DUSSELDORF, Germany — Giovanni Reyna comes into the room. He sits down. He leans back in his chair and, after maybe 30 seconds of small talk, he says, “Listen, I don’t want to look back in the past. At all.” He smiles.
Reyna isn’t being unreasonable. He has had, by any measure, a brutal year. There was a hamstring. There was a thigh. There was a hamstring. There was a tweak. There was an illness. There was a twinge. Reyna is still only 19, but he has already had a taste of middle age, the injuries seemingly never stopping. Reyna missed 34 of Borussia Dortmund‘s past 45 matches and 15 of the past 19 for the United States in the past 12 months. Watching that much soccer when you should be playing? Reyna withered. He wilted.
So it makes sense that he wants to look ahead. With the World Cup just eight weeks away, Reyna is finally healthy. He and his coaches, including U.S. boss Gregg Berhalter, are being careful not to overdo his workload too soon, but of the very (very) few positives for the United States that came out of Friday’s 2-0 loss to Japan in Dusseldorf, Reyna’s first start for the Americans since last September was significant.
Reyna was hardly amazing. No one on the U.S., save for goalkeeper Matt Turner, had anything close to an excellent performance against Japan. Any team that fails to register a shot on goal despite having nearly 60% possession deserves the criticism it receives.
Reyna did show flashes, though. The best chance for the U.S. came in the first half, when he pinged a pass to set up Sergino Dest ripping down the edge before crossing to Jesus Ferreira directly in front of goal. That Ferreira weakly headed over was unfortunate, but the passage of play leading up to it was exactly what fans (and Berhalter) have been craving.
So, too, was the sequence when Reyna took the ball in his own half and went on a run, cutting in and out of defenders and moving the U.S., all on his own, into the attacking third. In the past, Berhalter has typically used Reyna out wide, but he acknowledged this week that he sees the value of Reyna’s on-the-ball skill in a more central role. Against Japan, Reyna completed 9 of 11 passes, 3 of 4 within the attacking third, and registered two progressive carries and one progressive pass (events in the opposition half that progress the ball toward goal by five or ten yards, respectively). It seems almost inevitable that Reyna will end up more in the middle in games when the U.S. needs to push the pace.
“You don’t really say it like this in soccer, but I guess my playmaking abilities can hurt the other team,” Reyna says. “Like, in basketball or football, when someone has a ball, you can kind of create something from nothing or create chances. And I think that’s what I can do, whether it’s for a dribble or with a pass or combining — I think I’m able to do a bit of everything. And that’s just what what I love to do.”
It is what his father, Claudio, did, too. On Friday, Gio wore No. 21 instead of No. 7, an homage to his dad, a national team legend who wore 21 for the U.S. at the 1998 World Cup in France.
It was an intriguing choice. Family legacy has been a perpetual question for Gio since he was an academy player (his mother, Danielle Egan, also played for the U.S. on the women’s national team), and it contributes to the heavy expectations that linger over him.
Generally then, Reyna shies away from talking much about his parents or siblings. But earlier this week, when he did — despite his initial vow — allow himself to think more deeply about what he went through in the past 12 months, he shook his head when talking about needing his family to help him through the most difficult moments.
“I had some really, really tough days,” Reyna says. “Some really, really, you know — don’t want to do anything, kind of just sit in my room all day. Don’t want to go outside. Not in the mood to talk to my friends.”
He shrugs. “It’s frustrating, you know? You’re missing games, you’re missing trainings, you’re back in America when you should be in Dortmund playing.”
To their credit, Reyna says, Dortmund allowed him to return to the United States for part of his rehab, which helped, at least from the mental side. Being around positivity from his family — and not having to see, up close, all that was happening without him in Germany — allowed him to focus on what he needed to do instead of what he was missing. Berhalter, who checked in regularly, says he learned very quickly that Reyna had a strong preference about how their conversations should go.
“He was one of those guys who, after a little while, didn’t want to talk about his injury at all,” Berhalter says. “His eyes were forward. That was it.”
Now the question is how Reyna avoids what he (and everyone around the U.S. team) fears: A relapse. Another knock. Another run where he pulls up.
Reyna says he constantly worked to strengthen his legs during his rehab process, but he has no plans to change his style or approach when he’s on the field. He wants to be — and has been waiting to be — the driving force that the U.S. will need in Qatar.
“I’ve played in the Champions League,” Reyna says. “And the only thing that really is kind of on my bucket list as a kid — since I first started watching soccer — is to play in a World Cup with the USA.”
He laughs. “It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” he says. “I’m sure it will probably closer to the first game but I’m just so excited. It’s going to be a great experience for all of us.”