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Friday, June 21, 2024

Gio Reyna: What kind of player can he become? It’s time to find out

Gio Reyna’s story wasn’t supposed to go like this.

The kid was American soccer royalty, the son of USMNT great Claudio Reyna, born with a ball duct-taped to his feet and top clubs’ scouts peeking over the backyard fence. Against all odds, he didn’t turn out to be as good as everyone expected — he was better.

While his friends were studying for the SAT, a teenage Reyna was snaking through Bundesliga defenders and curling home his first worldie for Borussia Dortmund. Some 18-year-olds are voted most likely to succeed in their high school’s yearbook; at the same age, in his first full professional season, Reyna made the Golden Boy shortlist — the award for the best young footballer in the world.

You probably know how it’s gone wrong for him since: injuries, more injuries, then that whole World Cup melodrama between his parents and the USMNT coach, followed by — no points for guessing this one — another injury. For the past three seasons, Reyna has never been a consistent starter for club or country.

This week’s loan move to Nottingham Forest of the Premier League from Dortmund, where he once ranked among football’s best prospects, is a chance to get the fairytale back on track.

But before he can write his next chapter, Reyna has to grapple with a question he still hasn’t played regularly enough to answer: what kind of great player could he become?

Reyna in the early days with Dortmund in February 2020 (Max Maiwald/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

“I love him,” are the first words Rene Maric texts me when I ask about Reyna.

Maric, now the head of coaching and playing style for Thomas Tuchel at Bayern Munich, was an assistant coach at Dortmund under Marco Rose in 2021-22, the season Reyna turned 19. He spent his days working with the player we’ve only gotten to see in glimpses.

“He was considered our biggest talent besides Jude (Bellingham),” Maric says, “and ‘a taller version of (Andres) Iniesta’.”

(Edith Geuppert – GES Sportfoto/Getty Images)

Comparing a young player to Iniesta, even in scare quotes, is like comparing an art school student to Michelangelo. It’s just not done. That’s how far you have to reach sometimes, though, to describe the kind of things Reyna is capable of on the ball.

Consider the dribble he pulled off for the U.S. against Mexico two years ago — 15 seconds of controlled demolition, one of the most preposterous runs you’ll ever see.

For a lot of young attackers, dribbling is destiny: if you can tie defenders in cherry-stem knots like that, chances are you’ll wind up playing on the wing, where there’s more room to go one-v-one.

That’s how Christian Pulisic blazed a path from American youth leagues to Dortmund’s first team and beyond, and for a while it looked like Reyna might follow in his countryman’s footsteps, right down to the position. By the spring of Edin Terzic’s first stint as Dortmund manager, in 2020-21, Reyna was the team’s starting right-winger — the same job Pulisic had held two years earlier.

Stylistically, though, they aren’t very similar. Reyna isn’t fast. He doesn’t knock the ball up the sideline to skip past a defender or stretch the game with off-ball runs into the box. He can put in a good cross when called upon but he’d rather not play that wide, nor is he really the inverted cut-and-shoot type, even when he lines up on the left. Long story short: your dad would absolutely refuse to recognise this guy as a winger.

Reyna’s talent is more about weaving the attack together, or what one Dortmund scout called his ability to “play with many contacts”. His awareness of space and movement can sometimes verge on the uncanny.

One of his favourite tricks is to receive a pass with one barely perceptible touch, almost but not quite a dummy, that redirects the ball past pressure and into the path of a team-mate behind him. No ordinary winger has eyes in the back of his head like that.

(Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)

Even Terzic, who for the last couple of seasons has persisted in playing Reyna on both wings as well as in midfield, knows he’s a winger in name only. “Like (Bundesliga team-mate Julian) Brandt, Gio is rarely found on the wings when he plays there,” the Dortmund coach explained in October last year. “They open the wings and always move into the half-spaces. Gio is definitely the most dangerous and can pose the most goal threat (inside).”

On the rare occasions Reyna was fit enough to play for the USMNT in the last World Cup cycle, that’s how coach Gregg Berhalter used him, starting on the right wing but tucking inside when Sergino Dest pushed up from right-back to join the attack. The idea was to get Reyna on the ball between the lines, somewhere around the corner of the box, where he can create like very few players in the world his age.

