Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The next big thing in American soccer is a 17-year-old hybrid attacking force who’s earning major minutes alongside some of the world’s most exciting young players at perennial German powerhouse Borussia Dortmund. Four (!) years after Christian Pulisic’s breakout season with Dortmund and the U.S. men’s national team, Gio Reyna is mirroring his countryman’s rapid rise with spooky precision.
Reyna made 15 Bundesliga appearances last season after joining Dortmund’s first team in January, most of them as a substitute. In a German cup competition in February, he scored about as good a first goal for a club as you’ll ever see.
Still, with Dortmund’s level of talent, all but the most optimistic forecasts envisioned another season as a rotation player, earning spot starts but mostly spelling the likes of Jadon Sancho, Marco Reus, Julian Brandt, and Thorgan Hazard off the bench.
Instead, the American teenager has started all three of Dortmund’s league games thus far. He scored once in the first match against Borussia Mönchengladbach and put on a man of the match performance on Friday with a trio of assists in Dortmund’s 4–0 win over SC Freiburg.
That’s Reyna’s third assist from Saturday. The second was a corner kick that landed right on the head of teammate Emre Can, notable perhaps mostly for the fact that a 17-year-old American is taking set pieces for one of the best teams in Germany. The first was more or less identical to the third, picking the perfect time to play a pass into the inside-out run of goal-scoring phenom Erling Haaland. His performance Saturday means Reyna is currently tied for the league lead in assists, and he’s either scored or assisted more than half of Dortmund’s seven goals in the still-young season.
Where did Gio Reyna come from? On that score, he has something else in common with Pulisic: a soccer lineage. Reyna is the son of U.S. men’s national team captain–turned–Major League Soccer executive Claudio Reyna. His mother, Danielle Egan, played at the University of North Carolina with the likes of Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly and earned six caps for the U.S. women’s national team. Pulisic’s parents both played college soccer at George Mason University, and his father, Mark, would go on to play and coach professional indoor soccer.
Such family ties aren’t uncommon in U.S. soccer. Claudio Reyna’s father played in Argentina before moving to the U.S. Bob Bradley coached at Princeton and in MLS while his son, future USMNT captain Michael Bradley, was growing up. Current U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter’s 19-year-old son Sebastian has eight appearances this season for the Columbus Crew, where Gregg used to coach.
Which isn’t to say there’s a soccer gene. The advantage is less hereditary—though a certain amount of genetic luck is necessary to become a high-level athlete—than it is knowledge-based. Players with parents steeped in the game are likely to receive high-level instruction from a young age, even if it’s just in the park or the backyard, that their peers don’t get until they’re promoted to the right level with the right coach.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to the U.S. Haaland’s father was a hard-running, hard-tackling Premier League midfielder who retired from Manchester City a month before Claudio Reyna joined in 2003. Present day Manchester City caused a triple-take on soccer Twitter in September when it started 17-year-old Liam Delap, the son of the industrious Irish midfielder Rory Delap, most famous for the chaos-instilling long throw-ins he’d catapult into the box with Stoke City and just about the last player you’d expect to get within even his throwing distance of a Pep Guardiola side.
Players like the younger Delap have drawn on more than their fathers’ examples. They’ve tapped their networks too, finding the right clubs and right mentors to become the types of players their dads couldn’t have dreamed of being. It takes a village to raise a soccer player.
But it’s arguably more beneficial to have that well-connected parent in the United States, where soccer expertise and infrastructure isn’t as dense as in Europe and South America. In the U.S., you’re less likely to find an uncle who played in the third division or a neighbor who was in some big club’s youth ranks—someone who can be a coach or an opponent that identifies and polishes a young player’s promise and gives them the small, often informal boost they need to become a real prospect. (You’re more likely, however, to have a woman in your life who played at a high level, like both Reyna and Pulisic’s mothers did.)
This will change as the U.S. system broadens and deepens, as more veterans of college soccer or the various lower divisions of the United Soccer League become available to take coaching roles not just in MLS academies or pay-for-play clubs but in community or youth leagues. It’s hardly a requirement to have that person at home to say “try this, not that.” If Clint Dempsey could have learned what he needed at home, then there’d be no three-hour drives from Nacogdoches to Dallas in his origin story. But those relationships do smooth the path, and they put Pulisic and Reyna in positions to succeed at Dortmund from an age when most prospects are still learning what might be done with their potential.
Which isn’t to say Reyna’s rise is fated. Development isn’t a rocket that burns for the first 16 years of a player’s life and then lets him coast from there into his final form. Reyna’s talent has won him a spot at the best place for him to continue getting better. Two of the best English prospects, Sancho and Jude Bellingham, spurned Premier League clubs to learn their trade at Dortmund. Haaland could have gone to just about anywhere in the world, but he chose this club because it would better prepare him for his next move.
Reyna’s game is already benefiting from his time at soccer’s premier finishing school. He’s proving to be more adaptable than he ever had to be as a youth player in the U.S., where he was almost always the most talented player on the field. Dortmund’s attack is so stacked that, for head coach Lucien Favre, picking lineups is like choosing a proper loadout in a video game: more dribbling or more passing, ball progression or penetration, goal-scoring threat or defensive diligence? Reyna’s learning not only how to provide more of what Favre’s asking, but how to do so in a way that compliments Dortmund’s other parts. The strength of his connection with Haaland is promising; there are few forwards in world soccer who’d be a better Karl Malone to Reyna’s John Stockton.
Reyna’s ability to mold his game to fit his teammates will be crucial when he slots into the U.S. men’s national team’s attack, which seems likely to happen as soon as the U.S. is back to playing games with a full team. He could see time on the wing opposite Pulisic, or he could be fielded as a central playmaker with Pulisic and, say, MLS MVP candidate Jordan Morris on either side of him. Or maybe 20-year-old Timothy Weah will come back from his injuries stronger than ever and challenge for the third spot in that attacking band. His dad is the most pedigreed of them all, former FIFA World Player of the Year and current Liberian president George Weah.
One day it might not be necessary for an American player to be the son of soccer royalty to get a head start toward the top ranks of the sport. But for now, the U.S. team, and Reyna, will look to leverage that advantage wherever they can come by it, again and again and again.