Soccer  

Gio Reyna embodies USMNT squad

AL-RAYYAN, Qatar — As he dealt with a series of injury setbacks over the past year that significantly limited his availability for the United States men’s national team and his club, Borussia Dortmund, Giovanni Reyna insists his World Cup availability was never in doubt.

“I always knew I was going to be ready for this moment,” he said on Wednesday. “I think it was always in the back of my head to make sure I was ready for the World Cup. I’m feeling good. I’m feeling strong. Obviously, still managing a few things. It’s going to take time, but I’m ready to help the team.”

Reyna, then 18 years old, figured to play a major role when the U.S. started World Cup qualifying in September 2021. He had established himself as key player for Dortmund after breaking through in January 2020 — playing 69 competitive matches for the club in that span — and had already been capped eight times by U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter.

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But in the first game of qualifying — a 0-0 draw with El Salvador — Reyna suffered a right hamstring injury that derailed his fast track to stardom. He played just 220 minutes in the Bundesliga for Dortmund the rest of the season as he was slow to regain full health, and was limited to just three more appearances for the U.S. in qualifying. It was a frustrating road back.

“You try to look for these little steps that you try to make along the rehab process that you can try to build on to the next step,” Reyna said.

The most recent steps have been encouraging. Although Dortmund have exercised a cautious approach with him this season, Reyna has made 16 appearances — including five in the Champions League — with four of those coming in a nine-day span leading into the World Cup break.

Reyna’s availability represents the biggest source of optimism for the U.S. in attempting to solve the attacking issues that have plagued the team for much of the past year. For as much young talent that this team has, they have not played together enough to generate a real sense of what to expect.

Since Reyna made his national team debut in a friendly against Wales in 2020, the U.S. have played 37 games in all competitions. In those games, Reyna and Christian Pulisic — two of the team’s most talented attacking players — have appeared together just eight times. The 371 minutes they’ve spent on the field at the same time accounts for only about 11% of the total minutes the team have played in that span.

“We haven’t been able to be on the field as much as we’d like the last year because obviously injuries, but before that we had some really good games where we combined pretty well together,” Pulisic said. “We’re looking forward to getting on the field together and not only us. Obviously, it’s nine more of the guys on the field who we’re all gonna need to help out.”

As the team prepare for their first game against Wales on Monday, Berhalter has some interesting lineup decisions to make. By force of luck, this is as healthy as the team have been in his entire tenure — especially in the midfield and attack.

Looking at the front six, there figures to be just two players — Pulisic and defensive midfielder Tyler Adams — who are guaranteed to start against Wales. After that, Berhalter has some interesting decisions to make.

With Pulisic on the left wing, it will be either Reyna or Timothy Weah on the right to start (with whoever starts on the bench as the first sub). It’s a good problem to have. At times, Weah was the team’s most dangerous player in qualifying, and his ability to stretch the field into the right corner and send in crosses is a valuable asset. Reyna is stronger on the ball and more likely to get inside and maintain possession.

In the midfield, Valencia’s Yunus Musah, Juventus’ Weston McKennie and Leeds United’s Brenden Aaronson are all strong options. Musah is close to a lock starter and ordinarily McKennie would likely be penciled in, too. However, since a minor injury has ruled McKennie out since Oct. 29, the possibility of Aaronson starting has increased. Independent of McKennie’s injury, the Philadelphia Union academy graduate’s form for Leeds has been impressive enough to warrant starting consideration. Reyna could also played centrally, but Berhalter has strictly used him on the wing.

Up front, anything is possible. There is a case for all three strikers — Josh Sargent, Jesus Ferreira and Haji Wright — with none of them having done enough to establish himself as the de facto starter.

“You’ve seen some teams struggling with [injury] and to have a lot of the guys healthy is great,” Pulisic said. “It almost feels like we haven’t had this entire group of guys in healthy at one time a lot of the time. For sure good timing and we have a good enough team to do well here.”

The convergence of health prevents one obvious issue: familiarity. Had there been a full training camp to lead up to the World Cup, it would have been less of an issue, but this group has essentially one week — without a friendly — to get on the same page.

“I think in the end we have enough time,” Reyna said. “At least from when I got here was Saturday night, so that is nine, ten days leading up until the first game. I feel like all of us kind of have enough time to get used to the heat and everything here. We can’t really let that excuse trickle in for us.”