AL RAYYAN, Qatar — The U.S. men’s national team is better with Gio Reyna. Christian Pulisic said as much earlier this week. Common sense says as much whenever Reyna steps onto a field. And so, naturally, the quizzical looks and questions spread through the Ahmed bin Ali stadium on Monday night when Reyna did not get off the bench in a World Cup-opening 1-1 draw with Wales.
An hour later, Reyna and U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter offered somewhat conflicting answers to those questions.
Berhalter mentioned “a little bit of [muscle] tightness that we were guarding against.”
Reyna acknowledged the tightness, but told Yahoo Sports that he “definitely felt 100% going into today.”
When asked if he expected to play, he said: “I mean, you never know, you can't say if you're going to or not, but I was definitely excited to play.”
Reyna, who turned 20 last weekend, has had a hellish 14 months of muscle injuries. Ever since he returned from two serious hamstring strains this past summer, he has been easing back toward peak fitness with Borussia Dortmund. He still wasn’t quite there entering the World Cup. He’s “still managing a few things, it's gonna take time,” he said Wednesday. But he said that same day: “I'm feeling good, I'm feeling strong.”
Over the month leading up to the World Cup, he’d played 66 minutes in a Bundesliga match, then 86 minutes three days later in the Champions League. He played 30 minutes four days after that, then 62 minutes four days after that. He concluded with 66, 30 and 45 minutes on two days of rest each.
He arrived in Qatar “ready to help the team here.” And his mates know he can. He is, after all, the most highly touted American in all of men’s soccer. “He's a great player. We need him in this team,” Pulisic said Wednesday. “When he's healthy, we're better.”
“For a young kid, he's like a leader on the team,” goalkeeper Matt Turner said. “I don't think he knows that yet, but I can see it in him.”
He’d been expected to come off the bench, at least, and make an impact in his World Cup debut. But on Thursday, according to Berhalter, during a scrimmage against Qatari club Al-Gharafa, “you could see there was a little bit of tightness.”
Reyna had also exited a U.S. friendly in September after 30 minutes with hamstring tightness. The decision to not use him Monday, Berhalter said, “was a precaution. And we're building him up. And we think he can play a big role in this tournament. The question is, when. And hopefully on Friday, he'll be one further step ahead.”
Reyna, though, said he was “OK. A little bit of tightness over the last few days. But I played six [multi-game] weeks in a row with Dortmund before.”
A couple minutes later, he upgraded the “OK” to: “I feel great. I feel really good. … I felt ready to go. But it was just [Berhalter’s] decision.”
It was a decision perhaps informed by caution, but also by game state. Had the U.S. been struggling to break down Wales, and had it entered the second half in a stalemate, perhaps Reyna would have been used. He was available. In fact, he was among the first group of players up off the bench in the first half to limber up on the sideline.
The U.S. broke the deadlock without him, though, and then, for almost 50 minutes, the game didn’t really call for an attacking wizard like Reyna. It called for an all-action nuisance like Brenden Aaronson, who was the first sub to enter the game. It called for DeAndre Yedlin and Kellyn Acosta to see out a win.
And once Wales equalized, with eight minutes plus stoppage time remaining, and with the game stretched, Berhalter felt that it called for Jordan Morris and his verticality.
“In the phase of the game we were at, we went with Jordan, who we felt could give us something with speed and power,” Berhalter said.
But then he gave the first of two confusing answers about fitness.
The staff “did a last-minute check yesterday to make sure he was OK, and I think he's gonna be OK, can envision him playing some role against England [on Friday],” Berhalter said of Reyna. “But today, we thought, just given the nature of the game, it was too soon.”