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Monday, March 4, 2024

Gio Reyna is back; an undroppable forward line: five things we learned from USMNT

Gio Reyna is back; an undroppable forward line: five things we learned from USMNT


Reyna reigns

This is why it’s worth Gregg Berhalter and Gio Reyna resolving – or at least suppressing – their well publicized differences. The 20-year-old with the dazzling blond hair scored twice in a scintillating first half in Tuesday’s friendly with Ghana, his first goals for the USMNT since June 2021.

Until he was replaced at half-time, the Borussia Dortmund attacker was at the center of events, literally and figuratively, as he basked in the space afforded to him in the middle of the field by a Ghana team that couldn’t handle the US’s speed and movement.

He looked happy. Of course, as Fleetwood Mac noted in 1977, “players only love you when they’re playing.” Managing the oft-injured Reyna when he’s healthy, in the starting lineup and scoring is not going to be the hard part for Berhalter, even if tension lingers between them after last year’s family feud. The challenge will be to integrate Reyna in a way that produces results against far better sides than Ghana, fitting the nonconformist into the system.

The best American performance at the 2022 World Cup, the goalless draw with England, came when Reyna was used only as a late substitute and the team was disciplined and defensively tight – not qualities readily associated with the off-the-cuff playmaker. He lent a spark to the attack in the first half of last Saturday’s 3-1 friendly loss to Germany, his first game under Berhalter since last year’s ill-starred tournament, but that came at the expense of some solidity in a midfield sorely missing the injured Tyler Adams.

As in the 3-1 loss to the Netherlands in the round of 16 in Qatar, when the US tried to play an open and expansive style against a leading European power, they were outclassed: overrun in midfield and exposed at the back.

“The organization of defending in and around the penalty box has to be there,” Berhalter told reporters on Monday. “It’s not about the back four. It’s about collectiveness. It’s about seven players, eight players getting into position, having those good lines that’s difficult to break through.”

It remains to be seen whether Berhalter can sculpt tactics that prominently incorporate Reyna while keeping a clean sheet against a World Cup contender. In a squad already stacked with exciting attacking talent, Reyna’s flair may prove essential in lifting the US to a new level. Or a front three might be able to threaten without needing a supporting attacker. One of the nation’s most gifted players can even be an indulgence if the shrewdest path to victory is for the Americans to embrace the grind, know their limits, and play an extra defensive midfielder.

“Gio got two goals and, besides the goals, it was how he brings players into the attack, how he is able to be calm on the ball. He gives us that calm and that poise that we need at times, but then is decisive when making final passes,” Berhalter told reporters after the game.

The head coach praised Reyna’s attitude and his defensive commitment, seemingly opening the door to a regular starting place: “He had a very strong camp, a great mindset, great training sessions. To me, it’s not only the offensive stuff that he did. Tonight is more of what he does and what he did off the ball. I think it was relentless work. We talked about that before the game, relentless work-rate defensively, and he certainly did that. It was a good step for us.”

International window of two halves

Was Berhalter happy at half-time, with his side 4-0 up? Surely, but you wouldn’t have known it from his brief pitchside interview with TNT reporter Melissa Ortiz. “There’s been some good stuff but it’s really about staying focused and disciplined,” said the head coach, brow responsibly furrowed, lips cautiously tightened as he stayed focused on giving boilerplate answers after perhaps the most exhilarating first 45 minutes of his 70-match USMNT managerial career.

If Berhalter had mixed emotions it was understandable. On the one hand, a convincing win was important to restore some confidence after the setback last Saturday. “We learned a lot of lessons against Germany,” Folarin Balogun said on TNT. “We had a lot of meetings and we decided we wanted to have a reaction tonight.”

But this was so easy that, as with last month’s friendlies against Uzbekistan and Oman, it was hard to meaningfully assess the newer players.

The US were as hungry as Ghana were hapless, surging into a 3-0 lead midway through the first half with a goal from Reyna, a penalty from Christian Pulisic and a neat finish from Balogun before Reyna grabbed his second six minutes before the break. While the pressing and pace were admirable, all four goals stemmed from defensive errors.

Left back Kristoffer Lund and midfielder Johnny Cardoso were sound but the second half was a non-event, making it hard to judge debutant Lenny Maloney, a 24-year-old Berlin-born Heidenheim midfielder who came off the bench in the 65th minute.

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Folarin Balogun had 17 touches without a shot against Germany, but found the back of the net vs. Ghana. Photograph: Adam Glanzman/USSF/Getty Images for USSF

Striking choice

The center back slots appear up for grabs. For one thing, it’s hard to imagine that Tim Ream, who started against Germany, will feature in the 2026 World Cup. He will be 38 years old by the time the World Cup rolls around. Upfront, however, the trio of Pulisic, Tim Weah and Balogun look undroppable. Balogun was relatively quiet against Germany, not least because his teammates failed to supply him with chances, but was lively against Ghana, with four of his five shots on target, and scored his third goal in his sixth US appearance with a sharp turn and shot.

Ricardo Pepi is Balogun’s rival to start at center forward in next month’s Concacaf Nations League quarter-final in Austin, with qualification for the 2024 Copa America on the line. But he was unfortunate in only seeing action during a flat second half against Ghana, when the US eased off. Ghana improved and he failed to muster a shot. After a hot start to the season with PSV Eindhoven and two goals for the US last month, Pepi is now without a goal in his past five matches.

That empty feeling inside

Abject from the first minute, Ghana looked as if they’d rather be elsewhere. That was the case for the vast majority of Nashville residents, since Geodis Park was nearly half empty.

A crowd of 18,468 was a curiously modest attendance in a metropolitan area of more than two million people that unsuccessfully bid to host 2026 World Cup games and has a popular MLS club. Nor are Ghana – who qualified for four of the past five World Cups and have had memorable tussles with the US – unappealing opponents.

This was the USMNT’s maiden visit to Geodis Park and their first trip to Nashville since 2021, when 43,028 saw a 1-1 draw with Canada at Nissan Stadium. Tickets were relatively affordable, with some available for about $40. After a 37,743 full house against Germany in East Hartford, Connecticut, despite many seats costing well over $100, this was a reminder that games are a hard sell to the general public outside a World Cup cycle unless the opposition is star-studded.

The Germany loss drew 594,000 English-language viewers on TNT – only 97,000 more people than watched Wales against Argentina that morning in the Rugby World Cup. The day’s top-rated sports broadcast, the Oregon-Washington college football clash, had a television audience of seven million on the same afternoon.

Head-turner

On a night when goalscorers took the spotlight it would be remiss not to mention US goalkeeper Matt Turner, who had virtually nothing to do but still made one of the greatest saves of his international career, leaping to his right to deny Mohammed Kudus in the first half. Especially with Turner playing regularly for Nottingham Forest, goalkeeper is one position that Berhalter doesn’t have to fret about.





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