Gio Reyna has become the USMNT’s most irreplaceable player

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - MARCH 24: Gio Reyna #7 of the United States celebrates scoring during the second half against Mexico in the Concacaf Nations League Final at AT&T Stadium on March 24, 2024 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Stephen Nadler/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

ARLINGTON, Texas — The boyish smile spread across Gio Reyna’s face, and never really faded. It beamed off a podium here at AT&T Stadium. It illuminated a locker room, then a postgame interview zone. It first exploded as U.S. victory neared in the Concacaf Nations League final. It brightened afterward, and traversed the field. It fed on hugs and plaudits. It glowed as Reyna double-fisted trophies, and lifted them to the roar of American fans, while surrounded by teammates, by “a great group of guys.”

And among the guys, five feet over Reyna’s left shoulder, beaming like a proud dad, was Gregg Berhalter.

They beamed because Reyna had just played two exquisite soccer games. He’d helped rescue Berhalter and the USMNT on Thursday. He’d scored a dagger-like goal against Mexico on Sunday, and Berhalter, from a coach’s sideline perch, had gone running toward the corner flag to meet him.

Berhalter leapt on the outskirts of a beer-soaked pile of players, reaching for Reyna in the middle — and perhaps for symbolism.

A year ago, the two weren’t speaking. A painful feud had driven their families apart.

Now, “both of us are so far past it,” Reyna said. And now, they need each other more than ever.

Reyna has rapidly become the USMNT’s most irreplaceable player. He’s an “amazing talent,” Berhalter said. He’s an inventor who discovers space. He’s a creator who devastates defenders with a single unseen pass. “He has that quality,” Berhalter added, “that not many players have.”

The USMNT, meanwhile, has become Reyna’s refuge. His club career has gone somewhat awry. He now spends most weekends stuck on the bench at Nottingham Forest, in a relegation battle. He has started just one league game all season, back in October, and only eight since August 2021.

So he needed a reprieve. And in Texas this week, he found it. You could sense it in the genuine emotion that crept into his voice as victory music blared.

“The energy we have here, it’s amazing. I always love coming to camp,” he told CBS. “I really mean it. From the bottom of my heart.”

Putting the past behind them

Reyna arrived on the national team scene in 2020 as a teen with unprecedented hype — and, to Gregg Berhalter, as something more than that. Berhalter and Reyna’s dad, Claudio, had been teammates since childhood. They and their wives had become something close to best friends. Gregg had seen Gio grow from boy to bonafide soccer superstar. When he called Gio up to the USMNT, and sent him onto a field, it was “almost like you’re putting a family member in the game,” Berhalter told an ESPN podcast in 2022.

But their relationship, of course, was still coach-player. It frayed ahead of the 2022 World Cup, when coach told player “that my role at the tournament would be very limited,” Gio later wrote; and when player “mope[d] around” as the team prepared in Qatar, according to then-sporting director Earnie Stewart.

It soon devolved into a soap opera. Gio’s parents complained to Berhalter’s bosses. Berhalter inadvertently revealed Gio’s misbehavior to the public. Gio’s parents unearthed Berhalter’s 1992 assault of his now-wife. Berhalter temporarily lost his job. The family friendship fractured.

And caught in the crossfire was a 20-year-old kid.

Gio wrote on Instagram at the time that he was “disappointed that there [was] continuing coverage of” the World Cup drama, “and extremely surprised that anyone on the U.S. men’s team staff would contribute to it.”

He and Berhalter then did not speak for nine months.

Reyna was welcomed back to the USMNT last March — but Berhalter, at the time, was away from the team, in limbo. When Berhalter re-obtained his job in June, he “acknowledge[d] that there’s work to do” to mend the relationship with Gio. He put off that work until August or September. He consulted mediation experts. He knew the situation was delicate. He knew rectifying it “will take time.”

But they both knew, Reyna said here Sunday night, that “if we didn’t put it in the past, it would’ve been affecting the team. And I think that was most important for the both of us.”

So, when they reunited at an October camp in Connecticut, they made that commitment to the team and to each other. They moved forward, and “the more you work together, and the more that he believed that intentions were true, and that the whole staff has his best interest in mind, I think we started to gain trust,” Berhalter said Sunday. “And we were very patient with it.”

By March, it was “not even an issue at all anymore,” Reyna said Thursday. The residual issue, instead, was the one that set off this entire saga in the first place. Berhalter has two dynamic wingers and three trusted midfielders. When all were healthy — and with Reyna struggling for minutes at his club — he had no obvious place for Reyna in his starting 11.

But a solution revealed itself this week in Arlington. With Reyna off the field, the USMNT was uninventive and toothless; once he entered, they scored five goals in roughly 155 minutes — and Reyna contributed, directly or indirectly, to four of the five.

The solution is to build around him. It’s to pencil him in rather than fit him in. He was once the odd midfielder out; now he might just be the first on Berhalter’s team sheet.

“The kid’s unbelievable,” teammate Tyler Adams said Sunday. “To be in the situation he’s in right now, and to be able to be that confident when you come into camp, and put performances in like that — it’s special.”

‘Gio’s been ballin’

The “situation” that Adams referenced is still not ideal. Reyna, having slipped down the depth chart at Borussia Dortmund, hired a superagent, who engineered a strange, stopgap move to Forest in January. Reyna arrived to find another crowded depth chart — on the wing, and behind Forest’s $31.5 million star, Morgan Gibbs-White, in his preferred No. 10 position. He has played just 42 total minutes in two months; he has been an unused sub, and “I was actually not available for a few games through sickness,” he said Sunday.

He also confronted a uniquely demanding league. He joined a team that runs and runs and runs some more. He now plays for a coach who seems to view technical ability and creativity as secondary attributes or luxuries. He has never been the most combative player, nor the hardiest physical specimen, so he has had to adapt. He has had to accelerate his evolution into a more complete midfielder.

But that evolution was already underway. “We can see in camp his growth in certain areas of the game,” Berhalter said. “And for us, it’s the press after loss, the defensive work, that we’ve seen a lot of improvement with.” It’s the shoulder in the back of Mexican counterpart; it’s the 50-50 duel that Reyna won in extra time against Jamaica, two seconds before he dished his second assist.

It’s the assists and the goals, of course, that make him irreplaceable. “For me, it’s his timing, his touch on the ball, his final pass,” Berhalter said. “All of those things are really outstanding, and next level-type qualities. He has such a feel for space, and how to give the ball to teammates in ideal situations.”

Some club, some day, will surely see that and value that. For now, as U.S. defender Chris Richards said, “Gio’s been balling regardless.” He was named the most outstanding player of the 2024 Nations League. He received a hug, and something along the lines of “I’m proud of you,” from Berhalter as he exited the final.

And then he smiled. After shirking interviews for 15 months, he ambled through the mixed zone, and happily stopped for anybody who had questions, and smiled.

Richards walked by, and “Gio, we get it,” he joked, “you won a trophy, OK.”

Reyna laughed, and the smile widened, and the past was as distant as could be.

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