Sports

The Explosive Family Drama Blowing Up U.S. Soccer

How a star player’s playing time, a “leadership summit,” and decades-old allegations of violence came to a head.

Gregg Berhalter and Gio Reyna speaking in the tunnel of a stadium in Qatar at the World Cup
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter and Gio Reyna at the World Cup, on Nov. 24 in Qatar. IMAGO/Matthias Koch via Reuters Connect

It’s been just over a month since the United States men’s national team was eliminated from the 2022 World Cup. The team acquitted itself fine, playing decently well and making it out of the group stages before being overpowered by a fresher, more talented Dutch squad. The European-based U.S. players returned to their club teams to resume the 2022–2023 season. The MLS members got a slightly longer vacation before the start of their preseasons, and a possible appearance at the national team’s less stringent annual January camp. In sum, the USMNT has entered an interregnum of reflection and assessment before beginning the work toward the home World Cup in 2026. There was peace throughout the—

Advertisement

Wait, so what’s going on with U.S. Soccer right now? 

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Two households, both alike in dignity …

In prose, please, keeping in mind that it’s called soccer.

Two former USMNT teammates and longtime friends, and their families, are having a breakup in an incredibly ugly, incredibly public manner, with U.S. Soccer right in the middle.

Over what? 

Let’s start near the end, which is where the more serious allegations lie. On Jan. 3, former U.S. men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter joined Twitter (the account has been confirmed as his) in order to put out a statement about an incident that occurred when he was an 18-year-old college student at the University of North Carolina in which he kicked his then-girlfriend (and current wife Rosalind) in the legs during a heated argument after the pair had been drinking. He said he was sharing this information because someone had approached U.S. Soccer with it in order to “take me down.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

According to Berhalter’s version of events, which is co-signed by Rosalind, he sought counseling after the incident and the pair were able to reconcile months after she broke it off because of the kick. They have been married for 25 years and have four children. He called it “a shameful moment and one that I regret to this day” and “an event that shaped me, but doesn’t define me” and stressed that it hasn’t been repeated.

Advertisement

U.S. Soccer released a statement saying that it was investigating the matter, but that its investigation would also probe “potential inappropriate behavior towards multiple members of our staff by individuals outside of our organization.”

Whoa! Any idea who these individuals might have been?

Advertisement

After a day of waiting and feverish speculation, on Jan. 4 the culprits were revealed by ESPN as Danielle Reyna, Rosalind Berhalter’s college roommate and UNC women’s soccer teammate, and her husband Claudio Reyna, USMNT legend, current Austin FC sporting director, and Berhalter-intimate dating back to their childhoods in New Jersey. (They played on the same team as kids and in high school, and both went to the World Cup as players together in 2002 and 2006. They are—or were—Best Man at the Wedding–type friends.) According to statements given by Danielle and Claudio, they spoke about Berhalter’s domestic violence incident to USMNT sporting director Earnie Stewart on Dec. 11, but claimed that they did not do so to threaten Berhalter’s job or blackmail him, or even with the intention of making the long-ago incident public. ESPN’s reporting counters that “Multiple sources told ESPN [that Reyna] threatened to share allegations about Berhalter’s past,” before acknowledging the Reynas’ denial.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Threats or no threats, why would they tell U.S. Soccer about this now?

It’s going to sound silly if I say it.

Surely something of grave importance must have precipitated the Reynas dredging up an incident that, though incredibly serious, the involved parties seem to have made their peace with for more than three decades now.

They were upset about their son’s lack of playing time at the World Cup.

More specifically, they were upset that Berhalter detailed the trouble he had with Gio Reyna—the 20-year-old, oft-injured American wonderkid—while giving an off-the-record talk at a leadership conference in the days after his team was eliminated. While Berhalter didn’t name Gio in the talk, anyone who paid a modicum of attention to the USMNT at the World Cup was able to figure out whom he meant when details of his speech were made public on Dec. 11, the same day the Reynas contacted Stewart.

Advertisement

I’ve already blanked out all of 2022. Remind me about what happened with Gio Reyna at the World Cup.

Reyna, one of the USMNT’s most creative, most talented attacking players, made just two appearances in the tournament, totaling less than 60 minutes on the field for a team that scored just three goals in four games. Initial speculation was that he was injured, but piecing together reporting from the Athletic with Berhalter’s talk and Gio Reyna’s subsequent response on social media, it seems the trouble began when Berhalter told Reyna that he would have a limited role at the tournament. While it’s unclear whether this means the player was told he wouldn’t be starting or that he might only play twice, Reyna admits to pouting in the aftermath, and letting the news affect how he practiced and his attitude, with the lack of effort becoming so alarming that the coaching staff considered sending him home. (Reports that the 25 other members of the squad voted on whether to keep Reyna at the tournament or send him home were denied by U.S. veteran defender Tim Ream.) Reyna would eventually apologize to the team, the apology would be accepted, and he would get his longest shift in the USMNT’s final game against the Netherlands. Supposedly, that was the end of the matter, which is why the Reyna family was apparently so upset when Berhalter made new details public in his speech to the leadership summit.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

But it’s not like Berhalter called him out by name. 

