Q&A: Berhalter enjoys revival at Energie Cottbus.
Gregg Berhalter has helped Energie Cottbus challenge for first place in Germany's 2Bundesliga
-- Energie Cottbus web site photo --
(Wednesday, December 17, 2003) -- One quarter of Germany's population lives in what used to be East Germany, but only four of the 36 professional soccer teams in the first and second Bundesliga, the nation's soccer leagues, are in the East.
The fans of Hansa Rostock, Union Berlin, Erzgebirge Aue and Energie Cottbus face upwards of 20 percent unemployment when they are not in the stadium. United States defender Gregg Berhalter says that soccer is "life and death" in Cottbus. And for a town deep in Germany's wild, wild East, 40 miles from the Polish border, the followers of FC Energie Cottbus have developed, as Berhalter puts it, an "us against them" mentality.
Berhalter, 31, came to Cottbus in August 2002 after spending a year with Crystal Palace in England's First Division. Cottbus was relegated to the 2Bundesliga after the 2002-03 season.
Before that, he spent four seasons in the Dutch Honor Division, playing for Sparta Rotterdam and then Caambuur Leeuwarden. After starring for the University of North Carolina for three years -- two years next to U.S. defender Eddie Pope -- he signed his first professional contract with FC Zwolle of the 2Bundesliga in 1994.
Berhalter has earned high marks this season, anchoring the center of Cottbus' defense as the club heads into the winter break after a strong first half. Cottbus is 8-4-4 with 28 points, a point behind first-place Oberhausen and in the promotion zone of a league where 10 points separate the first 13 teams.
Berhalter has appeared 32 times in a U.S. Jersey, starting 24 games since his first appearance in 1994. He spoke to SoccerTimes correspondent Harris King after a recent match.
King: You left college a year early. How did that come about?
Berhalter: I was playing for the (U.S.) Olympic team and some team (FC Zwolle) saw me and offered me a contract. I wanted to play professionally, so I just did it.
King: At the time, Europe was the only option?
Berhalter: Yeah, there wasn't (Major League Soccer). It was '93.
King: Are you a big Red Sox fan?
Berhalter: Yeah, I like the Red Sox.
King: Did Grady Little leave Pedro Martinez in the game too long in the playoffs?
Berhalter: (laughing) Unbelievable! It seems like the Red Sox do it to themselves. They have a stigma attached to them. They can't win.
King: How did you get into soccer growing up? Was it in the family?
Berhalter: No, not really. My brother started playing when he was seven. I was two years younger than him and you naturally do what your older brother does, so I just started doing the same.
King: It's a big soccer area where you grew up?
Berhalter: Yeah, it's a big soccer area. Northern New Jersey is a massive area for soccer. There are a lot of teams. First you play in your town, then you get on a state team. It's like a snowball. If you show some talent, you have more opportunities. That's what kept happening. Then it just got so serious that I kept playing.
King: Did you play other sports growing up?
Berhalter: I played basketball and baseball. I never played football.
King: Your team (Energie Cottbus) is doing really well. How was the change going from the first to the second division? I know you signed a new contract.
Berhalter: The management said to me we're going to make a push to go back up, so you have to have faith in what they're saying. When I signed, my intention was to play first Bundesliga again. And they kept true to their word. They re-signed most of the important players and we added some players. It's been good. There's a difference between when you are going from the first league to the second league than when you are going from the second league to the first. I think we have a great mental advantage over the teams now because we are used to it. When you're coming from the second league up, it's just the opposite. Everywhere we play, there are more fans because they want to see the team that got relegated. It's a good position to be in. We're doing well so far. I just hope we keep it up.
King: It's not orthodox that you kept your coach (Eduard Geyer) as well. How do you explain that?
Berhalter: It's a very loyal club and that's one thing I like about it. They're sticking with this coach and it's great. It doesn't unsettle the team at all. He's here to stay and it's good. As long as he wants to be here, he will be.
King: It's like the Freiberg model?
King: They're in the middle too (back and forth between two leagues) and they kept their coach and went right back up as well last year.
King: So how is (Geyer)? He seems very intense but he is also very funny in interviews.
Berhalter: Yeah, he's a good guy. He likes to play up that image a bit, you know, be the hard guy. We train a lot. Obviously, we do train a lot and work hard, but he is also a fair person and good person and likes to laugh also. I think he is a good guy.
King: He has a long history as a trainer starting in East Germany (trainer at Dynamo Dresden and the East German national team). He obviously made the transition fairly well.
Berhalter: I think it is good to have a trainer like that, who is recognizable, who the people like. He is well liked in Germany. People like to watch him and listen to him, so it's good to have a guy like that.
King: Did the upcoming World Cup in Germany play a role in your decision to stay?
Berhalter: It played a role in the length of the contract because my contract is supposed to run through the 2006 World Cup. I did that on purpose to ensure that I stay in Germany, you know, with the preparation and the focus. Germany is a great place to be. Both leagues are good leagues and it's just an exciting place to be. Germans do things right. They're very well organized. They will put on a great show.
King: Tell me about Cottbus. It seems like it is the end of the world compared to other places you have played.
Berhalter: Definitely, it is. It is an adjustment, but you try to take it for the positive things it offers. There is a lot of nature there. And in terms of the team, the whole community is around the team. When I was in London, that part of South London likes Crystal Palace, but London as a whole doesn't really care about Crystal Palace. So I think it is a good place to be.
King: How do you compare American professional sports here to soccer here?
