the completion of a very thorough, far-reaching and diverse candidate search, Gregg Berhalter emerged as the clear choice for the Columbus Crew,” said Crew President Mark McCullers. “Gregg has been a leader in every aspect of his professional career. His vision for the Crew resonated with everyone and we are confident in the methodology that he meticulously presented to us in how he would execute his vision. He has a tremendous resume of experience that includes European, domestic and specific Major League Soccer elements that we believe will combine to provide a formula for success and a team our community will be very proud to support. Gregg is a bright, thoughtful, innovative and driven young coach which makes him a perfect brand fit for our organization going forward."
Complementing his domestic and international club career, Berhalter also earned 44 caps with the United States Men’s National Team and made his senior roster debut at the age of 21. Previously, he served as the team captain of the U-20 National Team from 1992-1993 and helped lead the Stars and Stripes to the Round of 16 in the 1993 FIFA U-20 World Cup. Although he would miss the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta due to injury, Berhalter captained the U-23 side prior to the Olympic Games. From 1994-2006 he would see action in the 2002 and 2006 FIFA World Cup, the 1999 and 2003 Confederation Cups – which included the third-place finish in 1999 – and a 1995 third-place finish in Copa America.
"I am excited about the opportunity to join one of Major League Soccer’s original clubs. The Crew has a strong history of winning and a dedicated fan base, and I aim to bring a style of play that resonates with our supporters and results that will make the city proud,” said Crew Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter. “I look forward to working with Chairman Anthony Precourt, whose passion resonates throughout the entire club. I am also excited to work closely with Mark McCullers, as his experience in the League is a valuable resource. I am eager to get started, and my immediate priority is to reach out to the players and share our new vision for the club as we move forward."
With Berhalter assuming control of the Crew’s soccer operations, Technical Director and Interim Head Coach Brian Bliss departs the club after six seasons with the Black & Gold. In his final campaign, he served as Interim Head Coach for the remaining eight matches of 2013 after assuming the position on September 2, 2013, securing his first victory just two days later on September 4. Bliss went 4-4-0 in his tenure on the sidelines with the Black & Gold after serving as the club’s first Technical Director. A Crew player from 1996-1997, Bliss scored two goals in 31 games. Bliss has enjoyed a 22-year career in professional soccer as a player, coach and administrator, re-joining the Crew in 2008 during the Black & Gold’s Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup-winning campaign. In his tenure as Technical Director, he oversaw all player personnel matters, player assessment and domestic and international scouting.
“This type of change is never easy, and Brian has been a loyal and invaluable executive within our club over the past six years,” said Precourt of Bliss. “We feel that now is the appropriate time for full-scale changes to our soccer operations, and unfortunately Brian’s departure is a part of that process. We thank Brian for all of his hard work and dedication, and we wish him the best moving forward.”
In a related restructuring move, Crew President Mark McCullers is relinquishing his duties as General Manager to focus primarily on the club’s business operations and to provide Berhalter the opportunity to implement his vision for the Crew’s soccer operations.
"As we conveyed at the beginning of this process, now is the time for us to consider the overall structure of the technical side of our organization,” said McCullers. “For some time now, we have agreed that the General Manager responsibilities should live with someone specifically housed in the competition division of our club. This is a natural evolution in the growth and development of our organization. Now is the ideal time to make this move and I embrace it whole-heartedly. This serves the best interest of the club and I will continue to support the Head Coach & Sporting Director in any fashion necessary to guarantee our collective success."
COLUMBUS — Columbus Crew Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter is being formally introduced to local media in a press conference alongside Crew Investor-Operator and Chairman Anthony Precourt and Crew President Mark McCullers at 1:00 p.m. ET on Tuesday, November 12 in Crew Stadium’s Upper 90 Club.
After completing his transition from Europe to Central Ohio, Berhalter will formally meet the Columbus media to discuss his role with the club, as he now oversees all player personnel decisions following a club restructuring of its soccer operations. Precourt, McCullers and Berhalter will be available for comment after their introductory remarks and the question-and-answer segment of the proceedings.
A live stream of the press conference will be available on TheCrew.com with a recording and transcript of the event available for viewing thereafter.