BERHALTER SEES HAMMARBY RENAISSANCE
With his second season as Hammarby head coach set to begin next week, Gregg Berhalter is optimistic for the year ahead and believes the club can make a return to the Allsvenskan in 2014.
Based in the southernmost district in Stockholm, Hammarby were founded in 1897 and it was just a little more than a decade ago when the club was enjoying their strongest period in their history. In 2001, it won its first ever Allsvenskan title and in 2003 it finished second Sweden's top tier.
Since then, however, the Hammarby has been mired in a steady decline that resulted in relegation to the Superettan in 2009. The club's first two seasons in Sweden's second tier were disappointing and in 2011 Hammarby narrowly escaped relegation into the third tier. Ahead of the 2012 season, the club hired Gregg Berhalter to rebuild the team which is still one of the most popular teams in Sweden.
It was Berhalter's first season as a head coach and for the most part it was successful for Hammarby who finished in fourth place; one place away from a promotional playoff position. This year, however, Berhalter believes the club can finally return to Sweden's top league, the Allsvenskan.
"That's definitely the goal," Berhalter told YA of getting promoted in 2013. "I'd say it's a lot more realistic than last year. Last year we had a thin squad and we were in the process of overhauling the entire roster. Having said that, second divisions are tough and there's no guarantee. We've had a chance to work with the players for a year and we've got our system in place so the guys know what to expect. I would say things look very positive going into the season."
Berhalter, 39, not only sees progress with Hammarby, but he also notices that he himself is growing as a coach. As a first year coach, the task of rebuilding one of Sweden's most popular teams was challenging.
During the winter he traveled to Germany and obtained his "A" license and is only one step removed from his UEFA "Pro" license. In addition to his coaching studies, Berhalter is also frequently in touch with MLS coaches to discuss coaching techniques. Most notably he is still close Bruce Arena who he considers a mentor and someone he spoke with regularly during the ups and downs in his first Hammarby season.
Now heading into his second year, Berhalter believes he has grown into the role.
"I would say routine a little more and your rhythm a little more," Berhalter explained. "Last year was good. It was a great learning experience. I would say with that year behind me, I'm a lot more confident. I believe a lot more in what I'm doing and how to be successful at it. I would say the ups and downs of last year made me stronger. It made me grow and look at things in a different way. Overall that's been positive."
While more and more American players have moved overseas to play in elite leagues in Europe, there are very few American-born coaches in foreign leagues. As a former US national team defender and World Cup veteran, Berhalter is the most visible American-born club coach in Europe.
As a result, there isn't yet a true "American-style" for Berhalter to implement. Instead, he has settled into a system that features high pressure defense out of a 4-4-2 formation with one striker often falling back into the midfield to aid in possession.
"It's an important job and it's an important period for the club," Berhalter said of his style. "We're going to be a stronger team. We like to move the ball around and it is a possession based play. But this year the focus is on being more effective in trying to create more goal scoring chances. Obviously that's easier said than done but we've been working hard on that."
For now, Berhalter is just getting set trying to lead Hammarby back to the Allsvenskan and back to being in a position where it can return to being one of the best teams in Sweden. The club is still in the Superettan but its New Jersey-born head coach notices that there is a renewed sense of optimism both within the organization and among its supporters.
"The one thing that's been constant is the fans, even during the down times," Berhalter concluded. "We have an extremely dedicated fanbase and it's probably the number one club in Sweden in terms of fan participation. We have excellent fans and they create a huge advantage for us. And now that the club is up and running in a lot more of a streamline fashion, that's helping everything. I would say everyone is a lot more optimistic now this year than in the past."
Berhalter and Hammarby will open their 2013 Superettan season on April 7 when it visits Ljungskile at Markbygg Arena.