As the game turned on its head in the second half, every minute Giovanni Reyna remained on the bench loomed larger and larger.
The 20-year-old Bedford, N.Y., native did not start nor come on as a substitute during the U.S. men’s soccer team’s 1-1 draw with Wales in its World Cup opener. A projected starter entering the tournament, Reyna’s absence was surprising, particularly given his game-changing ability in a match that needed just that.
After conceding the tying goal, manager Gregg Berhalter opted to substitute Jordan Morris at winger for Timothy Weah. If they’re both healthy, the decision to choose Morris over Reyna is puzzling at the least. The 28-year-old Morris, albeit a heartwarming story to be included on the roster after tearing both ACLs, has largely stalled out for the Seattle Sounders in the MLS, scoring seven goals in 29 games last year. Reyna, meanwhile, has emerged as one of the most tantalizing talents on the radar of the biggest European clubs while playing a central role for German power Borussia Dortmund — the same club that developed Christian Pulisic before he departed for Chelsea.
Berhalter’s biggest mistake in his World Cup debut, however, now provides him his best option to make a decisive change against England on Friday.
A problem that plagued them during qualifying, the Americans dominated possession but failed to create enough concrete goal-scoring chances to bury Wales when they had the upper-hand. They owned 59 percent of the ball, but had six shots to Wales’ seven, and had just one shot on goal to Wales’ three. Wales’ actually had a higher expected goals measure in the match, 1.73 to the Americans’ 0.82.
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Reyna, who can play as both an attacking midfielder or as a forward, can change the course of a game by himself, dribbling right at defenders as he plays more direct-to-goal than much of the roster. His versatility has given him the ability to both finish off chances and create them for others. As was evidenced against Wales, those traits are desperately missing.
Although he carried multiple leg injuries in the beginning of the year, Reyna played in Dortmund’s final three games before the World Cup break. Berhalter said the decision to use Morris was tactical, but he also said that he was playing it cautious after Reyna experienced muscle tightness in warm-ups.
“It was trying to get him up to speed,” Berhalter told reporters after the game. “I think there was a little bit of tightness that we were guarding him against in Al-Gharafa in the training exercise as a precaution. But we’ve been building him up and think he can play a big role in this tournament. The question is when. Hopefully Friday, he’ll be another step ahead.”
Reyna, however, did not mirror that sentiment after the match.
“I feel really good. I feel great. I feel fine.” Reyna told reporters. “[Berhalter] doesn’t have to tell me why he didn’t put me in or why he does. But I’m 100 percent. I’m good to go.”
If Reyna were to be inserted into the starting lineup, Yunus Musah or Timothy Weah could be in line to make way, although Weah could move to striker in place of Josh Sargent. Other than helping in the buildup to the goal, Sargent struggled to make much of an impact before being substituted off.
Outside of Reyna, Berhalter could start Haji Wright, with whom he replaced Sargent, to provide more goal-scoring punch. Wright was on a tear for Turkish side Antalayaspor before the World Cup break, scoring nine goals in 12 games, and also provides more of a physical presence up top with his 6-foot-3 frame.
“We know the impact he can make when he comes into games and when he has the opportunity,” team captain Tyler Adams said of Reyna after the game. “So, when he gets his chance, he’ll take it.”