Berhalter: It's more life and death here and, in America, it's a hobby. It's a serious hobby, you know, (New York) Giants fans are great. But here it's everything to these people. In Cottbus, there's 20 percent unemployment and these people save every dime they get for tickets to the game. It's special.
King: How is your German? Did the Dutch you already knew help?
Berhalter: That helped a lot. That was amazing. Understanding it was so much easier because I knew Dutch. My speaking could be better, but I understand everything and I can communicate with people.
King: The fans seem have taken to you pretty strongly. On the team's web site I noticed that you were second in the voting for player of the year. Was that case from the beginning?
Berhalter: I think it is something that develops over time. You have to prove yourself to the fans. I just try to work hard and do my role every game. I try to help the team.
King: Was it a big adjustment coming from English soccer to German soccer?
Berhalter: Yeah, it was big at first. Being in Holland helped. Dutch soccer is more similar to German soccer than English soccer is, so I got back into it. But it took adjusting. The first few months were rocky, the team wasn't doing well, but things have turned out well.
King: And the quality is OK?
Berhalter: Definitely. Even the second league is a good second division and it's a very competitive second division. And that's fun. If you look at the table, it's ridiculously tight. It's fun, it's exciting. It's always exciting to play in a competition like that.
King: How do you view the state of German soccer? The national team just lost to France 3-0. Do you think there is a problem, or is it just growing pains and they will be fine by 2006?
Berhalter: Things go in cycles. When (the U.S.) did bad at the Confederations Cup in the summer, I said that it is cycles that run. Sometimes you achieve great things and sometimes you get on a down period. I'm not even calling this a down period for Germany because they qualified for the European championships. Things aren't that bad. They have a lot of new players coming in. Against France, they played a lot of new young players. Things just take time. They have some great players. Michael Ballack is a great player. It will come. They will get back on track and find their form and things will get better.
King: Do you have contact with the other Americans around the country?
Berhalter: Yeah, most of them are doing well. Steve (Cherundolo's) doing well. Tony Sanneh is injured. Conor Casey is doing well, scoring a bunch of goals. Joey Enochs is doing really well.
King: Do you ever get together?
Berhalter: It's hard to get together because of the distance. I met Steve Cherundolo in Berlin once. We talk sometimes, but it's hard to get together because of distance. I talked to Joey Enochs about it, who lives four hours away, but it's hard. We don't usually get two days off in a row.
King: Let's talk a little bit about the national team. You have the (World Cup) qualifying coming up. Is it tough to be in Europe and then have to fly back to North America and play these qualifying games?
Berhalter: No, I think it's a great honor to play for the national team and the World Cup qualifying is a great event in itself. It's survival of the fittest and you play in some crazy situations. You play in some fields that wouldn't be used for a cow pasture and then you play in front of 106,000 people in Mexico City. You get the whole spectrum there and it's great. Playing for the U.S. is fun. There are a lot of good guys on the team, so it's good.
King: It's been a year and a half since the last World Cup. What are your thoughts looking back on it?
Berhalter: You move on. It was a massive event. We were so caught up in the moment and our achievementsm and it was so disappointing to lose to Germany like that (in the quarterfinals). But I think we gained the respect of a lot of people in that World Cup and we set things right after (finishing last in) '98. It was a really memorable experience and it's something that will stay with me my whole life.
King: Did the Germans give you a hard time about the loss?
Berhalter: No, not really. They were really complimentary about it, about how well we played and the Germans kind of got lucky against us.
King: How's the team looking now? Are there a lot of young players coming in? It seems the U.S. has a great youth program and is developing a lot of young players.
Berhalter: Yeah, there are a lot of players coming through. Even like the achievement of Landon (Donovan) and DaMarcus (Beasley) in the World Cup alone was incredible. And we still have players coming through and you need to. When (U.S. coach) Bruce (Arena) finds the right mix between young guys and old guys, that 's going to make a good team.
King: Has MLS been good for the national team as far as player development goes?
Berhalter: Definitely. You have a place where national-team players can play. There is definitely an opportunity for them there. And it gives players the chance to show themselves at the professional level and that's important, I think. I think that the in highest leagues in Europe, the quality is better and that would help the top players more. But still I think MLS has done a great job in getting these players games and getting them experience, and that shows through for the national team as well.
King: Freddy Adu just signed. Have you seen him play at all?
Berhalter: I have seen tapes of him playing. And I think he is incredible. To be 14-years-old, that's amazing that he is playing so well already. He has the whole world in front of him and it's great to have everyone looking at you and to sign a professional contract already.
King: So you think that's a positive thing?
Berhalter: I think it's great for him. He's an exception and it I wouldn't recommend that for every player, but he's obviously an exception.
King: You mentioned that the best U.S. players should go to Europe. Do you think MLS will ever get to the level that that won't be the case, or do you think it will be like Brazil or Argentina?
Berhalter: I don't know, but even Brazil and Argentina are selling leagues also. They groom their players to sell them and those are good leagues. It's hard to say, but with the way Europe is set up with the Champions League and everything, this seems to be the place to be, regardless of the league. So I don't know, but I think MLS will get better because it gives so many players a chance.
King: Do you hope to play in the MLS one day?
Berhalter: Yeah, that would be great. I have always said that I would love to return home and play. I've been here 10 years now so it would be nice to get to play in the MLS one day.
Harris King, an American from South Carolina, has lived in Germany for five years. The Business English lecturer at the University of Bamberg can be e-mailed at email@example.com.