There have been two consistent storylines surrounding the USMNT at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. The first has to do with the amount of sheer talent throughout this squad, perhaps the deepest roster ever fielded. The second is its youth. That combination is the main reason that so many soccer fans in the United States are stoked about the potential for this team. Of course, those expectations go hand in hand with an immense amount of pressure, especially given that the 2018 team failed to even qualify for the World Cup in Russia.
From the very first kick of the ball against Wales in Group B this time around, coach Gregg Berhalter's squad has shown why there's reason to be excited about what's to come. Tyler Adams, who was voted team captain by the players themselves, showed just how much of a leader he is on the pitch. The back line featuring Antonee Robinson, Sergiño Dest and Tim Ream was stout throughout the match, especially in the first half. Christian Pulisic, the current face of the team, set up the go-ahead goal for Tim Weah in the first half. If not for an unfortunate mistake from Walker Zimmerman late in the second half, the Americans likely would've taken all three points from their opening match. The shift in tactics for Team USA left many scratching their heads. Substitutions became a talking point, with the biggest chatter surrounding the fact that Berhalter opted NOT to bring on 20-year-old midfielder Giovanni Reyna, whom many consider one of the most talented members of the U.S. Men's National Team.
The Family Business
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If ever there was someone born to follow in their parents' footsteps, it's Gio Reyna. He's the son of U.S. soccer legend Claudio Reyna — whose resumé is among the most impressive of any American men's player you're likely to find — and Danielle Egan, who played with the U.S. Women's National Team in 1993 after winning four national championships while playing at the University of North Carolina. Gio Reyna credits his parents for his well-rounded skill set on the pitch. Gio was born in England while his father was playing at Sunderland, but the family moved back to the U.S. when he was 5. He continued to develop in the youth system of New York City FC before moving to Germany in 2019 and signing with his current club, Borussia Dortmund (BVB).
He made his debut in the Bundesliga when he was only 17, breaking the record set by teammate Christian Pulisic as the youngest American to appear in the league. Since then, he's continued to set records both in the Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League as the "youngest player to [insert accomplishment here]". He went on to be named U.S. soccer's Young Male Player of the Year in 2020. He also played alongside Norwegian star Erling Haaland before he left for his dad's old team, Manchester City, and England's Jude Bellingham.
So Where Is He?
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Given all of the hype surrounding Reyna's talent, it's become one of the biggest lingering questions — alongside the use of Brenden Aaronson — that have been dogging Berhalter since the tournament began. Reyna had been dealing with injury in the lead-up to the World Cup. A bad hamstring tear kept him off the pitch through most of the qualifying rounds. That's likely the reason he didn't start against Wales. It was surprising to many, though, that he wasn't brought on at all. Given the ratcheting up of the pressure from Wales in the second half, the game was screaming for someone with Reyna's ball handling skills to see action. The team needed someone who could retain possession and create chances in the offensive third for his teammates, setting up assists for the strikers up top. Instead, Berhalter elected to bring in Jordan Morris, later saying that Reyna apparently showed some tightness during a scrimmage in preparation for the match. When asked after the Wales match how he felt, Reyna said he "was 100% and good to go." Speculation abounded.
Fast-forward to the second group stage match, a hugely anticipated clash with England. Once again, the team came out on fire. It was a dominant force in the first half against an English side that looked out of sorts against the Americans. Midfielders Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah were all over the pitch, imposing their will. Pulisic orchestrated some of the best chances the team had, but ultimately it came away with a scoreless draw. It had a similar trajectory to the Wales match, a tale of two halves with markedly different feel to them. Given the level of competition and the importance of getting a result, we were once again left wondering why Reyna was only given a perfunctory appearance with less than 10 minutes remaining. Sure, given the injury concerns, one could understand why Berhalter may have wanted to preserve Reyna — but he should have been called upon in this situation, no? You'd think you'd want your best players on the pitch as much as humanly possible in such a pivotal matchup. Yet again, the attacking midfielder was seemingly an afterthought in what was likely the biggest game the U.S. had played in eight years. That set up a "win and you're in" scenario with Iran in the final group stage match. Surely, we'd be seeing Gio at long last, right?
Seriously, What's Up?
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All it needed to do was win. Iran, by virtue of defeating Wales in its previous match, only needed a draw to move on. That meant that the U.S. would need to force the issue and score at least one goal while ideally keeping a clean sheet. It would stand to reason, then, that you'd put a playmaker with great ball skills, excellent tactical IQ and an eye for assists on the pitch, no? Apparently not, as yet again Reyna was left on the bench for the start of this match. Josh Sargent was given the start up top, while Cameron Carter-Vickers replaced Walker Zimmerman along the back line. I won't get into the nuts and bolts of what unfolded in the match, because I don't know if my blood pressure can take reliving the stress of those two hours. Ultimately, though, the United States held on for a 1-0 victory and advanced to the knockout round, where it will face the Netherlands. Still, questions continued to swirl about Berhalter's substitutions and player management. People who have been around the USMNT program for years (former players, coaches, etc.) were left flabbergasted and wondering out loud what was keeping Reyna on the sidelines.
Can The Magic Continue?
For all of the wonderment and confusion surrounding the Gio Reyna storyline, the team has performed well enough to achieve its first goal: advance from the group stage and into the knockout round. It will need to find a way to score some goals, having found the back of the net only twice in its first three matches. There are also some injury concerns heading into the match. One thing is almost a certainty: When Berhalter's team sheet is released on match day, it will be a conversation piece no matter what.