At the end of a hellish year of injury heartbreak, Gio Reyna, the most promising teenager in American soccer, looked to finally be on course for the 2022 World Cup.
He'd returned to Borussia Dortmund's lineup, and was dishing out Champions League assists. He showed flashes of his talent with the U.S. men's national team last Friday against Japan, and again on Tuesday against Saudi Arabia.
But then, less than 30 minutes into the game against the Saudis, he tapped the ball out of bounds, gave way to a substitute, and walked straight down the tunnel. Head coach Gregg Berhalter followed him.
Berhalter said after the match that Reyna "felt some tightness" in his hamstring.
He and U.S. Soccer said the substitution was "precautionary," but it nonetheless overshadowed the USMNT's final pre-World Cup friendly, an underwhelming 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia. It also sparked concern — because the World Cup is less than two months away, but also because Reyna's hamstring has, over the past 12-plus months, been the primary obstacle between him and the upper echelons of global soccer.
— Mario Reinoso (@MarioReinoso17) September 27, 2022
Gio Reyna's injury history
Reyna, the son of former USMNT captain Claudio, broke into the Dortmund first team at age 17. He quickly announced himself as one of the brightest young talents in men's soccer — not just in the U.S., but worldwide. He established himself as a national team regular in 2021, and scored in perhaps the biggest win of the Berhalter era to date, the 2021 CONCACAF Nations League final.
He entered the 2021-22 club season as an 18-year-old rising star. But a hamstring injury in a September World Cup qualifier sidelined him until February. Shortly after returning, another injury sent him down a tunnel in tears. That injury turned out to be less significant than feared. But two months later, in early April, a torn hamstring ended his season, and broke his spirits again.
It kept him out of the USMNT's training camp in May and June. It didn't full heal until the 2022-23 preseason. Dortmund eased him back into competitive games, and by the time he arrived the USMNT's September camp, he hadn't gone longer than 70 minutes.
But he seemed to be over the injury. He made his season debut on Aug. 20. He played 68 minutes off the bench against Copenhagen in the Champions League, and recorded two assists.
A week later, he started against Manchester City. He started for the U.S. against Japan, too, and again against the Saudis.
But he was quiet for 28 minutes, and then replaced by Paul Arriola after 29.
An underwhelming USMNT performance
With and without Reyna, the U.S. was toothless. It wasn't dreadful and out of sorts like it had been four days earlier against Japan. But it wasn't dynamic. It wasn't dangerous in and around the penalty area. It created just 0.5 Expected Goals and, for the sixth time in its last seven games against World Cup foes, scored zero actual goals.
The #USMNT have one win in their last seven matches against teams going to the 2022 World Cup. They haven’t scored in the other six:
0-0 vs. Saudi Arabia
0-2 vs. Japan
0-0 vs. Uruguay
3-0 vs. Morocco
0-2 vs. Costa Rica
0-0 vs. Mexico
0-2 vs. Canada
— The Analyst US (@OptaAnalystUS) September 27, 2022
Saudi Arabia is perhaps the worst of the 32 teams who'll be in Qatar this November. Its entire squad plays its club soccer in the Saudi Pro League. For most of Tuesday's game, it looked entirely beatable — but the U.S. couldn't beat it.
Berhalter, speaking postgame, cited "timing issues." He felt that his players were "tentative." They produced a few promising attacks down the left, especially in the first half. But they weren't incisive. Ricardo Pepi, with an opportunity to win a spot on the World Cup roster, didn't latch onto any chances.
Like on Friday, there were absences that will mitigate concern. Yunus Musah will, when healthy, bring ball progression. Chris Richards could replace Aaron Long at center back and help with distribution. Tim Weah, who'd likely start ahead of Reyna if both are healthy, will bring a directness that the U.S. otherwise lacks.
But on the whole, the September window, which represented the USMNT's last chance to build together toward Qatar, went just about as poorly as possible for a team that had previously inspired optimism.
"In general, there's not many players that performed up to their normal levels in this camp," Berhalter admitted. "And that's just how it is."