USMNT coaching search: From Europe's elite to Marsch to MLS, who are the candidates?

When the United States men's national team takes the field next week against Serbia, with the squad to be announced at noon ET on Wednesday, it will officially open the 2026 World Cup cycle. Call it a soft launch.

The roster won't look anything like the version that advanced from the group stage at the World Cup less than two months ago. It likely won't resemble the team that gathers again in March for CONCACAF Nations League -- or at any point ever again. As usual, this January gathering will serve as more of a glorified talent identification gathering.

In the past, though, the redeeming value for this camp has been for the head coach to get an up-close look at some players in the pool that he wouldn't otherwise get to see during FIFA international breaks. Take January 2020, for example. Matt Turner, Brenden Aaronson and Jesus Ferreira all got called in without having previously made their international debut. The trio all made the World Cup team and featured, to varying degrees, in Qatar.

This time, it's different. With an interim head coach, Anthony Hudson, at the wheel after Gregg Berhalter's contract expired on Dec. 31, two friendly matches in Southern California -- Serbia (Jan. 25), Colombia (Jan. 28) -- will net very little for the direction of the program. It's a holding pattern that will only end when a permanent head coach is hired.

Until that happens, not much else related to the team carries much relative intrigue. It's even hard to undersell the importance of this hire. With the United States co-hosting the 2026 World Cup alongside Canada and Mexico and a clear expectation to field the most talented American team ever, it's as pivotal a decision the U.S. Soccer Federation has ever been entrusted with.

So, when will that new hire come? That depends on several factors, starting with the calendar.

In a perfect world, the permanent coach would have been in place Jan. 1, but there's a balance that's important to navigate here. This camp doesn't really matter -- not in the broader picture. And neither does the CONCACAF Nations League in March, when the U.S. plays Grenada and El Salvador. It's easy to defend the idea that it's not mandatory to have the coach in place by this summer's Gold Cup, either, but that seems like a good target to shoot for.

It comes after the European club season ends in May, which allows for a natural transition for a sitting coach at a club team there. That's important because the little information available about the state of the coaching search indicates the federation has ambitious plans.

Two weeks ago, ESPN's Julien Laurens reported Zinedine Zidane, the French legend who coached Real Madrid to three Champions League titles and won a World Cup as a player with France in 1998, was approached through his agent about the opening. While Zidane wasn't interested, it shows the caliber of coach the USSF is, at a minimum, wanting to pursue. Of course, that doesn't mean someone in that global tier will end up with the job.

While it's fun to toss around names and discuss each possibility, it's not necessarily an instructive exercise. There are too many possible qualified candidates to put together an exhaustive list. This is a better conversation to have in terms of profile, so let's look at them in buckets.

Global stars: The most recognized, accomplished coaches

At just about any other point in history, there wouldn't be much reason to believe someone who fits into this category would have any interest in coaching the United States. There's reason to believe that has changed. Coaching the U.S. at the 2026 World Cup is a unique opportunity, and few have ever had the opportunity to coach a host nation at the tournament. The chance to do that with an ambitious group should have broad appeal.

To what extent, though? That's part of what the federation is trying to figure out right now. While Zidane wasn't interested, that doesn't mean there won't be someone else.

Again, listing names can set unrealistic expectations, but coaches who fit this criteria Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp, Manchester City's Pep Guardiola, or Joachim Low, who led Germany to the 2014 World title. And while Low remains out of a job, both Klopp and Guardiola have stated they do not envision leaving their clubs anytime soon.

If anyone of that ilk is interested, it would be hard for the USSF not to go in that direction. When the U.S. was pulled apart by the Netherlands in the Round of 16, it didn't seem like a gulf in talent was the main reason for that defeat. It was the tactics employed and drilled into the Dutch team from Louis van Gaal -- one of the most accomplished coaches of all time -- that made the difference.

The American coach in MLS or elsewhere

Convincing an American soccer coach to coach the national team at a World Cup on home soil should be an easy sell. It's the opportunity of a lifetime. But are any American coaches capable of maximizing the team's talent and outwitting their peers on international soccer's biggest stage? There's not a clear answer.

Morocco coach Walid Regragui is a perfect case study in how nobody really knows anything. Prior to taking the Atlas Lions' job just three months before the World Cup, he had only coached domestically and in Qatar. The job he did leading Morocco to the semifinals (the first team from Africa to reach that stage) is the type of success the U.S. wants to replicate.

During Morocco's run, Regragui took aim at those who believe only European coaches have what it takes to succeed at the sport's highest levels. "Explain that to me. Explain this miracle," said Regragui, defending African and Arabic coaches. "Experience? It doesn't matter. It's skills. It doesn't matter your background, religiously speaking or culturally speaking or where you from. Skills are the only measure."

The same concept applies to Americans and here, the candidate pool is easier to narrow down. A few possible candidates:

Jesse Marsch: Currently at Leeds United in the Premier League, he also briefly coached RB Leipzig in Germany and FC Salzburg in Austria, winning titles with the latter. It would come as a complete shock if Marsch's career ends without ever coaching the national team.

For him, it's about timing. Leeds are in the middle of their season, but Marsch finds himself on the hot seat as the club staves off relegation. There's also the question of style. Is a high-pressing, up-tempo approach the most effective way to play in international tournaments?

Jim Curtin: The Curtin's Philadelphia Union are coming off one of the best seasons in MLS history. They did it without a big budget, playing a style that seemingly would translate well to the national team.

Steve Cherundolo: LAFC just won the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup double. Cherundolo spent his entire playing career in Germany, featuring in three World Cups over a 13-year international career. But prior to last year with LAFC, his only head coaching gigs were at the youth level in Germany and a year with the Las Vegas Lights, which operated as a development team for LAFC.

Brian Schmetzer: The Seattle Sounders are the model of sustained success in MLS, and Schmetzer is the face of that. He has reached the MLS Cup four times -- winning twice -- in seven years and led Seattle to the CONCACAF Champions League title.

The rest of world? And what about Berhalter?

If Americans and the big-name coaches are out of the equation, that leaves... well, a lot of coaches. The assumption here -- and that's all it is -- is that this bucket is the most unlikely. It would take a unique set of circumstances for a foreign candidate without widespread name recognition to land the job ahead of the profiles listed above. That shouldn't be confused to mean they are less likely to be the best choice.

The last possibility to consider is that Berhalter could be rehired. Berhalter said in an interview with the Harvard Business Review earlier this month he would still like the gig in the 2026 cycle, but that seems very unlikely. Sources told ESPN things were trending in that direction in early December before Danielle Reyna, the mother of star Giovanni Reyna, informed U.S Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart about a 1991 domestic violence altercation in which Berhalter kicked his now wife during an argument. That disclosure led USSF to hire an outside law firm to investigate the altercation and ended contract negotiations.

Stewart told reporters earlier this month that, pending the results of that investigation, Berhalter could be considered to resume the position. It's unclear when that investigation will end.