World Cup Daily, Day 11
How Gregg Berhalter handles Gio Reyna against England will be one of the defining moments of his tenure.
In this column:
It’s Reyna Time against England. Does Gregg Berhalter know that?
Good Rivals on the USA-Mexico rivalry is OUT NOW on Prime Video
Thanksgiving in Doha!
The best stuff from Berhalter and Tyler Adams at today’s press conference
DOHA, Qatar — It hit me like a lightning strike right as England’s Jude Bellingham was bossing Iran early in the Three Lions’ 6-2 win on Monday: The first full day of the World Cup was going to be defined by two emerging-star best friends from Borussia Dortmund, Bellingham and the U.S.’s Gio Reyna!
See, I thought the 20-year-old Reyna, the U.S. player at this World Cup with the highest ceiling, was going to start on Monday against Wales. Reyna has been dogged by injuries over the past year, but he got healthy heading into the World Cup, and his creative and ruthless skillset adds something to the U.S. attack that just isn’t there otherwise.
So I was surprised when U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter omitted Reyna from the starting lineup. Still, the player he opted for instead, Tim Weah, obviously came good when he scored a terrific goal to put the U.S. ahead in the first half. The choice of Weah made the coach look smart.
Then in the 66th minute, Berhalter pulled central midfielder Weston McKennie, who was gassed. Another chance for Reyna, who’s probably even better centrally than out wide. And another Berhalter decision to the contrary with Brenden Aaronson coming on instead. (Aaronson, who has been in good form, was fine in his stint.)
But in the 88th minute, when Berhalter pulled Weah and the U.S. was desperately seeking a goal and a moment of invention in any way possible, it was plain to see: Reyna Time. And Berhalter opted instead for Jordan Morris.
Understand, Morris has his qualities and deserves to be at this World Cup. Few things in the USMNT fanbase are more annoying than the dogmatic section that reflexively says MLS player = bad. Berhalter said after the game he chose Morris due to his physicality for the moment. But it didn’t make sense to me then, and it still doesn’t now, that Reyna wasn’t the choice.
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To be clear, there is zero animosity between Berhalter and Reyna. Far from it. Berhalter went to high school with Reyna’s dad, Claudio, and Berhalter’s wife (Rosalind) and Reyna’s mother (Danielle) both played for the legendary soccer program at the University of North Carolina (which Gregg also attended). The families are close. Gregg Berhalter has known Gio Reyna literally since Gio was a baby.
When Berhalter was asked (by Yahoo’s Henry Bushnell) today about omitting Reyna entirely on Monday, the coach said: “I think I was pretty clear after the game saying he was available for the match, and it was a coach’s decision that he didn’t play, and he’ll be available for tomorrow’s match. We’ll see what happens.”
If there were just three substitutes allowed per team per game in this tournament, I might better understand a decision to hesitate on using Reyna. He’s had a habit of being pulled out of games early with injuries for both club and country over the past year. But there are five subs allowed per game at this World Cup, which should render that concern moot.
And the benefits of using Reyna against England, a candidate to win the tournament, could be enormous. Reyna brings an attacking element the U.S. needs. He has the technical ability and the swaggering confidence to try things on the field. He has the ruthless competitiveness to want not just to beat his defender but to destroy him. He plays like someone who thinks he’s the best player on the field against any team he might come up against.
Reyna is young, but he is special. Games like Friday’s against England are an opportunity to help define the USMNT for this tournament and for years to come. Berhalter’s tenure will also be defined by this World Cup and the decisions he makes. I hope he moves Weah to center-forward against England and goes with Reyna out wide from the start.
Happy Thanksgiving! I hope you’re enjoying the holiday with your family and watching a ton of World Cup soccer on TV. I miss being with my family today, but we did have a nice Thanksgiving lunch with turkey and a lot of other stuff at an event hosted by MLS and U.S. Soccer.
