Rich symbolism for USMNT as Gio Reyna arrives for changing of the guard

Giovanni Reyna - Borussia Dortmund - tight shot

If you consider the US men’s national team to have been wandering the desert in the wake of their painful failure to qualify for Russia 2018, it’s hard to miss the symbolism of Gio Reyna, the son of perhaps the greatest male player the nation has ever produced, making his senior debut on the eve of his 18th birthday as a new World Cup cycle dawns.

That’s been the big story in the leadup to Thursday’s friendly vs. Wales (2:45 pm ET | FS1, UniMás, TUDN) the program’s first gathering of any kind in nearly a year, weaving together storylines past and future as the USMNT ushers in a wave of youthful talent.

“I’m obviously very happy to be here, finally,” said Reyna in Wednesday’s pregame press availability, an appearance that traditionally signals a prominent role on the field. “We have an exciting young group with a good mix and a lot of versatility. So I think the future is really, really exciting. And yeah, I'm just really happy to be here and I think everybody else is finally happy to have this new group together.”

It was practically unheard-of for a teenager to headline such a press conference back when his father Claudio arrived at the USMNT level; even though he too was considered a prodigy, the elder Reyna was already 20 when Bora Milutinovic brought him up in the run-up to World Cup 94.

Though injury prevented Claudio from grabbing the spotlight at that tournament, he turned out to be a special player, playing in three World Cups and earning over 100 caps in the ensuing 13 years as he performed in several of Europe’s biggest leagues. In retrospect his best play may turn out to have been marrying Danielle Egan, a four-time NCAA national champion at North Carolina and US women’s national teamer who, according to Gio, is the one who makes sure he puts in maximum effort on the pitch and takes care of his body and mind off of it.

The game has changed since Claudio and Danielle’s days, of course. “Diaper dandies” have become commonplace and Gio’s use of the world “finally” in spite of his tender age hints at how talented and ambitious he is, how eagerly US fans have awaited his arrival on this scene. His attacking exploits for the US youth national teams, New York City FC’s academy sides and now Borussia Dortmund’s first team suggest he’s every bit as gifted as his father.

“Gio and his dad have a very similar grace to them, how they move around the field,” said USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter, Claudio’s friend and former teammate, on Monday. “Gio and Claudio both kind of just move around the field in a very fluid way and that’s something that’s a really big comparison. They’re both competitive; you can see how Gio also has that competitive fire in his games. We’ve been watching Dortmund and you can see how badly he wants to win.”

Berhalter aims to keep his promising kids grounded and humble, yet it wasn’t hard to gauge his high regard for Reyna as he described how he’s planning to put him to use, waving off queries about the tactical specifics of his deployment in favor of emphasizing his game-breaking creative qualities.

“I don't think we need to necessarily define exactly where he's going to be playing; I think what we want him to do is just impact the game offensively,” said the coach. “We want him to score goals and make assists. I think that's important. So we're going to put them on the field to be able to do that. I don't think it's really important to get specific about where, I think it's what – what he's doing on the field.”

Soccer is said to be a young person’s game and today it evolves and advances more ruthlessly than ever. Those of us old enough to have covered both Claudio and Gio could only wince on Wednesday when the younger Reyna, asked about his memories of his father’s playing days, made it sound like Jurassic-era history.

“I really don't have many, it's usually just a few from [Claudio] just playing in, I think MetLife [Stadium], for [New York] Red Bulls? I forget what it was back then,” he said, “also some very, very small, vague memories from Man City. But that’s really it.”

Rich symbolism for USMNT as Gio Reyna arrives for changing of the guard -

A bloodied Claudio Reyna during his stint with the Red Bulls | USA Today Sports

That was Giants Stadium, kid, and though that original MLS venue has only been gone since 2010, Gio can be forgiven, as he was just 9 when the old Meadowlands gave way to the new. Similarly, the current USMNT squad is so young that Tyler Adams is already something of an elder statesman at the age of 21.

But this is the way now, and the US sound excited about it.

“Adding someone of Gio's quality to the team, [he’s] obviously had quite the experience of the past year and playing a lot of games and representing Dortmund at a high level,” said Adams. “It's good to bring his quality to the team. He brings a skillset where he’s very comfortable on the ball, you can give him the ball in tight areas of the field, he maneuvers with it, he can beat players one on one. And as of late he’s really showing off his end product with a lot of assists and adding some goals to his game as well.”