Gregg Berhalter did nothing wrong.
Not recently, anyway.
And the parents of national soccer team winger Gio Reyna? Well, they’re selfish jerks who should have known better.
Those, basically, are the findings of a 10-week probe by an Atlanta law firm hired by U.S. Soccer. The firm examined the origins of a sad, sordid and embarrassing soap opera involving Berhalter, former — and perhaps future — coach of the U.S. team, and the parents of one of his star players.
Now the federation, which released that report Monday, says it’s time to move on. Yet the damage the unnecessary drama caused could take months if not years to repair.
To recap, Berhalter, coach of the national team since 2018, told Gio Reyna on the eve of last fall’s World Cup that he would have a limited role in the tournament. The player took the news poorly and pouted, forcing teammates and coaches to step in and address his attitude; Reyna eventually apologized but the water didn’t stay under the bridge.
Days after the World Cup, Berhalter spoke at a leadership conference in New York where he shared an anecdote about an unnamed player whose behavior in Qatar had been so disruptive the coaching staff discussed sending him home. Media reports later identified that player as Reyna, who played just 52 minutes in the tournament.
That’s when things really went off the rails.
In response Gio’s parents, Claudio and Danielle Reyna, both former national team players, texted Earnie Stewart, then technical director for U.S. Soccer, to complain about Berhalter. According to the report from Alston & Bird, Stewart later had an hourlong phone conversation during which Danielle Reyna told Stewart of a 31-year-old physical altercation between Berhalter and Rosalind Santana, her college roommate and the woman who would later become Berhalter’s wife.
The incident was never reported to police and the Reynas were not intending to make it public but, according to the report “they were thinking about starting to spread the story to others privately.”
Kind of sounds like blackmail, huh? But it also follows a pattern. According to the Alston & Bird investigation, a person whose name has been redacted from the report remembered Danielle Reyna, speaking of Berhalter at an event during the World Cup, saying “Once this tournament is over, I can make one phone call and give one interview, and his cool sneakers and bounce passes will be gone.”
The message, the unidentified witness told investigators, was that Berhalter’s “cool guy” image could quickly end and Danielle Reyna could “take him down.”
It’s important to pause here and consider the player at the center of this drama. Gio Reyna, 20, is a dynamic and talented athlete who could grow into one of the top U.S. players of all time. But he’s also injury prone, having played a full 90 minutes just once in 16 appearances for the national team. And 11 of his 15 Bundesliga appearances for Borussia Dortmund this season have been as a substitute.
He’s used to coming off the bench. He’s effective coming off the bench. So Berhalter’s plan to use him coming off the bench in Qatar made sense. But even if it didn’t, he’s the coach and the call is his — something Claudio Reyna, a four-time World Cup player and former team captain, certainly knows.
Yet the elder Reyna repeatedly used his status within U.S. Soccer to seek favorable treatment for his son. Beginning in 2016 and running through the 2022 World Cup, the report says, Reyna protested to U.S. Soccer officials about his son’s playing time, penalties and suspensions his son received, and selection decisions for U.S. Soccer camps in an attempt to change those outcomes. The complaints were particularly troubling coming from a man who replaced Stewart as captain during the 2002 World Cup and wore the armband for the U.S. in its next seven World Cup matches.
Berhalter, by the way, played next to Reyna in two of those games.
If there is any good to come out of this drama it’s that U.S. Soccer has pledged to rewrite its policies to include language defining inappropriate parental conduct and communications with the national team. In the short term, however, that can’t erase the massive damage the Reynas’ personal vendetta has caused — both to themselves and the national program they once played for.
Claudio Reyna, 49, once considered one of the best sporting directors in MLS, resigned his position with Austin FC in January and is listed on the club’s website as a technical advisor. For the young, talented USMNT, meanwhile, the momentum it gained in the last four years has been halted, if not reversed. Although Berhalter publicly acknowledged and apologized for the 1991 altercation with the woman who is now his wife, and the investigation U.S. Soccer ordered into the incident cleared the coach, his contract expired three weeks after the Reynas’ first phone call with Stewart and the controversy that conversation engendered necessarily delayed the federation’s decision on a new manager.
Stewart’s subsequent decision to leave U.S. Soccer and return to his native Netherlands last month has delayed that decision even further because his replacement as technical director will need to be hired before a new manager can be chosen. That leaves the national team rudderless heading into a World Cup cycle that will end with the tournament being played in the U.S.
More importantly, the mudslinging has unfairly tarnished the reputation of Berhalter, a good and decent man who, by the way, has the best winning percentage of any USMNT coach who has worked more than two games. Virtually every player on the World Cup team has spoken favorably of Berhalter, 49, who is expected to be a candidate to return as coach whenever the selection process for that job begins.
That might not happen until the summer though, leaving the U.S. to play under caretaker coach Anthony Hudson in this spring’s Nations League and this summer’s Gold Cup.
Hudson is among those who are ready to move on. Later this week he’ll announce his roster for this month’s Nations League games with Grenada and El Salvador and why he didn’t say Gio Reyna will be on that team, he didn’t say he wouldn’t be either.
“He is a talented, important player, a young player,” Hudson said after a recent meeting with Reyna in Germany. “This happened. Us as a staff made a decision to take action and there was a response from the player — a positive response. Beyond that, I don’t see Gio’s involvement in anything.
“I’m not condoning anything that’s happened. … The other stuff is separate from the kid, from the player.”
⚽ You have read the latest installment of On Soccer with Kevin Baxter. The weekly soccer column will take you behind the scenes and shine a spotlight on unique stories. Look for it every Tuesday morning at latimes.com/soccer.