With Gio Reyna pulling strings, USMNT bests Canada for CONCACAF Nations League title

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JUNE 18: Gio Reyna #7 of the United States holds off Stephen Eustaquio #7 of Canada during the 2023 CONCACAF Nations League Final at Allegiant Stadium on June 18, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Candice Ward/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)
Gio Reyna dished out two assists Sunday, and amid renewed drama, he broke a USMNT program record at just 20 years old. (Photo by Candice Ward/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

PARADISE, Nev. — Gio Reyna sauntered toward the ball and changed the 2023 CONCACAF Nations League final with one sweep of his right boot.

For months, he’d been the most enigmatic, controversial U.S. men’s national team player. For 72 hours, he’d been the heightened center of attention after the coach he clashed with, and whom his parents tried to bring down, regained the USMNT job. Amid the cacophonous external noise, Reyna has stayed quiet.

But when he stepped onto pristine soccer fields this week in Vegas, he came alive. On Sunday, he showed why he’s such an integral piece of the USMNT’s future. He dished two assists and conducted a 2-0 victory over Canada, which earned the U.S. a second consecutive Nations League title.

With hair bleached blond and swagger oozing, Reyna pulled strings from his midfield position with remarkable ease. He spun Canadian counterparts in circles. He directed traffic with his hands, eyes and precocious footballing brain.

And he unlocked a somewhat bolted game, first with a skill that the USMNT had sorely missed in his absence. He served an out-swinging corner up to a perfect far-post location, and Chris Richards attacked it with gusto.

The U.S., even with physical prowess littered across the field, had been frustratingly impotent on corners and free kicks in 2022. Gregg Berhalter, the rehired coach who'd largely opted against playing an oft-injured Reyna, admitted as much Friday, when asked for his reflections on the previous four years.

"I didn't think we were good enough on attacking set pieces in the last World Cup, that's definitely an area of opportunity," Berhalter said.

Less than 60 hours later, Reyna provided the instant solution. His deliveries were often majestic, far more precise than Christian Pulisic's ever are. Even from dead balls near midfield, Reyna waved his teammates forward, and lofted diagonals that led to half-chances.

But he also conjured magic from open play. On 34 minutes, he sprung forward onto a Tim Weah header, and thousands inside Allegiant Stadium rose, expecting Reyna to shoot. Instead, he slid a flawlessly timed through-ball to Folarin Balogun, who held off a defender and stung the back of the net, for his first USMNT goal.

From there, Reyna began feeling himself. He'd spent much of Thursday's win over Mexico feeling his way into the game, but not anymore. Now he was in rhythm, thinking a step ahead of his 21 peers. He made passes because he'd already seen the subsequent pass. He drifted in and out of spaces, from midfield out to the left touchline, then back inside to the right. He floated with a freedom that Berhalter rarely afforded him.

And he offered precisely what this USMNT had so often lacked under Berhalter, who'd preferred a ferocious, athletic "MMA" midfield — Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams. They'd provided structure and defensive shields, combativeness and control, but only limited creativity going forward.

Reyna lasted only 45 minutes. He picked up a double-knock late in the first half, which resulted in a calf injury. He hobbled about for the rest of the half, then departed, limping, at halftime.

His teammates, by far the best collection of talent in CONCACAF, and perhaps the best the U.S. has ever seen, took the baton from there. The back four were solid as ever. Weah and Pulisic were active and disciplined, attacking but also controlling Canada's counterattacking threat.

But Reyna had already played his part, the most crucial part.

At just 20 years old, he'd already set a USMNT program record for the most goals and assists in tournament finals, surpassing Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey.

In those 45 minutes, in a few sparkling moments, in a half-empty stadium, he'd propelled the USMNT to yet another trophy, and cemented his place in this team, coaching friction be damned.

"He's a great player," a champagne-soaked Pulisic said postgame. "And he's gonna help us moving forward. No matter who the coach is."

Berhalter, upon being renamed head coach, acknowledged Friday "that there's work to do" to repair the relationship with Reyna. But he committed to doing that work. Reyna, two days later, showed why Berhalter must.

"I wanna get the best out of him, we wanna get the best out of him," Berhalter said. "And we know that if we can unlock his talents, he's gonna be a game-changer for this program."