Gio Reyna looked sharp in the starting lineup for the United States men’s national team, in all the ways a young man can: his unyielding energy, his surprising eagerness to cover the whole of the midfield, the periodic flashes of skill when the opportunity presented itself, even the bleach-blond hair that allowed viewers to spot him in an instant.
There was one substantial element missing from his performance, though, in an immense friendly Saturday against Germany: being able to endure from starting to finishing.
It was kind of like that for the USMNT as a whole, as they blew an early lead and fell, 3-1, in East Hartford, Conn.
It is quite possible this was the most challenging friendly the U.S. are likely to play between now and the 2026 World Cup here in North America, and so it was viewed by coach Gregg Berhalter as a significant opportunity to learn about his team. And what was learned, above all, was there needs to be an alternative approach to the midfield for whenever Tyler Adams is unavailable to play.
Adams is the one proven defensive midfielder — a No. 6, as they call it in soccer jargon — on the USMNT roster. He has been absent from the national team since injuring his hamstring in the spring, and it’s possible now he’ll need a second surgery to address the issue.
The decision about how to replace him in the lineup was rather simple. It always was the plan for Reyna to play roughly half this game, and the obvious choice in that circumstance, given the sometimes ridiculous controversy that developed from Reyna’s reserve role at the World Cup, was to have him start. The decision about how to replace Adams in the formation was complex — too much so to be resolved in one afternoon.
Reyna was exceptional throughout the first half: less influential than he might have been if given greater access to the ball but evincing a welcome taste for covering ground to become helpful on defense or to retrieve the ball and launch an attack. Weston McKennie was his typical self, particularly when he could connect with star winger Christian Pulisic along the left side.
Young Yunus Musah was deployed in the defensive midfield role, and it did not work. Whenever Germany were able to quell an American surge in the first half and regain possession, they plowed with ease through through the center of the park. He is elite at maintaining possession when operating as a box-to-box midfielder, and lately his club play, with Pulisic at AC Milan, has seen Musah in more of an attacking role. Even if one can argue he has the skill set to succeed at the No. 6, he did not appear comfortable transitioning on short notice.
“Tyler’s a great player. It’s not nice to talk about guys that aren’t here, though,” Berhalter told reporters afterward. “I’d rather talk about the guys that are on the field.”
He didn’t, though, relative to how this group filled Adams’ huge vacancy. He was pleased to talk about the pressure the USMNT applied in the first half, including a ball played over the top of Germany’s defense to Pulisic early in the game that was stopped by an offside call both player and coach disputed, and Pulisic’s brilliant goal in the 27th minute that involved him driving to his right and blasting a curving shot while four defenders converged and ace goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen watched it sail into the upper righthand corner.
— U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team (@USMNT) October 14, 2023
“I think we created some problems,” Berhalter said. “And then just the threat we had a lot in the first half was really good. It put Germany on their heels at times. But to me, it’s also about controlling the tempo of the game, and that’s what we really need to learn.”
It was a victory of sorts for Reyna to play 45 minutes after he’d gone only 27 in his one club appearance this season for Borussia Dortmund. He’d been injured in June while playing for the U.S. and missed all of preseason training and nearly two months of the Bundesliga season.
“The goal is to send him back to Dortmund in a really good spot,” Berhalter said. “I think he played a good game, showed his quality. I think everyone in the first half played well. So it was good to see him, good to have him on the field.”
It was not good to not have him on the field, because the collapse from a 1-1 halftime tie not only followed Reyna’s departure, but probably was connected. The U.S. was able to threaten the opposing goal enough with Reyna on the field to cause the opposition to concern itself with defending more often than it preferred. Replacement Luca de la Torre dulled the attack and did nothing to dissuade Germany’s rampage toward the American net.
There was plenty of blame to be shared on the goals by Niclas Fullkrug in the 58th minute and Jamal Musiala three minutes later. Sergino Dest allowed the ball to deflect off his foot and into dangerous territory at the top of the box, de la Torre became a spectator with a too-great view and central defender Chris Richards missed two opportunities to shut down the threat. McKennie, central defender Tim Ream and right back Joe Scally all bore some responsibility for the second.
“When you watch the goals back — I had the opportunity to do that in the coaches’ office — it’s really these fine moments, these split seconds where you need to be well-positioned, not open up any gaps in your back line,” Berhalter said. “And that’s where it went wrong.”
With the attempt to transform Musah into some semblance of Adams, though, it almost was certain to go wrong. The USMNT conjured a more compelling attack because of Reyna’s presence, but the ability to control the game went missing.
So many national team fans sided with Reyna during the controversy that developed as the team competed at last winter’s World Cup. They got what they argued for in this game, but not what they wished.