Analysis: Thoughts on Reyna's time in Qatar amid new information
December 09, 2022
IT’S MONDAY AND we’re coming off an extraordinary weekend in American soccer that didn’t even involve any games. Many were hoping that the weekend would have just been watching the World Cup quarterfinals and getting on with the Christmas season, but instead we mourned the loss of the top American soccer journalist who shockingly died after collapsing in the pressbox after Argentina’s win over the Netherlands. Then news broke about the behavior of one of the top American players at the World Cup.
It was a weekend that hit all sorts of emotions, let’s start.
Gio Reyna did not play nearly as much as people expected at the World Cup. The Borussia Dortmund playmaker figured to be in the team’s plans at a number of different positions but instead Gregg Berhalter didn’t break-up the “MMA” midfield, played Tim Weah over him on the wing and opted not to use Reyna as a “false nine” and instead used a straight No.9. For backups, Berhalter used a variety of options namely Brenden Aaronson and Jordan Morris in these attacking roles. Aside from a late cameo against England, it wasn’t until the second half against the Netherlands where Reyna played any meaningful minutes.
This weekend, we learned more as to why – for two reasons. The first were Berhalter’s statements he made to a Charterworks leadership council that was done with the expectations of it being off the record but was leaked by the organization anyway.
“An example I can give you: In this last World Cup, we had a player that was clearly not meeting expectations on and off the field. One of the 26 players, so it stood out. As a staff, we sat together for hours deliberating what we were going to do with this player. We were ready to book a plane ticket home, that's how extreme it was. And what it came down to was, we're going to have one more conversation with him, and part of the conversation was how we're going to beahve from here out. There aren't going to be any more infractions.”
“But the other thing we said to him was, you're going to have to apologize to the group, but it's going to have to say why you’re apologizing. It's going to have to go deeper than just ‘Guys, I'm sorry.’ And I prepped the leadership group with this. I said, ‘Okay, this guy's going to apologize to you as a group, to the whole team.’ And what was fantastic in this whole thing is that after he apologized, they stood up one by one and said, ‘Listen, it hasn’t been good enough, You haven’t been meeting our expectations of a teammate and we want to see change.’ They really took ownership of that process. And from that day on there were no issues with this player.”
“As a coach, the way you can deal with things most appropriately is going back to your values. Because it's difficult to send a player home. It was going to be a massive controversy. You would have been reading about it for five days straight. But we were prepared to do it, because he wasn't meeting the standards of the group, and the group was prepared to do it as well.”
The issue was later confirmed to be about Reyna. More reporting on the issue came from The Athletic where it was revealed that Reyna’s attitude wasn’t satisfactory, and it was reflected in a scrimmage before the World Cup where Reyna’s effort was very poor.
It was also revealed that there was a vote among team staff and players to send Reyna home mid-tournament and the vote was 13-12 that he stay.
Later on Monday, Reyna released his own statement.
"I hoped not to comment on matters at the World Cup. It is my belief that things that happen in a team setting ought to remain private. That being said, statements have been made that reflect on my professionalism and character, so I feel the need to make a brief statement.
Just before the World Cup, Coach Berhalter told me that my role at the tournament would be very limited. I was devasted. I am someone who plays with pride and passion. Soccer is my life, and I believe in my abilities. I fully expected and desperately wanted to contribute to the play of a talented group as we tried to make a statement at the World Cup.
I am also a very emotional person, and I fully acknowledge that I let my emotions get the best of me and affect my training and behavior for a few days after learning about my limited role. I apologized to my teammates and coach for this, and I was told I was forgiven. Thereafter, I shook off my disappointment and gave everything I had on and off the field.
I am disappointed that there is continuing coverage of this matter (as well as some highly fictionalized versions of events) and extremely surprised that anyone on the U.S. men's team staff would contribute to it. Coach Berhalter has always said that issues that arise with the team will stay "in house" so we can focus on team unity and progress. 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. I hope that going forward each person involved in U.S. Soccer focuses only on what is in the best interest of the men's national team so we can enjoy great success at the World Cup in 2026."
Wake up call for Reyna
The reports do not put Reyna in a great light. The problems didn’t just affect his relationship with Gregg Berhalter, but with the team as well. If the players and the staff were all having issues with Reyna, it becomes more serious and believable that things with Reyna could and should be better.
Over the past four years, Berhalter has been trying to build up a team culture he refers to as “a brotherhood.” And Reyna is not the first person to fall short. Weston McKennie was sent home from last September’s World Cup qualifiers for violating curfew. But sending a highly prominent player home from the World Cup could have been the most extreme measure taken and it could have had a drastic effect on his career.
But Reyna is not yet an older player set in his ways. He turned 20 just before the tournament and there is still a good chance for him to grow up and mature. But that needs to start with something – and hopefully this is about Reyna setting a tone for the rest of his career that maximizes his potential at both the club and international levels.
The good news is that this team has always shown itself to get beyond its issues. McKennie was brought back into the fold after the incident in 2021. In this, Reyna was able to get back onto the field at the end.
The McKennie issue in 2021 didn’t affect the team negatively in the long run and all parties, including McKennie, Berhalter, and the team, emerged looking better. The team grew from it.
But all situations are not equal. Getting busted going out after curfew is irresponsible (especially during the COVID-era) but people know why it happens with young people. Showing up at a World Cup and exerting a poor effort is worse.
Reyna clearly must be better – and this isn’t to pile on him. He can be better and countless other players around his age have all matured in positive ways. As he moves into the highest levels of the game, there are issues beyond talent. Teams which pay fortunes in transfer prices do so for the complete package, on the field and off.
