Perhaps it’s a sign that the USMNT is moving into the big time that they hold their big controversies until after the tournament than before. We’ve been through Jürgen Klinsmann keeping Landon Donovan at home in 2014 simply to show everyone what a brain genius he was. Or John Harkes way back when. This time around, the mishegas came after, showing that enough people care to dig through and do a postmortem.
Last night, it started to drip out on Twitter that speaking at a conference, the HOW Institute for Society’s Summit on Moral Leadership in New York last Tuesday (whatever that is), Gregg Berhalter referenced a problem the US had at the World Cup, without naming the player causing it. He mentioned he had one player that simply wasn’t trying during practice, and was being something of a baby. The coaches had even gotten to the point of deciding to send said player home, despite the controversy it would have caused. Imagine how aggressively at zero that player’s give-a-shit meter would have to be to earn that, with no chance of replacement.
Berhalter and his staff backed off of that, giving the player an ultimatum and making him apologize in front of the entire team for his behavior. Which, to be fair, he did, and then he had to sit through the rest of the team basically telling him he’d been a fuckhead and he’d better shape up. And that appeared to be the end of it.
The Athletic’s Sam Stejskal and Paul Tenorio then broke a story later in the evening that it was in fact Gio Reyna who had taken the fuckhead cap.
As these things tend to do, it broke US fans and media into factions and splinter cells, with everyone having their opinion on how it should have been handled. What is true for everyone is that it is different than Berhalter handled a violation of team rules by Weston McKennie in September of 2021 during qualifying in Nashville, where McKennie was sent home directly with no chance to apologize to teammates and save himself.
However, that was a different time and different situation. One, it was at the beginning of qualifying, when Berhalter was still very much establishing the atmosphere and culture that the USMNT would operate under. That was more of a “This is how it’s going to be for everyone” maneuver. Second, September 2021 was still a time very much just coming out of, or still in, COVID protocols (if we have ever exited it). McKennie going out searching in Nashville for… well, y’know, and bringing whatever he found back to the hotel put himself and his teammates at risk. Given the time and place, it was a bigger violation than Reyna’s.
And even with all of that, Berhalter did his best to cover for Reyna after the Wales game, telling the media that he didn’t come on because of some injury concerns, instead of telling the world that quite simply, Reyna had punted away his opportunity through his own actions. Reyna didn’t let that lie of course, because Eric Wynalda went off about internal strife and that Berhalter was lying, and he got that from somewhere, as well as Reyna himself telling the press he was 100 percent.
At the end of the day, as talented as Reyna is — and he’s probably the most talented player on the USMNT roster — his big mistake was thinking that would buy him a huge margin for error. It doesn’t for a couple reasons. One, Reyna was barely around during qualifying, starting only one game throughout the 14-game process. He just hadn’t carved out a role in the starting 11 or the chemistry with his teammates to think he deserved to stroll into a starting spot. Second, he plays in the only positions where the US has actual depth. Tim Ream can come in from the cold and start all four games at centerback, because the US doesn’t have anyone else. But in the wide attacking spots? There’s Pulisic, Weah, and Aaronson. If it was even a thought to put Reyna in midfield, it’s not like he’s got a much better case than Musah or McKennie. If Reyna was a genuine No. 9, maybe then he could get away with acting like a petulant child. The US wouldn’t have a choice. He was a pissbaby while playing in a spot with alternatives. It’s a poor strategy.
It is a checkmark in Berhalter’s book that he had created an atmosphere for this team that Reyna’s antics didn’t cause much of a ripple to the rest of the team, as it’s been generally thought that everyone is friends with each other, and that Reyna’s teammates weren’t afraid to hold him accountable as well. We’ve seen this kind of thing rip teams apart during the tournament before when managers didn’t have such a grip on things (we present France 2010 as evidence). Especially as this was such a young team. This wasn’t Reyna fucking up in front of a host of established veterans who have accomplished way more than he has and can big dick him. These were his peers, and yet there was a standard set anyway that he didn’t live up to and the promise of his skills wasn’t enough to buy him a get out of jail free card.
The lesson for Berhalter in all of this is that nothing is ever off the record, not these days. But it’s hard to see how this damages too much, if he keeps the job for longer. All the other players were in step with him on this, and they’ll also notice how Berhalter covered for Reyna during the tournament anyway. Maybe talking about it after will cause a raised eyebrow or two, but that can be gotten past. But again, Berhalter didn’t mention Reyna by name at this seminar or whatever it was, and only reporters were able to dig it out. That’s their job.
McKennie recovered from his indiscretion, and Berhalter has never used or cited it again. Reyna will too, whether it’s under Berhalter or another manager. It’s another example of what Berhalter did well for this team, nor does it change the debate about whether or not that’s enough to outweigh what he doesn’t do well (i.e. in-game management). This is the game at this level, and the US are knee deep in it now.