Free Gio Reyna? Why the U.S. is ‘looking for the right moment’ at World Cup

AL RAYYAN, Qatar — More than 20 million people in the United States watched USA-England during the group stage of the World Cup, and some percentage of them — the ones who know who Gio Reyna is — were left wondering why the ultra-talented 20-year-old only saw the last seven minutes of the scoreless draw.

Reyna is one of the brightest young players not just on the Americans’ 26-man World Cup roster, but in global soccer. He made his UEFA Champions League debut for German power Borussia Dortmund at 17. 

He’s the son of former men’s national team captain Claudio Reyna and USWNT player Danielle Egan.

And his playing time — or lack of it — was an irresistible story for fans and media throughout the first round. Reyna made just that one appearance through the Americans’ first three games. 

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Asked by FOX Sports a day before meeting the Netherlands on Saturday in the round of 16 (10 a.m. ET; FOX and the FOX Sports app) why Reyna has barely been used, U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter tried to explain.

“A lot of it comes down to timing and circumstance,” Berhalter said. “If you look at how the games have unfolded, we’ve had the lead then had to hold onto the lead later in games. The only game that we didn’t have that scenario, we actually put him in to help get the victory.”

That answer might or might not satisfy a certain segment of the fan base who can’t or don’t want to understand why Reyna hasn’t been starting. Although the winger/central midfielder missed most of World Cup qualifying with recurring hamstring injuries, both he and Berhalter have said he’s healthy and available. 

Last week, Berhalter said Reyna’s lack of action was a “coach’s decision” and shot down any suggestion that Reyna’s hamstring issues were the cause.

Berhalter has been an honest broker with the media during his four years in charge of the U.S. men, but he himself has said some things aren’t for public consumption. That has fueled speculation that there’s something more to this story. 

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Is there a rift between coach and player? Last week, there were whispers that Reyna had violated curfew. A U.S. Soccer source told FOX Sports that it didn’t happen. The fact Reyna featured against England supports this.

Conspiracy theories are everywhere, and soccer isn’t immune — especially at a World Cup. But, as is the case elsewhere, the assumption of subterfuge tends to fall apart quickly under scrutiny.

Reyna plays primarily out wide for both Dortmund and the national team. It’s by far the deepest position on the national team. 

The starting wingers for the U.S. are Christian Pulisic, the biggest star and most irreplaceable attacker on the team, and Tim Weah, the only American other than Pulisic to score at this World Cup.

Weah is also the only traditional winger on the roster, an old-school burner whose speed along the sideline pulls opposing defenders out of position. Barring injury, both will be in the lineup every game.

Brenden Aaronson is ahead of Reyna on Berhalter’s depth chart, too. Aaronson was the first sub off the bench for Berhalter in all three group stage games. One of the fittest players on the squad, Aaronson offers relentless pressing and defensive work that Reyna can’t. 

Which brings us to our next point: Reyna might be healthy, but that doesn’t make him 90 minutes fit. Indeed, the last time Reyna started and finished a game for club or country was September 2021, 15 months ago to the day.

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That also makes Reyna even less suited to a role in the middle, where U.S. captain Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah have been among the best midfielders in Qatar. There’s no room for Reyna there, either.

Reyna no doubt wants to play more. But any idea that Berhalter doesn’t like him as a player just isn’t supported by facts. The coach raves privately about Reyna’s ability, about his almost limitless ceiling. After all, he has known him all his life.

Berhalter and Claudio Reyna were high school teammates. Claudio, who went on to star for the University of Virginia, met Danielle while visiting Berhalter at the University of North Carolina, where both played soccer. Berhalter’s eldest son, Sebastian, is close with Gio.

The Berhalters and Reynas are more family than friends. Surely Berhalter would love nothing more than to play the younger Reyna every minute. The boring reality is that it doesn’t go further than that.

Berhalter’s job is to win. He must do what’s best for the team. And he knows better than anyone what he has in Reyna, who could yet be a difference-maker off the bench against the Dutch.

“It’s just how we can use him in the most effective way,” Berhalter said of Reyna. “We’re looking for the right moment, but he can no doubt help this team.”

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