Reyna is a player who is so good that the U.S. team needs him to be at his best. If this was part of the way that helps him get there, then it’s a positive.
Team culture after this going public
The U.S. team’s culture among the players is solid. In Qatar, the U.S. team exhibited many of the traits which fans want from the team – they played hard, they played for each other, they were tough to break down in the group stage. They ended up losing to a better team, but they went after the Netherlands and didn’t simply try to bunker to a shootout.
Regarding of what we saw in Qatar, the Reyna situation didn’t reflect a team where the locker room was lost. For however long his attitude and lack of leadership was an issue with the staff – it seemed contained within the team. The rest of the team was playing hard, and their body language was positive.
The question now becomes how it affects the team moving forward. We don’t yet know the players’ sentiment towards Reyna. Yes, some players feel differently but has the overall feeling reached a critical mass that this is now behind the team, and they can move forward with Reyna?
Most importantly, there is also the issue of now being made public.
Does that make a manageable situation unmanageable? Perhaps it cracks away at the trust established in “the Brotherhood.” On the other hand, maybe players were simply hoping to keep this under wraps at the World Cup – knowing it would come out later?
Unfortunately, we don’t know the answer yet. Saying that the team will be fine from this or saying that this is a serious blow to team culture is just guesswork based on the information we have.
My take is that what happened in Qatar with Reyna on the disciplinary side wasn’t a problem. A player showing up at a tournament without giving the necessary effort can happen to any team. The team needs to deal with it and not sweep it under the rug. Excusing subpar behavior can have drastic long-term consequences. In this case, there was a problem and it seemed to have been handled alright in Qatar. By the end, Reyna was playing real minutes in the final game.
My belief is that the big issue will be how the team deals with this now that it has been made public. If internal matters within a team become public very easily and seemingly private matters end up in the media days after, then the comradery built through trust could become vulnerable. That would be a worst-case scenario.
The best-case scenario is that this being made public serves as a positive wake-up call to Reyna and the culture and trust withing the team is strong.
Berhalter’s handling of it
This area of the topic is the most intense area of the situation on social media. It’s unfortunate it seems as if many people’s views on this are predetermined based on how they felt about Berhalter throughout the cycle.
This matter is obviously painful for Berhalter and it’s such an extraordinary situation because it is Reyna. Berhalter, of course, was high-school teammates with Claudio Reyna and the two were also teammates on the U.S. national team during a 1995 Copa America semifinal run and a 2002 World Cup quarterfinal run. Berhalter has known Gio Reyna since he was born. Now the biggest test of his coaching career comes with handling Reyna.
Berhalter has seen a lot in his career. As a player, he captained two European teams (which was groundbreaking for an American). When he was the captain of 1860 Munich he served as the experienced veteran on a very young and talented team – which included future U.S. fullback Fabian Johnson.
Again, the questions over Berhalter handling this likely won’t center on whether Reyna needed to be told by staff or the players that he needed to pick it up. It also won’t center on Reyna needing to apologize.
Sure, there will be questions about whether Reyna should have played more in Qatar amid this whole saga.
The real issue for Berhalter, however, will be the comments to Charterworks. U.S. Soccer says that the symposium was meant to be “off the record.” Yes, coaches, front office officials, players, and agents in all sports have discussions off the record. But this was a symposium with multiple people there. Charterworks ended up publishing his remarks on its website. Did Berhalter have enough trust with Charterworks to be saying this, even if off-the-record? Should Berhalter have been saying this to Charterworks, even if off the record?
Then there is also the issue of putting this to a vote amongst the staff instead of Berhalter taking complete ownership of the decision. In the end, it was good that Reyna stayed in Qatar to avoid a story over a dismissal that would have been a massive distraction.
We still don’t know if Berhalter will continue to be the head coach of the team. It’s a two-way-street and U.S. Soccer and Berhalter each have to decide what they want.
How this was handled, and how this matter affects the team moving forward will likely be part of the decision - for both parties.
Grant Wahl, 1974-2022
Friday was a tragic day in the American soccer community with the news that Grant Wahl died unexpectedly in Qatar following the Netherlands-Argentina game. He had been feeling ill during his time in Qatar, having visited the medical facility twice. He collapsed in the press box after the game and died shortly after. He was 48.
Grant was a giant in our sport, and he was the top journalist to cover the game from the American perspective. Everyone who is involved in covering the sport knows Grant because he would take the time to get to know people. With new or younger journalists, he was very approachable and would offer advice if asked. He stayed in touch with others remarkably well, and had a great relationship within the community of people covering the game in the United States. When Grant made the switch to covering soccer full-time for Sports Illustrated, as opposed to splitting time with college basketball, it was a remarkable moment for coverage of soccer in the United States.
U.S. Soccer Statement On The Passing Of Grant Wahl: pic.twitter.com/CBp1mCK1mQ— U.S. Soccer (@ussoccer) December 10, 2022
As a writer, no one in our field was better. His presence will be lost because, even if he was telling a story which everyone knew, he could tell it in a way that would shine a different light on it. If you want an example, read his SI story on the Reyna family and the loss of Jack (the brother of Gio and the eldest child of Claudio and Danielle).
Among all, Grant was the most dedicated journalist I’ve ever seen. He had principles and integrity which grounded him. He expected the best from himself and others, and he was never afraid to hold himself or others accountable.
It’s such a loss and my thoughts and prayers are with his family and loved ones.