Friday, March 31 2023

DOHA, Qatar — All this talk about the U.S. men’s lack of World Cup experience overlooks the fact this is actually Gio Reyna’s third time at the tournament.

He can’t remember the first one, in 2002, because he was still five months from being born. The second one is pretty fuzzy, too, though he’s seen photos of him and his dad, longtime U.S. captain Claudio Reyna, after games and at trainings during the World Cup in Germany.

There are even a couple of photos of a 3-year-old Gio with one of his dad’s teammates, a guy who happens to be the U.S. coach now.

“You don’t really understand it until you get to a certain age,” Gio Reyna said of his father. “I’d have these tournaments, and everyone would come up to him asking for pictures. I was a little bit lost.

“I understood that he was a professional soccer player, but I didn’t know what that meant and what it takes to get there.”

The younger Reyna has a keen understanding of it now, one brought into even sharper focus by a hamstring injury that kept him off the field for much of the last 15 months.

USMNT forward Gio ReynaUSMNT forward Gio Reyna
USMNT forward Gio Reyna

It’s not enough to simply have talent, even if it is the motherlode that Reyna possesses. You need determination and persistence. And, sometimes, patience is more important than anything.

Reyna’s early career trajectory was stratospheric. He started playing for New York City FC’s academy when he was 12 and, at age 14, converted a penalty kick to give the club’s Under-16 team the title at the Generation Adidas Cup. He also was named the tournament’s best player.

That same year, Reyna scored the game-winner against England for the U.S. U-15 team in the championship of a significant international tournament.

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Reyna signed with Dortmund when he was 16, and became the youngest American to play in a Bundesliga game at 17 years and 66 days – more than two months earlier than Christian Pulisic. Two weeks before his 18th birthday, he started his first Champions League game, the youngest American ever to do so.

He made his USMNT debut the day before his 18th birthday and, four days later, scored his first goal.

Two years before the World Cup in Qatar, it was clear Reyna would be a central figure in this young generation that hopes to transform the USMNT.

“Gio’s special, man,” USMNT teammate Tim Weah said. “Off the field, Gio is really mellow and quiet and chill. When he gets on the field, he’s lovely to watch. His technical ability is lovely to watch.”

But in the first World Cup qualifier, at El Salvador in September 2021, Reyna came off early in the second half with a hamstring injury. It would be February before he’d return to the field and, even then, it would be fleeting.

In Reyna’s third game back, he tweaked the hamstring and missed another three weeks. He returned in time to help the USMNT secure a place at the World Cup in late March, but played just two more games with Dortmund before aggravating the hamstring and ending his season.

In a year’s span, he would make just 14 appearances between club and country.

“It’s hard to stay positive,” Reyna acknowledged. “The last injury … was pretty much torn as bad as you can tear it.”

While Reyna said he never worried he would miss the World Cup, he also was deliberate in his last rehab to ensure there would be no more setbacks. Once he finally got healthy, he wanted to stay healthy.

He returned to Dortmund on Aug. 20, and was part of the USMNT roster for two September friendlies. He’s played limited minutes, logging more than 80 just once, in a Champions League game against Manchester City late last month. That game also marked the first time he’d played 65 minutes-plus in back-to-back appearances.

“I’m feeling good, feeling strong,” Reyna said Wednesday. “Obviously I’m still managing a few things, but yeah, I’m ready to help the team here.”

And help the Americans, he will.

Reyna’s technical ability, as Weah said, is superb. Though he didn’t score, his 14-touch run against Mexico in a March qualifier was breathtaking. Reyna evaded six challenges, weaving his way across the field with ease, grace and speed.

In addition to that next-level skill, Reyna gives the USMNT swagger. He is confident without being arrogant, recognizing what he’s capable of and refusing to do or settle for less.

“He has that demeanor about him when he steps on the field, he changes. And then his change brings energy and quality and ability to everyone around him,” goalkeeper Matt Turner said. “For a young kid, he’s a leader on the team. I don’t think he knows that yet, but I can see it in him.”

That Reyna would be a leader of the USMNT shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. After all, Claudio was the captain of two World Cup teams, including the 2002 squad that reached the quarterfinals, and on the USMNT roster for two more. (Mother Danielle won four NCAA titles at North Carolina.)

Reyna might not remember much of his father’s playing career, but he’s been around the highest levels of the game his entire life and has absorbed the lessons. And though Claudio doesn’t talk much about his career, Gio Reyna said the one tournament he does is that 2002 World Cup, when the USMNT shocked the world and nearly upset Germany.

The world took a different view of U.S. soccer after that World Cup. Reyna and his teammates want to shake up assumptions again.

“We have a lot of confidence within our group. We have a goal, and we want to be successful,” Reyna said. “If we want to prove to the world that Americans can really play, we’ve got to show it on the world stage. What better stage than the World Cup?”

It certainly would make it one to remember.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gio Reyna, healthy again, could change USMNT’s World Cup path


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