Gregg Berhalter on what makes Gio Reyna special and the spate of injuries to his young stars

U.S. national team coach Gregg Berhalter will have to balance competing interests in March.

Does he bring Olympic age-eligible players to Europe for friendlies against the Netherlands and Wales -- the only U.S. friendlies within FIFA windows in 2020 -- or hand them over to Jason Kreis, whose U-23s will attempt to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics at the Concacaf qualifying tournament in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Berhalter said MLS-based national team starters Reggie Cannon and Jackson Yueill will go with the U-23s.

“It was a collaborative process with Jason," he said. "He was taking the lead on who he wanted at each position. We ended up deferring in many cases, like we would have loved to have Reggie Cannon and Jackson Yueill to come with us to Europe and play with us. But it was a priority for Jason to use them and we’re doing everything we can to support him and this group to qualify for the Olympics.”

But what about a player like 17-year-old Gio Reyna, who in the last two months emerged as a contributor at Borussia Dortmund, which is competing in the Bundesliga title race and in the UEFA Champions League knockout stage?

Berhalter said the choice was easy: "He wouldn't be released for the Olympic team."

Berhalter, whose friendship with Reyna's father, former U.S. national team captain Claudio Reyna, goes back to their youth in New Jersey, said he's not surprised how the youngster has developed.

“It’s just rhythm, right? You can imagine the year Gio had last year," he said. "He was at Dortmund but he can’t play in games because he’s not of age and doesn’t have his passport yet. It was a very choppy year in terms of his development, I think we saw some of that with the U-17s [at the 2019 World Cup in Brazil]. You could tell he didn’t have rhythm."

But Berhalter said Reyna's performances grew more consistent as the fall went on.

“They’re using him in a way where he’s not asked to take full responsibility," he said. "He doesn’t have to carry the team. He’s playing a role and he's executing his role."

Berhalter highlighted two aspects of Reyna's game that were evident in his Champions League debut against Paris St. Germain, his quick counterattack and set-up work on Erling Haaland's winning goal and ability to hold the ball that drew a yellow card on PSG defender Thomas Meunier that will keep him out of the second leg.

“What I really like is when he gets the ball in the pocket," he said, "his awareness to turn and his efficiency when he's turning is excellent. He doesn't waste any touches turning, he turns right away. Second thing is, his ball security under pressure is phenomenal. And, you know, there's a play against PSG where  he got the ball on the sideline. And Meunier, and I forgot who the other player was trying to close him down, and he just turns and gets out of pressure."

Berhalter said Reyna might play several positions for him.

“I can see him playing as a winger," he said. "I can see him playing potentially as a number 10 in a 4-3-3. He can play a number of different positions. I like him being able to affect the game on the offensive side, similar to Christian [Pulisic]. They’ve been using them him on the left, he can also play on the right so I think he gives you flexibility.”

Reyna's emergence comes as other young U.S. stars have been on the sidelines for extended periods with injuries. Pulisic, for one, has not played for Chelsea since Jan. 1 because of an adductor injury.

“As Christian adapts to the rigors of the Premier League, I think he’s going to be fine," said Berhalter. "We’re confident that Chelsea together with us is going to get him in a spot where he’s performing regularly.”

Pulisic has played 16 of 27 Premier League games for Chelsea this season, but Tyler Adams has made just five appearances in 23 Bundesliga games for RB Leipzig and Tim Weah played just three of 26 Ligue 1 games for Lille.

Adams was recently sidelined with a calf injury. His return in January followed being out of the lineup for all but two games over nine months.

“Any time you have younger players playing at high levels," Berhalter said, "you have to be very careful with their load. He went from playing the whole season at Red Bull to playing at Leipzig. He had basically a year-and-a-half without rest, adapted to a higher level in a very aggressive playing style. And that could take a toll on a young player’s body. And you saw some of the effects of that with his longer-term layoff. With him, now, the way I see, he’s got back to playing, and until your body hardens and strengthens, you may have some some difficulties.”

Weah suffered a torn hamstring in August 2019 after moving to Lille and he re-injured it again within minutes of taking the field in his first game back on Feb. 16.

“It’s a really unfortunate series of events," said Berhalter. "We have a very high-speed athlete, a fast athlete, they’re susceptible to hamstring injuries. He got this bad hamstring injury and re-injured it and it may be another lengthy layoff. It's really a shame. When you have younger players playing a high level, there's a risk of injury and we have to be careful, we have to be monitoring it and we have to work with the clubs."

The injuries to Pulisic, Adams and Weah were all soft-tissue issues. The recent injury to Paul Arriola was an ACL knee tear.

"It breaks your heart," said Berhalter. "He was playing at such a high level and meant so much to the team, and we're probably going to be without him the whole year."

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