Berhalter welcomes former club, Crystal Palace, for international friendly

Crew boss looks back at time as an Eagle

Gregg Berhalter Crystal Palace

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It's become commonplace for MLS sides to welcome European clubs each summer as they prepare for the upcoming season overseas. In the past, the Crew has entertained the likes of German Bundesliga sides Bayer Leverkusen and Hamburg SV, and a host of Barclays Premier League clubs including Everton FC, Newcastle United and Stoke City FC.

2014 is no different as the Black & Gold are set to welcome London-based Crystal Palace FC for a friendly on Wednesday. While the English side hopes to kick-start its Premier League preparations, the match also presents an opportunity for the Crew to measure itself with a topflight club from across the Atlantic.

"It's great," said Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter. "I think you get to see what the levels are like, whether it be a Spanish team, an English Premiership team or a German team. You get to see what the levels look like."

The encounter will hold special meaning for Berhalter, who spent two seasons at Selhurst Park from 2001-02. Ahead of the friendly, the Crew boss spoke with TheCrew.com about his time as an Eagle.

LEAVING HOLLAND

Up until his move to Crystal Palace in January 2001, Berhalter had spent his entire professional career in the Netherlands playing for Zwolle, Sparta Rotterdam and Cambuur Leeuwarden. The misdeason move to London provided the U.S. Men's National Team defender a new challenge of keeping Palace in the English First Division (now known as the Sky Bet Championship) ahead of the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Korea-Japan.

Much like his move to the Crew, a new owner for Palace brought hope to an organization on the rise. 

"I was ready for a different challenge," Berhalter said of the move. "I had a great time period in Holland, and I wanted to try something new. I wanted to try different competition and see how I'd fare there. To me, it was a dream come true signing for Crystal Palace, being in London at a historic club. It was very exciting.

"The location, the history of the club. I thought it was a club on the up-and-up in terms of where they were looking to go. They had a new owner and they were really looking to make the next step."

Berhalter joined the club that had hoped for promotion following the 2000-01 season, but had found itself in the bottom half of the table when the American arrived from Holland. It would take everything the Eagles had to stay in the First Division. 

THE PHYSICALITY

Berhalter looked for a challenge in signing with Palace, and he found it in the physically demanding English First Division. A change of pace from the more technically driven Dutch Eredivisie, Berhalter did his best to go toe-to-toe with some of the First Division's top attackers in preparation for the 2002 FIFA World Cup.

"England was a lot more physical, especially in the Championship level," he said. "It was extremely physical."

A coaching switch at the end of the end of his first season, helped Berhalter to adapt to England's physicality. The U.S. International relished the chance to learn under former Manchester United great Steve Bruce (left) as the now-Hull City manager took control of the side.

"It was a very good learning ground," he reflected. "I learned the 4-4-2, how to play in that system. Steve Bruce taught defense really well. It was a great experience."

Learning to match the physicality of English forwards didn't come without taking a few licks however. Berhalter was sidelined with a broken jaw after taking an elbow to the head in an FA Cup tie with Everton. After a period of recovery, Berhalter was forced to wear a protective facemask upon returning to action.

"I needed a facemask to come back to play," he reflected. "You do what you have to do to play… It was difficult. To have you're jaw wired shut for six weeks isn't the easiest. "

STAYING UP

Before Bruce took over in April 2001, the Eagles found themselves battling for survival to stay in the First Division. Crystal Palace won its final two matches away at Portsmouth and Stockport County to stay in the First Division by just a single point. The latter was a 1-0 victory that saw the traveling fans jubilant with its club's survival from relegation. The final day of the 2000-01 First Division season remains Berhalter's fondest memory of his time at Palace. 

"We battled regulation, we fought it off in the last five minutes of the last game of the season," he recalled. "The fans were amazing and stormed the field. The club has always had that fight in them."

He continued: "It was a special time. The birth of my first child was two days, three days after that. We ended such bad season on such a high note."

WATCHING FROM AFAR 

Despite leaving Palace in August 2002, Berhalter has kept a close eye on his former club. Palace is the only English side Berhalter suited up for in his well-traveled, 16-year playing career.

The Eagles' supporters continue to have a special place in Berhalter's heart as they embody the club's underdog, all-for-one mentality.

"[The Club] has an underdog mentality," he said of the club's support. "It's not big-spending like Arsenal or Chelsea or Tottenham, but it has good people and supportive people. It has a very community feel to it."

Perhaps Palace's fight was never more evident than in the club's comeback 3-3 draw against Liverpool late in the season to put a massive dent in the Reds' title hopes. Berhalter hopes his former club's success in the Barclays Premier League can continue next season.

"I've been following them, it's been great. It's great how they went up, but got relegated and went up again," he said. "It's truly a club that is elite Championship level all the time now. Last year, they proved they could have a great Premiership season. It'll be exciting to see this year as well."