Time for the USMNT to unleash Reyna! World Cup hopes – and Berhalter’s job – may depend on it
The winger’s absence was one of the big talking points after the draw with Wales, but is he fit enough to change the trajectory of the tournament?
One substitution could very well become the turning point of the US men’s national team’s World Cup run and, ultimately, Gregg Berhalter’s tenure as head coach.
With the score tied late in their World Cup opener against Wales, Berhalter turned to his bench. Off the field came Tim Weah, the USMNT goalscorer, in favor of some fresh legs that could, hopefully, open up the Wales defense.
Meanwhile, Gio Reyna, perhaps the USMNT’s most talented and creative attacker, watched on from the bench. He’d hardly warmed-up throughout the match and, as all five substitutes were made, Reyna was not among them.
On in Weah’s place came Jordan Morris and we know the rest. The USMNT couldn’t break the deadlock and it finished 1-1 thanks to Gareth Bale’s penalty.
Berhalter’s decision almost immediately raised eyebrows. How could Reyna, such a talented attacking force, not see the field in a World Cup opener? What could possibly be the reasoning behind leaving a player that plays regularly for Borussia Dortmund on the bench to bring on a player that plays regularly for the Seattle Sounders?
Berhalter quickly moved to clarify, saying that he felt Reyna was less than 100 percent, adding that he wanted Morris’ “speed and power” on the field rather than a less-than-full-strength Reyna.
“I think there was a little bit of tightness that we were guarding him against in Al-Gharafa in the training exercise as a precaution, but we’ve been building him up and think he can play a big role in this tournament,” Berhalter said. “The question is when. Hopefully Friday, he’ll be another step ahead.”
Just a few minutes later, Reyna himself spoke to the media. “I feel really good. I feel great,” Reyna said. “I feel fine. [Berhalter] he doesn’t have to tell me why he didn’t put me in or why he does, but I’m 100 percent. I’m good to go.”
Mixed signals, to say the least. And, at a World Cup, mixed signals are far from ideal.
The reality, as it most often is, is likely somewhere in the middle. Reyna probably feels ready to go, but Berhalter may see it otherwise. A player’s “ready to go” doesn’t always line up with a coach’s, with Berhalter having to think of the big picture. A coach’s job is to protect the player and, ultimately, his team. Reyna could very well have wanted to play, and he wouldn’t have been the first player to go heart over head, or in this case leg.
In his mind, at the time, Berhalter trusted a definitely 100 percent Morris over a maybe 100 percent Reyna. It’s a tough choice, but a fair one when it comes to a player like Reyna that has dealt with numerous fitness issues. The USMNT definitely wanted to win against Wales, but they couldn’t afford to lose, and were less likely to with a fit Morris on the field.
It’s a familiar situation for the Reyna family. In 2002, Reyna’s father, USMNT legend Claudio, ruled out the team’s opening game: a shock win over Portugal. He returned for game two against South Korea and went on to make that World Cup’s Best XI. Fast-forward 20 years, and the situation is eerily similar for Reyna’s son, even the current US wasn’t lucky enough to escape the Wales game with all three points.
But that game is gone, that point is earned. Reyna didn’t help get it done and dusted. The question is: Now what?
The USMNT face a colossal game against England on Friday, one that will go a long way toward determining their World Cup fate. Lose by multiple goals and the road to the knockouts gets tougher. Get a point or more, on the other hand, and the US will be sitting pretty heading into the final day.
For the US, the pathway to that point or more likely includes Reyna in some capacity. Whether he starts or comes off the bench, the US will almost certainly need him.
It may not be at the start. Christian Pulisic is likely undroppable and, after his performance against Wales, Weah may be too. Facing an England team that will almost certainly control the game, the US will need their speed to target a backline that is still less-than-convincing. Pulisic is convinced they can win, saying the US needs to be aggressive and try to take the game to the Three Lions.
In the midfield, the US could shake things up by benching Weston McKennie, who is also battling fitness issues. Brenden Aaronson is the most likely replacement should that move be made, though, due to the Leeds star’s relentless energy and familiarity with England’s players.
Reyna, almost certainly will be used and, if he isn’t, the questions will only get louder. In order to beat England, the US will need to play a nearly-perfect game, and they’re more likely to do that with every bit of talent on the field. While you can doubt Reyna’s fitness, you can’t doubt his talent.
If there comes a time when the US needs a dose of creativity, Reyna will be needed. After missing out on a World Cup opener that was certainly there for the taking, the 20-year-old winger will be desperate to get his chance.
Ultimately, the USMNT’s World Cup run, and Berhalter’s future as coach, may depend on it.