Gio Reyna’s goals for the next week are simple: Qualify for the World Cup, and stay healthy.
The forward, one of the brightest young stars for the U.S. men’s team, is back with the Americans for the first time since September, when he injured his right hamstring during the first World Cup qualifier. Though his absence lasted longer than Reyna had hoped, his return comes at an ideal time for the Americans, who need to win at least one of their final three qualifiers to clinch a spot at the World Cup in Qatar.
“I just want to help the group,” Reyna said Tuesday. “Our main goal is to go to the World Cup, and that’s what I’m here to help us do.”
Concacaf's top three teams automatically qualify for the World Cup later this year, and the fourth-place finisher goes to a playoff this summer against a team from Oceania. The Americans begin the final qualifying window in second place, but just four points separate them from fourth-place Panama. Costa Rica, which is currently fifth, is another point back.
Of the four teams fighting for the last two automatic spots, the USMNT has the most difficult schedule. The Americans are on the road for two of their three games, beginning Thursday at Mexico’s Azteca Stadium.
They play Panama on Sunday in Orlando, then travel to Costa Rica for a game March 30.
The USMNT has never won a World Cup qualifier at Azteca – heck, it’s only won one game there, period, a 2012 friendly – with the raucous crowd, altitude and air quality, to say nothing of El Tri itself, traditionally presenting an insurmountable challenge. But Azteca won't be as ferocious as usual Thursday, with capacity reduced to about half as the Mexican federation tries to curb its fans' use of a homophobic slur.
Even with a full stadium, Mexico has been decidedly vulnerable at home recently, needing a late goal to beat Jamaica in the first qualifier and drawing with Canada in the next match at Azteca.
El Tri has been decidedly vulnerable against the Americans recently, too.
The USMNT won all three matches against El Tri last year, a first. The Americans beat Mexico for the title in two tournaments, despite using two different squads. Reyna was part of the team that won the Nations League title, scoring the USMNT’s first goal in the 3-2 win.
“Going against them is special,” Reyna said. “I’m not really thinking this time, 'I need to score because we’re playing against Mexico.’ … If I score, it’ll be great. If I get an assist, it’ll be great. If I don’t (get) either and if we win, it’ll be just as great.
“I’m not really focused on that too much,” Reyna added. “I’m more focused on getting three points.”
Still, having Reyna back is a boost. Especially given Monday’s announcement that forward Brenden Aaronson, who has two goals and is the only American to play in all 11 World Cup qualifiers, is out with a knee injury.
The U.S. men will also be without midfielder Weston McKennie, their best player in recent months. McKennie had one of the goals in the USMNT’s 2-0 victory over Mexico –in November.
Reyna’s minutes are likely to be limited, given his long layoff. He injured the hamstring Sept. 2 in El Salvador, and didn’t play again for Dortmund, his club in Germany, until Feb. 6. A setback two weeks later, during his first start, sidelined him for another three weeks.
But after coming on as a substitute in two games, Reyna started and played all 90 minutes Sunday.
“I’ve built up a lot of strength over the last two months, three months. I’m pretty confident in my body at the moment,” Reyna said. “But it was great to get 90 minutes before coming into camp. It gave me a huge boost in confidence, knowing that I can do it now.”
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter has already said he’ll be careful with Reyna’s minutes. Though Berhalter has dismissed the idea of “saving” his best lineup for Panama, a game that is effectively a must-win for the Americans, it would seem to make more sense to sit Reyna, or bring him on as a substitute, against Mexico and then give him more minutes against Panama.
“I probably need a few more weeks before I’m 100 percent fit in terms of running and playing 90 minutes consistently,” said Reyna, who said he had no issues after Sunday’s game.
Though this will be Reyna’s first World Cup qualifier in Mexico – his first game at Azteca, period – he got a taste of the fierceness of the rivalry last summer. He’s also heard the stories from his teammates and, of course, his own father.
Claudio Reyna was the U.S. captain for eight years, and played in the 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cups. The elder Reyna had a hand in both goals in the USMNT’s historic win over El Tri in the round of 16 at the 2002 World Cup.
“He’s told me about it,” the younger Reyna said. “It’s always a really, really good test for us. It’s always a really, really entertaining game for the fans. It’s going to be fun, it’s going to be exciting and there’s a lot to play for. So it’ll be great.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: World Cup qualifying bid at crucial point for USMNT and Gio Reyna