Gio Reyna admitted on Monday that he sulked after being told he would have a limited role at the World Cup.
I know, I know. This is what passes for scandal in Gregg Berhalter’s America. Come back to me if your players butt or bite an opponent, get kicked out of the tournament for drugs, arrested for theft or indulge in a naked pool party.
As player-coach spats go, it’s not in the same league as the feu d’artifice that saw France’s Nicolas Anelka sent home during the 2010 tournament amid internal fissures so deep that the 2006 finalists finished bottom of their group.
It’s not even as significant as the incident that led to Weston McKennie being sent home for violating squad protocols in Nashville last year, given the midfielder’s value to the team and the negative effects that would have dogged the rest of the qualifying campaign if the incident had bred lingering rancor.
But now we have an explanation for why Jordan Morris rather than Reyna came off the bench in the 1-1 draw with Wales, and support for Guardian columnist and former US forward Eric Wynalda’s claim ahead of the Iran match that there was a “rift” between coach and player.
For why Berhalter talked about being cautious with Reyna because of “a little bit of tightness” in training, only for the player to assert that he felt “great”. For the slightly weird vibes, the vague sense of the uncanny around the Berhalter-Reyna dynamic in Qatar in what otherwise appeared to be a harmonious and happy camp.
Berhalter’s collection of T-shirts and limited-edition sneakers were more eye-catching than the 20-year-old Borussia Dortmund playmaker. But it’s strange that Reyna was so shocked and offended to be a member of the supporting cast. It would have been irrational to make him a foundation of the team given his frequent muscle injuries, including the tightness that saw him exit the US’s final pre-tournament friendly against Saudi Arabia after 30 minutes.
He featured only four times during Concacaf World Cup qualifying, starting just once, in the opener against El Salvador in September last year. (He got injured.) It would have been extraordinary for Berhalter to reshape his tactics and lineup in Qatar to integrate Reyna as a key player.
Maybe the team’s tepid performances and lack of attacking threat in the run-up to the tournament might have convinced some coaches to deal their wild card. But Berhalter opted against picking his maverick and went with the more conservative choices, the surer things, perspiration above inspiration. And that was understandable given what figured to be a hard grind against more experienced opponents. Starting Reyna would have felt like hiring a ballet dancer for a factory shift.
No one doubts his potential, but at this point in his international career he’s a nice bonus, an optional extra. If the US team were a car, Tyler Adams would be the engine, Christian Pulisic would be the accelerator and Reyna would be a fancy touchscreen. He didn’t, and doesn’t, have the leverage to step out of line and expect to get away with it.
Besides, the midfield trio of McKennie, Adams and Yunus Musah and the wingers Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah fully justified their places in the starting XI, weakening Reyna’s case even more. And the industrious and in-form Brenden Aaronson, who made four substitute appearances, deserved to be ahead of Reyna in the queue. Perhaps Berhalter could have moved Weah to a central position to make room for Reyna on the right wing, which may have helped solve the lack of production at striker. But given Weah’s effectiveness on the flank, it’s not necessarily fair to second-guess the coach in this respect.
The 2026 World Cup is too distant and Reyna’s simply not enough of a star – yet – to justify hyperbolic columns attempting to set up a showdown scenario in which this team ain’t big enough for the both of them and it’s Berhalter who’s chased out. Especially when Reyna was so obviously in the wrong. A player’s unprofessionalism – a lack of effort at the World Cup, of all places – is somehow the coach’s fault? Who does Reyna think he is? Cristiano Ronaldo?
There is, admittedly, an irony to savor in Berhalter’s leadership skills being questioned as a result of comments he made as a guest expert at a summit on leadership skills. It was naive to expect that newsworthy remarks in front of an audience would not become public. (Unless Berhalter has made up his mind to resign and so feels relaxed about speaking freely.) There’s a different level of scrutiny and interest in this US team, in a much-altered media environment compared to 1998, when Steve Sampson dropped John Harkes from the squad two months before the tournament in France for “conduct issues” but it took 12 years for the full story to emerge.
However, from Berhalter’s point of view the episode was a successful piece of man-management: he mentioned it as an example of tackling a difficult decision head-on. He, his staff and squad members addressed a conduct problem, resolved it and moved forward. Clearly it was serious, since Reyna was at risk of being sent home. Yet it did not become public until after the tournament, averting potentially destabilising scrutiny from media and fans when it really might have mattered.
Notably, despite the irritation at the leaks that Reyna conveys in his statement, Berhalter did not publicly call out the winger in Qatar despite having ample opportunities to do so, nor did he name him during the summit interview; MLSSoccer.com and The Athletic broke the news.
Reyna made two appearances in Qatar: as an 83rd-minute substitute in the goalless draw with England and then coming on at half-time in the 3-1 round of sixteen loss to the Netherlands. He made scant impact during his sole extended opportunity in a match that saw the Americans knocked out because they committed individual defensive errors against clinical opponents. The idea that Reyna’s presence from the first whistle might have made all the difference as the US sought a quarter-final berth is highly dubious.
Evidence-based arguments, though, are not the point. Reyna isn’t yet an integral part of the team but he’s one of its most potent symbols: an avatar of the US’s young talent and bright future, and a useful tool here and now for Berhalter’s legion of critics.