For many of the young men who’ve anchored this ambitious generation of American players through one World Cup cycle and now into another, the U.S. national team has been a refuge as well as a springboard.
Dreams of representing their country and playing on the most celebrated stages developed alongside the realization that the national team—especially one loaded with guys of similar age—could be a place where they might reconnect, recharge and rediscover their form or confidence. The demands aren’t necessarily different than those of a European club, but the environment is. Teammates are longtime friends or peers, and the coaches are counting on you.
“When I go to the national team, it’s always great. That’s the first thing, getting to speak to people that can relate to you very easily and a lot of close friends that I’ve played with for quite a long time,” Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic told Sports Illustrated last summer.
“Sometimes, with long seasons and a lot of ups and downs, it can be very good to get away and the national team is an amazing place for it,” he continued. “Getting back there and playing is always a breath of fresh air.”
Gio Reyna is fortunate to be a member of such an outfit—one that pursues and prizes fresh air and seems engineered to shun toxicity.
The response within the men’s national team program to the bizarre, embarrassing and painful series of events sparked by Reyna’s reaction to his limited role in the World Cup opener is not guaranteed or inevitable. He was a distraction during the build-up to the England game, and the feud that erupted between Reyna’s parents and former coach Gregg Berhalter turned the weeks following the World Cup—which should’ve been a period of exhalation and reflection—into a circus.
There are teams and locker rooms where that wouldn’t be tolerated, where a rigid, unforgiving culture would make Reyna’s redemption impossible. There are others where factions might form. It’s plausible that the U.S. players who expressed support for Berhalter after the World Cup might feel Reyna and/or his parents are responsible for poisoning the well against the coach’s return. There are others who might feel robbed of the chance to bask in a World Cup afterglow, or concerned the affair puts the program in an unflattering light. Certainly it’s not hard to imagine a few more established players being offended by a 20-year-old’s perceived selfishness or sense of entitlement.
The U.S. doesn’t appear to be that team. The “brotherhood” so many of them referenced before leaving for Qatar includes Reyna by definition, so a pathway exists for his redemption. He was able to work his way back onto the field in Qatar, and a long-term solution—one which follows the cringeworthy revelations in last week’s U.S. Soccer report—clearly exists as well. Ostracism was never an option.
Before the FIFA window that opened this week, interim coach Anthony Hudson reached out to Reyna and then visited him personally in Germany. Hudson said that the “complex situation” which erupted following the World Cup is something the team “see[s] separate from Gio, even though he’s impacted by it.”
Hudson met with Reyna in Dortmund and then spoke to him again prior to naming the team that’ll face Grenada (Friday) and El Salvador (Monday) in Concacaf Nations League play.
“He’s in a good place. He’s determined to come back in and do well and help the team,” Hudson said.
“Obviously, this is a young guy who has been through a lot,” he continued. “The conversations initially were, first of all, being a young man overseas, having gone through all of this, the conversation or the objective first of all [was] just to see how he was on a human level. Without going into detail of our conversation, I think for anyone to go through that is going to be a challenge. But he seems to be in a good place in the sense that I see that he is firmly focused on his soccer, his playing, and coming back into camp.”
That focus—that desire to put everything else aside and return to the fold—is what his teammates are looking for. There are no grudges. Those are counterproductive, and they perpetuate distraction. The brotherhood must prevail.
“I think the biggest thing is making sure that everybody knows we’re here for a reason, and what’s happened with Gio in the past is in the past, and what happened at the World Cup happened at the World Cup, and we moved on from that as players,” veteran defender Tim Ream said from U.S. camp in Orlando.
“I think the biggest thing for us as a leadership group and all the guys in camp, is to see that he’s working hard, training hard, that he’s wanting to be here. And up to this point, it’s been nothing but positive,” Ream added. “Having conversations with different guys, everybody knows what he can bring to the table. Everybody knows how talented he is, and to see him come in here with that attitude and the work rate and the desire to be a part of the group and just get back on level terms with everyone without having to overly address it, has been a big positive for all the guys to see.”
Reyna hasn’t been made available to media this week, which is no surprise. He’s said nothing publicly about the World Cup since an Instagram post in early December that said, in part, “I love my team, I love representing my country, and I am focusing now only on improving and growing as a soccer player and a person.”
Ream revealed that he previously reached out to Reyna to see how that growth is going. That was among several signs that the U.S. player pool wanted to maintain ties. Defender Walker Zimmerman, who’s not in camp this month (there’s only one MLS-based player), has said that Reyna was involved in fantasy football group chats as the NFL season progressed.
“I’ve had individual conversations with him. Those will stay between him and I because I think that’s important to have that kind of line of communication and trust between players, between teammates, between groups,” Ream said this week. “That’s important to allow him to move past everything that’s happened. And I think it’s important for all of us to be able to move past that and work together as a good team.”
The collective stakes aren’t that high this month. The U.S. needs just a point from its upcoming two games to secure a spot in this summer’s Concacaf Gold Cup (and may not need even that much). Finishing first in the three-team Nations League group also would send the Americans to June’s "final four" in Las Vegas. For Reyna, however, the long-term rewards are obviously more significant. This week represents a chance to move on tangibly from the World Cup scandal, while reinforcing the value and resilience of the team’s approach. Everything will become more than just words.
Superficially, Reyna is a player who could use an international break. After scoring three goals off the bench in late January and early February, he’s started just two of Dortmund’s last nine games. Under different circumstances, however, a player in his situation might decide to wait a bit longer before returning to the national team. Let the clamor die down. Wait until the media has moved on, and until the details of his parents’ behavior and their fall-out with Berhalter have faded. That fact that Reyna didn’t wait or withdraw is as much testament to the squad he’s rejoining as it is to him.
“There was no hesitation from him about coming in. He’s determined to come in and do well,” Hudson said.
Reyna and his partner, Antonee Robinson, were defeated by teammates in a Tuesday golf outing, but everything else seems to be going smoothly.
“In training, he’s looked really good, looked pretty sharp. I’ve spoken to him. He feels like he’s in good health, feels confident,” Robinson said Wednesday.
“He’s working really hard on the pitch and for all purposes of the media, it seems like everything’s behind him,” goalkeeper Matt Turner added. “So as we go on, we’ll look to hold him to that standard. But he’s been a joy to be around.”
It was the team itself, the players, who helped Reyna reverse course in Qatar. His initial acknowledgement to the group in the days between the opener against Wales and the game against England wasn’t well received, and it was the stern feedback and reminders from his teammates that went a long way to snapping Reyna out of his funk. He apologized again, recommitted himself to returning to the field and played the entire second half of the round-of-16 loss to the Netherlands.
“It became like this culture that sort of policed itself in a lot of ways, which I think can be pretty rare when it comes to national teams getting together,” Turner said of the U.S. under Berhalter.
The players genuinely believed that was a strength, and so they’ll look to further that culture this week and beyond. Reyna is now a beneficiary, which will afford him the time and space to become a contributor.
"[There’s] been a great team unity, and that’s something that hasn’t always been there. But now, I think it’s a mainstay,” Ream said. “That’s up to the leadership group to continue that kind of culture and that feel of complete togetherness, wherever guys are coming from, wherever they’re playing at. Because at the end of the day, we’re all playing for the same thing. We’re all pulling in the same direction, and that’s the most important thing.”