“He has quality,” Berhalter told The Athletic a few months before the 2022 World Cup finals. “The timing of his passing is very good, the weight of his passing is very good and he can receive the ball in any type of conditions. He can get it with his back to the goal, he can get it on the run, he can get it under tight pressure. That’s not a problem for him because of his quality. And then, when he gets faced up, he’s really good at making a final pass.”

Most of these strengths — receiving in tight spaces, playing back-to-goal, combining with team-mates and facing goal to unlock the final pass — are things attacking midfielders do. Reyna ultimately proved to be an awkward fit on the wings, where he found himself slipping down the depth chart for club and country behind more conventional wide, vertical attackers.

“I would deem his position on the wing as his worst,” says Maric. In his view, Reyna has the potential to become world-class in the “pocket position” — an attacking midfielder in the half-spaces, along the lines of Martin Odegaard of Arsenal or Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne.

Like Odegaard, Reyna has the shiftiness and close control to turn in the pocket and slip a ball into the box, but he’s got De Bruyne’s restless sense of adventure, rarely staying in one place for long.

A typical Reyna sequence starts with him dropping down the half-space in the build-up, then pulling wide to receive so he can face the defence and look to play a team-mate in behind with a through ball. He’ll often finish the move by returning to the top of the box to hunt for cutbacks or loose balls, arriving in space rather than holding his position.

Not every system allows him that much freedom, though.

“Tactically, there’s so much more structure here,” Reyna told The Athletic shortly after he got to Dortmund from New York City FC’s academy. “In New York, I was playing as a No 10 and could go wherever I wanted, but here in Germany, I learned how to cut down the (passing) angles here, see the link-up there.”

(John Dorton/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

He still says his best position is “kind of a free-roaming No 10,” and he shone in that role for the USMNT when he finally got a chance towards the end of 2023. Berhalter appreciated Reyna’s attacking creativity but also made a point to praise his effort “off the ball, the relentless work rate defensively.”

If he’s going to earn a licence to roam instead of being stuck on the wing, Reyna will have to keep showing coaches that he’s attentive to team structure, especially out of possession. He’s not a lazy defender — his ball-winning stats are better than you might expect and Maric is upbeat about his willingness to go into duels — but his timing and angles can be lax, opening holes in midfield that Germany gleefully exploited in their 3-1 friendly win in October.

Terzic, who has rarely trusted Reyna in his preferred role, put it bluntly in December: “Gio still has many aspects to work on to become a more complete player.”

(Alexandre Simoes/Borussia Dortmund via Getty Images)

A four-month loan to the Premier League isn’t much time for Reyna to prove himself. It’s not even clear where he’ll get on the pitch in Forest’s crowded squad. Coach Nuno Spirito Santos’s 4-2-3-1 offers a chance for him to earn playing time as a No 10 but that spot currently belongs to Forest’s best player, Morgan Gibbs-White.

The good news for Reyna, maybe, is that he and Gibbs-White have very different profiles. In Forest’s counter-attacking game, Gibbs-White likes to run ahead of the play, often pulling wide to receive on the right wing. Reyna, who doesn’t have that kind of pace, would rather drop to the ball in transition and turn to look for runners.

If you squint a little, you can see them complementing each other: Reyna pulling the strings from midfield, Gibbs-White leading the attack from the right. It’s a far cry from the possession game Reyna was used to at Dortmund, true, but his dribbling and vision can be lethal in transition.

It’s also possible, though, that Reyna just won’t fit: not quick enough to play in Forest’s front line, not defensive or tactically disciplined enough for their midfield. It would be a shame if he finally managed to stay healthy only to see his enormous potential wasted out on loan, especially with the USMNT’s high-profile Copa America on home turf coming up in the summer.

“He is so young and so talented in the right role,” Maric says, “that I hope his body and his choice of club won’t stop him from reaching what he could.”

For a player who once looked like a prince, the long road back to a happy ending starts with figuring out who he is now.

(Top photo: Howard Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

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