Gio Reyna’s two-goal performance against Ghana means he will have a place in USMNT lineup — if healthy enough to claim it

It has been 310 days since the contents of what was supposed to be a private seminar speech by Gregg Berhalter became very, very public. It has been 309 days since the subject of the most conspicuous comment from that talk, young Gio Reyna, issued a statement reacting to his World Cup misadventures becoming widely discussed. It has been 182 days since the U.S. Soccer Federation’s investigation into this tempest was concluded. It has been 158 days since Berhalter was rehired to coach the U.S. men’s national team.

The point of all this is that so much time has passed, so much has happened in the interim, and that’s only in the tiny Brigadoon world of the USMNT, which pops up every couple of months and then goes dormant again.

So maybe enough days have passed for all of this to be in the past.

Maybe what matters most now is Reyna becoming a healthy soccer player who can produce this sort of brilliance for 90 minutes, whether representing Borussia Dortmund with his day job or the USMNT. Because if that occurs, there will not be any further folderol about Berhalter’s failure to use him properly. He’ll be in the lineup.

Reyna’s two beautiful goals in a 4-0 romp over longtime USMNT nemesis Ghana were not the only evidence of his excellence Tuesday night in Nashville, but they were the most obvious. He had not scored an international goal in 28 months, dating all the way back to the night in June 2021 in a friendly against Costa Rica, when his dazzling skill at age 18 convinced many who follow the national team he possessed more pure talent and skill than any U.S. man to date.

The problem for Reyna since has been an inability to remain available. That’s something ignored by those who argued for his presence in the World Cup lineup, and, to be fair, by Reyna himself.

“I thought Gio was really, really good today,” Berhalter told reporters following the game. “Besides the goals, it was how he brings players into the attack, how he is able to be calm on the ball. He gives us that calm and poise that we need at times and is decisive when making final passes.

“And to me, this performance was just, really, an indicator of his entire camp.”

Last December, after his return from a round of 16 finish at the World Cup, Berhalter commented to a leadership conference that a player nearly had been sent home from Qatar because he responded to a bench role by withdrawing effort. That led to multiple reporters identifying Reyna as the player in question. This led to Reyna releasing a statement that curiously claimed Berhalter informed him his role would be “very limited” but acknowledged he’d responded poorly. Consequently, Reyna’s mother made a report to U.S. Soccer regarding an incident from Berhalter’s college days – he left North Carolina in 1994 – that involved him striking the woman he was dating, Rosalind Santana, who now is his wife of 24 years.

Oh, what a colossal mess it was.

It is yesterday’s news, now, or 182 yesterdays ago. The independent investigation commissioned by U.S. Soccer condemned Berhalter’s behavior but determined there were enough mitigations – his behavior since, his honesty in the process – for it not to disqualify him from returning as coach.

Reyna still was recovering from a June injury when Berhalter coached his first games back with the USMNT in September, so this became the first occasion for them to be together since the massive controversy that developed last winter.

With the Bundesliga season two months old, Reyna still has played only 27 minutes – that’s total, not an average – for Borussia Dortmund. But he played the full first halves in the 3-1 loss to Germany on the weekend and in the victory over Ghana.

“To me, it’s not only offensive stuff he did tonight. It’s more what he did off the ball,” Berhalter said. “I think relentless work – we talked about that before the game — relentless work rate defensively. And he certainly did that.”

A marginal commitment to defending impacted his role on the team in the past, but he eagerly covered ground in both these games, and not merely to retrieve the ball to launch attacks. He was not exceptional in that department against Germany, but he was involved, and when he was removed at halftime of that game, the possession and threat he had provided went with him. Germany broke open what had been a tie game with two quick goals.

“We were disappointed after the Germany game. We had so many things to work on, and I thought we responded really well,” Berhalter said. “Overall, we talked about using these two games as a learning experience, and I think we certainly did that.”

When Reyna was healthy at the outset of the truncated qualifying competition for Qatar 2022, he started the opening game against El Salvador and went the distance. He injured his hamstring before the second game, against Canada, and did not return to the USMNT until the qualifying process was concluding.

While he was absent, Berhalter built a formidable midfield around the “MMA” trio of Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams. What they lacked in creativity, they made up for in dynamism and will. Given one final chance to force his way into the World Cup lineup, in the final pre-Qatar friendly against Saudi Arabia, he lasted 29 minutes before departing with “muscle tightness”.

Holding him in reserve to potentially deliver an offensive spark was a logical course, under those circumstances.

It won’t be now. His play against Germany in Saturday’s friendly was promising, and against Ghana it was bordering on phenomenal.

The goal that opened the scoring in the 10th minute demanded calm precision, after a beautiful exchange between right-back Sergino Dest and forward Folarin Balogun led to the latter’s cross into the box and a deflection that placed the ball at Reyna’s feet. He did not waste this opportunity, slamming the ball powerfully into the back of an open net.

The second, which finished the scoring in the 39th minute, represented a dazzling piece of free-kick improvisation among Reyna, Balogun and Christian Pulisic. After a beautiful pass forward from Reyna to Pulisic led to Nicholas Opoku surrendering and covering the ball with his legs inside his own penalty area, the referee determined that to be a dangerous play and awarded an indirect free kick to the USMNT.

The three players discussed how to generate a shot from about 10 yards, with a wall covering much of the goal line, and they conjured the idea of Pulisic tapping it to Balogun, who tapped it back to Pulisic, who settled it for Reyna, who fired it over the wall and into the upper righthand corner. It required remarkable skill and patience not to blast that over the bar.

“The first half was amazing,” winger Tim Weah told Turner Sports. “When you have someone like Gio back and running, his quality is amazing. He brings so much to the team. Everything just came together today.”

Because Reyna was removed at halftime, we did not get to see how he reacted or how he and Berhalter interacted, as we might have had the substitution been made in the 40th or 60th minute. It does not matter if they are cordial, though. What matters is Reyna’s response to the challenge to fight for a significant role in the USMNT.

We all saw that.

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