US soccer has many forces acting against its success. The country shunned the sport after the 1930s, leaving a men’s national team withering and winless. Even after years of progress, soccer lags behind indigenous sports in a crowded marketplace.
Add one more powerful force to that list.
Also add its close cousin, snowplow parenting, a term referring to those parents who knock down any obstacle standing in front of their kids.
The obstacle du jour is Gregg Berhalter, the once and possibly future men’s national team head coach. The parents are Hall of Fame player Claudio Reyna and his wife, Danielle, a roommate and teammate of Berhalter’s wife at the University of North Carolina’s storied women’s soccer program.
And the child, though he’s 20 years old, is Gio Reyna, the Borussia Dortmund attacker who sulked for a few days after Berhalter told him he’d have a limited role at the World Cup. Reyna did come around eventually, and he played the second half when the US were eliminated from the World Cup in a 3-1 loss to the Netherlands.
On Tuesday, Berhalter released a statement admitting he had kicked his future wife’s legs in an alcohol-fueled argument in 1991, when they were both UNC student-athletes. He added these startling words: “During the World Cup, an individual contacted US Soccer, saying they had information about me that would ‘take me down.’”
To the surprise of absolutely no one, the Reyna family admitted on Wednesday that they had told the federation about the 31-year-old incident, though they denied making any sort of threat. They had opportunity, given that Claudio Reyna and Berhalter were national teammates of the USSF sporting director, Earnie Stewart, and the US men’s general manager, Brian McBride. And they had motive, given not only Gio Reyna’s scant playing time but also Berhalter’s comments at a 6 December conference on moral leadership, in which he said he nearly expelled a player during the World Cup before reconciling.
The contents of that conference were not intended to be made public. Nor did Berhalter name the player in question. And yet Gio Reyna all but confirmed the next day that he was said player, and Danielle Reyna confirmed on Wednesday that the comments motivated her to reveal the 1991 Berhalter incident, which she says was worse than Berhalter is letting on.
On Tuesday, the same day Berhalter released his statement, US Soccer alerted the public, saying they hired outside investigators as soon as they learned of the incident, on 11 December. That investigation has since morphed: “Through this process, US Soccer has learned about potential inappropriate behavior towards multiple members of our staff by individuals outside of our organization.”
Beleaguered US Soccer officials, already accustomed to being either the referee, the instigator or the instigated in controversies big and small, declined on a Wednesday conference call to give more detail.
In short: the Reynas said nothing about a physical fight between Berhalter and his future wife for more than three decades but mentioned it to US Soccer officials after learning that Berhalter had mentioned in a private conference that he had since-resolved issues with a player he didn’t identify who got scant playing time for most of the World Cup.
In other words, the Reynas acted like typical soccer parents in the US.
Every youth soccer parent, coach and referee knows these parents. They’re the ones who gush about their kid’s new youth club in August and then rant against it when they leave in May. They’re the ones who intimidate coaches into substitutions at nearly every stoppage in play, lest a player be left on the sideline longer than a few minutes. They’re the ones who gossip on anonymous message boards to trash coaches and clubs.
To be sure, complaints about playing time in sports aren’t exactly breaking news. But if there was a World Cup for such griping, the US would surely have a crowded trophy case.
Woe be unto the coach who keeps the wrong player out of the lineup of any team from under-9s to the national teams, men and women.
Woe be unto the referee who crosses a women’s national team player who feels emboldened by a sycophantic fanbase not just to argue with referees but to humiliate them.
Woe be unto the youth soccer coach who fails to achieve the sometimes-incompatible goals of winning trophies and developing children into prized players who can earn everything from a spot on the local high school varsity to a professional opportunity.
This is, after all, a country in which parents took advantage of preferential college admissions for athletes by fabricating their children’s exploits, part of a series of events exposed under the catch-all title Operation Varsity Blues.
It’s also a country in which players grow up and see nothing wrong with taking a staggering 90% of the prize money the men earned in the 2022 World Cup and the women will earn in the 2023 World Cup, all while grassroots organizations seethe at seeing the rich get richer. (At a media teleconference on the agreement, I asked representatives from both teams if they plan on building bridges with those who work with youth and amateurs. Silence.)
And it’s a culture that rewards players who don’t think they need to listen to coaches or critics. In women’s soccer, the fanbase has adopted the attitude that players are always right, while coaches, league officials and referees are always wrong. In men’s soccer, players are less immune to criticism but have come up through a youth system that all too often pampered them, perhaps to the detriment of their performance.
“Are you going to continue to be a bunch of soft, underperforming, tattooed millionaires?” Alexi Lalas asked in 2017 when the men were teetering on the edge of World Cup qualifying failure.
But ultimately, it comes back to the parents. Not every parent. Not every player. But too many.
The investigation of Berhalter and any related business may take months. In the meantime, US Soccer must decide whether to offer Berhalter a new contract or look elsewhere. The federation has already shown it can drag out such decisions for more than a year.
And so in dragging down Berhalter, the Reynas may also drag down the federation that Claudio Reyna once represented so well and Gio Reyna may yet do the same. Those who are involved with youth soccer have seen it all before. The ironic aspect of the term “snowplow parent” is that those snowplows leave behind scorched earth.
At the heart of the matter here are two families, once closely intertwined, torn apart by an argument over playing time and a player’s attitude.
Just like we see in youth soccer every day.