AL RAYYAN, Qatar — Time will tell – the next eight days, specifically – as to whether Gregg Berhalter made the right call on his fifth and final substitution in Monday’s riveting 1-1 draw with Wales.
The US men’s national team manager, in the first test of their 2022 FIFA World Cup campaign, replaced goalscorer Tim Weah with Jordan Morris rather than Gio Reyna as the Yanks hunted a late goal to snatch back the two points they admit they dropped via Gareth Bale’s late penalty-kick equalizer.
With Berhalter attributing the choice to “some tightness we were guarding against,” presumably somewhere in Reyna’s perennially problematic hamstring and groin muscles, the Borussia Dortmund wunderkind might well have picked up a strain that could end his tournament in the first match.
Perhaps saving the 20-year-old for upcoming matches vs. England (Nov. 25) and Iran (Nov. 29) will pay off in the end, if Reyna helps produce the results the USMNT need to advance out of Group B and reach the knockout stages.
Or maybe Berhalter would have gone with Morris, the Seattle Sounders FC homegrown, even without the New York City FC academy product’s said tightness in the calculations. And it was an 88th-minute change, albeit in a game with 10-plus minutes of injury time. Was it really the key factor or a sidenote?
Berhalter, Reyna explain
But in the short term, it’s hard to avoid the distinct sense that Berhalter’s entire four-plus-year tenure could hinge on that one decision – especially since his version of the situation did not exactly synchronize with Reyna.
“It was trying to get him up to speed. There was some tightness we were guarding against,” said Berhalter of Reyna’s status in his postgame press conference at Ahmed bin Ali Stadium, adding he'll be ready to face Group B leaders England on Friday. “In the phase of the game we were at, we went with Jordan, who we felt could give us speed and power.”
Reyna acknowledged there was some tightness after the Yanks’ scrimmage vs. Qatari Stars League side Al-Gharafa SC, the club whose stadium is serving as the USMNT’s World Cup training facility, on Thursday. But as Reyna spoke to reporters in the mixed zone, he left little doubt that he considered himself ready to play against Wales, which captain Tyler Adams confirmed, simply terming his teammate “available” but unused.
“No, I feel great. I feel really good. I feel ready to go,” said Reyna, who played in just four of 14 Concacaf qualifiers amid injuries. “I felt good, I felt ready to go but it was just his [Berhalter’s] decision.
“He 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.”
Morris explained the coach’s message to him as he replaced Weah, whose 36th-minute strike was the USMNT’s first World Cup goal in eight-plus years.
“My role there was to try and come in, be dangerous and try to help score a goal, whether that's an assist or a goal, and just try to do my best to help the team win the game,” said the MLS standout.
“We needed to make sure that we got a result in that sense. We come out with a draw, but we were definitely pushing for a win.”
Now a daunting encounter with England, the group’s favorites even before their impressive 6-2 thrashing of Iran, looms. A politically charged affair with the Islamic Republic will arrive quickly after on Tuesday. Every point will be precious for the second-youngest team at this World Cup.
“To have that [Weah] goal, and then feel like you have the game and you're going to win the game,” said Brenden Aaronson, “it's a punch in the face, you know? That's what it is. And it's just tough, but we’ve got to move on and look at the positives and look at film on what we can do even better defensively.”