No, but he either had to be still very tired or very naïve to not consider the possibility that what he was saying would get out. You don’t have to give those crowds your juicy stories, Gregg! Just talk about commitment and desire and beating Mexico in extra time! (In a Jan. 5 interview, Berhalter admitted that if given a redo, he wouldn’t have told that story in that venue.)

Maybe he thought he was sending another message to Gio. 

That seems to be what the Reynas thought. Danielle Reyna’s statement said she “just wanted Earnie to help make sure that there would be no further unwarranted attacks on my son,” a sentiment Claudio Reyna echoed. Danielle said she “told Earnie that I thought it was especially unfair that Gio, who had apologized for acting immaturely about his playing time, was still being dragged through the mud when Gregg had asked for and received forgiveness for doing something so much worse at the same age.” She also claimed that the statement released by Berhalter minimized the abuse on the night in question, though she declined to provide details. That is potentially serious, but it’s also not the kind of comment you drop in there when you’re overly upset about the allegations becoming public and/or concerned about the damage you might have done to a friendship.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Seems like they were really angry!

The Reynas were ready to burn an awful lot down. Obviously this is a blow to Berhalter’s reputation. Obviously this is cruel to Rosalind, the original victim, to have this episode made public against her wishes. But the Reynas are not going to come out of this looking good either. If they had reservations about the incident, they could have brought it to light at any point in the past 31 years, and to do so hours after Berhalter’s criticisms of their son were made public is opportunistic and exploitative. Parents, if you think you have a very good, very pressing reason to attempt to contact your kid’s boss’ boss to complain, I would urge you to sleep on it first. Then when you wake up the next day, no matter how you feel about it, don’t do it.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Isn’t it a lot like—

Yes, it is a lot like youth soccer parents complaining about the coach.

Hang on, though. Didn’t you say way at the beginning that Berhalter is the “former coach”?

For now, yes. Berhalter’s contract expired at the end of 2022, so technically he’s out of a job. However, Stewart said on Jan. 4 that Berhalter was still a candidate to be the head coach for another cycle, pending the investigation. Berhalter said Jan. 5 that he was still interested in returning to the position, which will quiet rumors that he was looking for a new challenge, likely coaching in Europe.

Advertisement

Didn’t you also say that the USMNT has a January camp coming up? Who’s going to be the coach at that?

Advertisement

On Jan. 4, Stewart announced that USMNT assistant Anthony Hudson would lead the camp on an interim basis. Hudson’s last head coaching gig with MLS’ Colorado Rapids saw him finish with a record of eight wins, 10 draws and 28 losses and a quote where he referred to his team as “a bottom group of players” who could not compete with the league’s more talented, more expensive signings. If they’re trying to make Berhalter look good by comparison, they’ve found just the person to do it.

What happens now? 

Christmas card mailing lists will presumably be edited. Wall-mounted photos switched out for others with different faces. A group-chat exodus.

I meant for U.S. Soccer.

Advertisement

It’s not clear whether the federation was ready to extend Berhalter’s tenure as coach and then held off because of these allegations, but that’s certainly still a possibility. Presumably the next step is to see whether anything new comes out of the investigation, other than what the parties involved have already admitted to.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

It’s wild that those parties have managed to be so far out in front of this. 

One thing this family drama has served to remind everyone of is how cliquish and insular U.S. Soccer remains, in this case on the men’s side. Stewart played in the 1998 (with Reyna) and 2002 World Cups (with Reyna and Berhalter). U.S. Soccer general manager Brian McBride was on the 1998, 2002, and 2006 teams. These guys (and their families) have all known each other for a long time; Danielle’s statement says, “I have known Earnie for years and consider him to be a close friend.” Claudio’s statement says he shared his frustrations with what was happening to Gio during the tournament with “a number of close friends, Earnie and Brian McBride among them.” And while he says he didn’t make threats, it seems possible these conversations are the ones that U.S. Soccer’s statement refers to. “Multiple members of our staff” could be Stewart and McBride.

Advertisement

That’s an awful lot of influence and power to hand over to a group whose international careers tracked one another so closely. It is possible the Reynas were foolish enough to think they were remaining on one side of the “complaining to friends about something that’s happening to your kid” line. It’s also possible they thought their relationships with the people involved would protect them as they took these ill-advised and disproportionate steps on behalf of their grown son. Maybe they expected the close ties between their families would buy Gio some leniency from Berhalter. Maybe Berhalter thought that because of those close ties, he had to be a little bit harder on the player.

But it’s definitely not ideal that U.S. Soccer is in such a state that familiar ranting and professional meddling are so easily confused. All of this is a reminder—four years after Berhalter was hired by a federation that counted his brother Jay among its senior executives—that U.S. Soccer is still far too parochial, still full of people whose thinking is so confined inside the box that they think Anthony Hudson is the man to take over for now. This is not uncommon in the sport’s international administration, but fans here should want to see it fixed.

Sounds like the whole program needs a bold shakeup. Someone with an outsider’s perspective but a pedigree that garners respect. Someone like Jürgen Klinsmann!

That wasn’t a tragedy. That was A Comedy of Errors.

Advertisement