Gio Reyna Has His Swagger Back

On Sunday, the USMNT played the most significant competitive match of the second reign of Gregg Berhalter. Despite those qualifiers, that sentence still manages to mildly oversell the heft of the CONCACAF Nations League final, which the U.S. won 2-0 over Mexico. For one, the tournament is still a make-work contest that exists to take up space on the sparse CONCACAF calendar. This Mexico team is also one of the worst in decades, having recently failed to make it out of their World Cup group for the first time in over four decades and getting dominated for five years by the Americans, who are 5-2-0 in that span with wins in three finals and a World Cup qualifier.

But who cares how artificial the stakes were—all that matters is that Gio Reyna is back. Reyna earned the tournament’s uncreatively named Best Player Award with a handful of sublime moments in each of his team’s two matches, the sort he’s always had the talent, yet rarely the boundary conditions, to produce. One year ago—hell, one month ago—few U.S. fans would have expected that Reyna would emerge from the gloom of his haunted club season and come through as the team’s hero in this tournament, but against Jamaica in the semifinal and Mexico in the final, Reyna showed that he’s still capable of real wizardry in a U.S. shirt.

It’s the other shirts that have been the problem lately. Reyna has been one of the top prospects at Dortmund for so long it’s easy to forget he’s still just 21, but he got off to an awful start to the season and fell all the way out of the rotation. For so long, Reyna’s main issues have been physical, so it was no surprise that injuries kept him from wearing the black and yellow until almost two months into the Bundesliga season. It was, however, legitimately concerning that even when healthy, he still rode the bench. One of the pitfalls of distinguishing yourself in a world-class developmental environment like Dortmund’s is that the club’s is constantly producing or acquiring hungry young players who are trying to take your spot. Reyna irked manager Edin Terzic with his middling defensive work rate while Jamie Bynoe-Gittens came on strong, and that was more or less that. What followed was 270 minutes across 11 appearances and an ignominious loan exit to Nottingham Forest. There, he’s played just 48 minutes across three spot appearances in the Premier League, and the club is currently in the relegation zone. More talented players have had worse seasons and bounced back, but this is the exact shape of a lost campaign.

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And though Reyna has always been a killer in the Nations League, his path back to the U.S. starting XI required him and Berhalter to mend fences after Reyna’s parents responded to Berhalter benching their son and then inadvertently bashing him publicly by leaking details of a 30-year-old domestic violence incident to U.S. Soccer in an attempt to blackmail Berhalter out of the coaching gig. That’s a pretty serious thing to have to get over, especially when Reyna’s father Claudio was so close to Berhalter for so long. Last August, Berhalter said he and Gio hadn’t spoken since the World Cup, and when Reyna came in for a pair of friendlies last October, Berhalter said, “I think it will take time. […] But I think that both intentions are positive.” Painful as the process was, both guys worked through it and Reyna immediately proved his worth by scoring three times in his first two starts.

The latter of those starts was a slogged-out, nasty 3-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago last November, which must have been great prep for the semifinal against Jamaica last Thursday. The USMNT conceded 30 seconds into the Jamaica game, then tried and failed to score for 95 minutes. It was gross, sludgy stuff, and though the USMNT was clearly the better team, they showed the limits of their ability to break down disciplined teams. Thankfully, they got an own goal at the end of stoppage time, and in extra time, Reyna, who came into the game at halftime, served up two fantastic assists for Haji Wright. It was as flattering a 3-1 scoreline as you’ll ever see, though Reyna was dangerous the entire time he was out there.

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Reyna got the start against Mexico. Despite having to play way further back than he is used to, he once again showed his talent. Tyler Adams, who is also in the midst of an injury-plagued nightmare season, opened the scoring on the brink of halftime with a rocket from outside the box, and Reyna slammed the door shut in the 63rd minute with a sumptuous half-volley past Memo Ochoa. Christian Pulisic is still the best player on the team, though there’s nobody like Reyna in the player pool. It’s hard not to reach for the rhetorical crutch of “magic” as a framing device for Reyna’s talent, though it’s entirely apt. His vision and control are unparalleled by his teammates, he can manipulate the fabric of a game with a few audacious touches and wring a goal from a scenario nobody else would even think to plunge into.

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Reyna seemed legitimately emotional after the win. “The group of guys, the energy we have here, it’s amazing. I always love coming to camp. I really mean it from the bottom of my heart,” he said after the win, his voice wavering.
“I’m lost for words right now, it’s just an honor to play with these guys.” Perhaps the most encouraging part of Reyna’s night wasn’t the goal he scored but what came after. Reyna’s teammates lost their minds celebrating his goal, and when he came off in the 79th minute, he shared a hug with Berhalter. It can’t have been easy to have worked through what they worked through, and American soccer fans have to feel great that they did.

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