Remarks made by U.S. national team coach Gregg Berhalter at a leadership conference shed new light on some of the issues he faced during the USMNT's run to the round of 16 at the World Cup, including being "ready to book a plane ticket home" for a player media have identified as Gio Reyna.
His remarks came at the HOW Institute for Society’s Summit on Moral Leadership in New York on Tuesday, three days after the USA's exit, and were subsequently published in edited form by Charterworks.
The participants at the conference included many government, judicial and business leaders and prominent media members. The newsletter touched on several points Berhalter made about leadership lessons.
(Since their publication, the Charterworks added a note that "Berhalter's comments were at a gathering held under the Chatham House Rule and were not meant to be public, but were erroneously greenlit for publication by someone representing the event organizers." According to a U.S. Soccer spokesperson, the remarks were supposed to be “explicitly off the record.”)
One topic in the newsletter stood out: "On handling difficult decisions around performance." Berhalter gave this example:
"In this last World Cup, we had a player that was clearly not meeting expectations on and off the field. One of 26 players, so it stood out. As a staff, we sat together for hours deliberating what we were going to do with this player. We were ready to book a plane ticket home, that's how extreme it was. And what it came down to was, we're going to have one more conversation with him, and part of the conversation was how we're going to behave from here out. There aren’t going to be any more infractions.
"But the other thing we said to him was, you're going to have to apologize to the group, but it's going to have to say why you’re apologizing. It's going to have to go deeper than just ‘Guys, I'm sorry.’ And I prepped the leadership group with this. I said, ‘OK, this guy's going to apologize to you as a group, to the whole team.’ And what was fantastic in this whole thing is that after he apologized, they stood up one by one and said, ‘Listen, it hasn’t been good enough, You haven’t been meeting our expectations of a teammate and we want to see change.’ They really took ownership of that process. And from that day on there were no issues with this player.
"As a coach, the way you can deal with things most appropriately is going back to your values. Because it's difficult to send a player home. It was going to be a massive controversy. You would have been reading about it for five days straight. But we were prepared to do it, because he wasn't meeting the standards of the group, and the group was prepared to do it as well."
MLSSoccer's Tom Bogert tweeted the player in question was Reyna.
Reyna did not play in the opening game against Wales and third and deciding group match against Iran. He was a late sub in the England game and came on for the second half against the Netherlands with the USA trailing 2-0 in a match it lost 3-1.
Citing sources who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, The Athletic reported that the issues with Reyna hit a head after "an alarming lack of effort in training" in the week the USA was gathered in Qatar before its opener and a "lack of intensity" during a closed-door scrimmage against Al Gharafa SC — whose facilities the USA was using — four days before the Wales match.
The team meeting and apology, according to The Athletic, came some time after the Wales game and a post-Wales training session in which Reyna’s lack of effort led to several veteran players speaking to him.
On why Reyna did not play against Wales — another forward, Jordan Morris, came on as the fifth sub after Wales equalized in the 82nd minute — Berhalter said in his post-game press conference the team had a “last-minute check” on Reyna and he was “OK” and he expected Reyna would play a role against England four days later.
The U.S. coach went on to say “you could see there was a little bit of tightness” in the Al Gharafa SC scrimmage and added “we think he can play a big role in this tournament — question is when, and hopefully on Friday [against England] he’ll be one further step ahead.”
Reyna said after the Wales match he had "a little bit of tightness over the last few days," but went to add, "I feel great. I feel really good. I feel ready to go. I felt ready to go but it was just [Berhalter's] decision." Before the England game, Berhalter said it was a “coach’s decision” to not play Reyna against Wales.
Reyna’s agent, Dan Segal, issued the following statement to The Athletic following the publication of its story:
“Gio obviously did not have the experience anyone hoped for at the World Cup. The situation, relationships and interactions among parties are far more complicated than what has been reported. It is disappointing and disrespectful for certain parties to be commenting on private team matters publicly, especially when some do so without full knowledge of the facts and others do so in a self-serving manner. At this point, our view is that nothing more is gained by those associated with the national team turning on each other, and we plan no further comment on this matter.”
Photo: Doug Zimmerman /ISI Photos