Today’s also a big day for another reason: Good Rivals, our three-episode documentary series on the USA-Mexico soccer rivalry, premieres today on Prime Video. I’m in the film and served as a producer conducting a lot of the interviews of the U.S. figures in it. I can’t tell you how proud I am of the year-long project, the defining story of one of the greatest international sports rivalries, which is a co-production of Meadowlark Media, Skydance Sports and Ocellated Media.
The first two episodes are already up! Let me know what you think about them.
What stood out to me from the press conference of Berhalter and Tyler Adams today:
• I asked Adams if the U.S. would welcome a game against England in which they won’t have the majority of the possession and the task of breaking down a low block like it had to do against Wales for much of the time.
“I play for Leeds. Have you seen the way we play?” Adams joked. “But I think that it sets up to our strengths in a way. We feel that one of the qualities and characteristics of our team that we’ve progressed and built over the past three years is our pressing, the amount of guys that we have on the team that can get in and around the ball with our athleticism to cover spaces and cover ground. We play in a very aggressive way against the ball, and that ultimately sets us up to create a lot of transition moments, which you did see against Wales. So we’re going to see how we have to change little variations to how we do things and capitalize on those transition moments.”
• How does Adams see the England game playing out?
“I see the game being a very fast-paced game,” he explained, “if it’s anything obviously like the Premier League and the quality of players that I’ve faced in the Premier League so far. We know that they’re going to be able to counter quickly in transition. They’re going to be good with the ball, against the ball. The defenders obviously speak for themselves. But again, that being said, yeah, we’re going to have to adapt that at certain points in the game, but we think that our strengths play to our advantage in this as well, and it’s going to be a good matchup.”
• Berhalter, from a question by Jeff Carlisle of ESPN, didn’t think the U.S. took advantage of its transition chances against Wales.
“There were opportunities,” he said. “We just didn’t take advantage of them. It’s something we identified yesterday in the postgame meeting. And we need to do a better job of that. Especially those moments where the opponent pushes you back a little, which can happen in the match. We want to be in a high posture, we want to be pressing, but there’s going to be moments where we’re lower on the field, and we have to be able to take advantage of the space behind the defense. And we didn’t do that effectively against Wales.”
• Adams was asked (by Nancy Armour of USA Today) if having more familiarity with English players through club interactions has made England seem less intimidating than it used to be.
“England’s still a big team at the end of the day,” Adams said. “Intimidation factor? I wouldn’t say there’s many things out out there that intimidate me other than spiders. So it’s fine for me to obviously have the opportunity to play against all these big players. I’ve done it before. But we also want to show what we’re capable of and that U.S. Soccer is growing and developing in the right way.”
In other news:
• How many of our subscribers are in Qatar for the World Cup? Would any of you like to do a subscriber meet-up here? Let me know in the comments below.
• I want to apologize for putting the score of the U.S.-Wales game in the headline of the email that post that went out at the final whistle. Some of you are recording these games while you’re at work and got a spoiler as a result. I won’t be putting the scoreline in future headlines.
• As for the cadence of my daily posts from the World Cup, here’s what I’m aiming for: One good written post a day. That includes the 2,000-word magazine-style story I’ll post by 9 am ET the morning after every U.S. game. I’m pretty shattered after finishing those, so you won’t get a World Cup Daily post on days those U.S. stories publish. Hope you understand. I’m red-lining basically every day here as it is!
Get ready for USA-England at the World Cup!
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I get where Adams is coming from with spiders -- too many legs. Why do they need so many legs? But what really worry me are snakes. Not enough legs.
Thanks Grant - totally good with your planned posts, don’t overwork yourself!! Get sleep and find time to enjoy the environment. Also it’d be cool to hear you as a guest on the Totally Football Show
For me, Reyna just didn’t fit the Wales game unless he was a starter. He’s a possession and creation guy and that might’ve made the difference in the first half v Wales - but if there’s a chance he’s not 100% - I’d rather have him v England and v Iran (for 60min maybe) and then have him semi-fresh for a knockout round game. I think maybe Gregg is thinking ahead, which he has to do, within reason. Head coaches are burdened with making decisions for the present and the future at the same time.