EletiofeGio Reyna is ready to talk (just not about...

Gio Reyna is ready to talk (just not about you know what)

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Gio Reyna swears he didn’t plan it. Like much of the magic he conjures, it kind of just … happened. In January 2023, “there was a lot of talking going on,” Reyna says; but, on a frigid night in Dortmund, Germany, he had slipped into his “flow state.” So, when he pinged a half-volley past a helpless keeper, in his eighth minute of soccer since the saga that dragged his entire family through reputational mud, he chomped his fingers; he brought one to his lips — shhh; he stuck two in his ears; he didn’t have a defiant celebration pre-selected, so he frantically cycled through four of them. Why?

“I don’t even know,” Reyna says with a cheeky smile, midway through a 40-minute interview, one of his first with a journalist since 2022.

“It just kinda came out natural.”

That, in one sentence, is the story of the talent that has captivated and polarized and energized and mystified American men’s soccer. When Reyna steps onto fields, his mind often goes blank. “The best thing to feel is nothing,” he says, as he describes the “laser-focus” that guides him through games. “It’s kind of this out-of-body experience.”

He was recently asked, twice, whether he felt he could see things on a soccer pitch that nobody else can. He qualifies his answer with a pinch of modesty: every player has their strengths; and he, for example, couldn’t defend a winger like Joe Scally or Antonee Robinson can. But: “Yes.” In and around the U.S. national team, his vision and creativity are unrivaled and already legendary.

Long before kickoff, he primes them. He’ll enter a somewhat meditative state, visualizing movements, thinking about tactics, earbuds in, eyes wandering. Once a whistle shrills, he’ll feel a competitive “rush,” and instincts will take over. Reyna will search for space, then for the ball, then for teammates. He’ll calmly, almost languidly carve up opponents.

This, he says of the creative flow, is “when I’m happiest.”

When he snaps out of it, he knows there is still noise. There are millions of opinions about him, his parents and his future. There are questions about what really went down at the 2022 World Cup, and no, Reyna isn’t ready to answer them. He says he learned from the whole experience, “for sure” — but “a lot of those things I would definitely prefer to keep quiet, and internal, within me and my family.”

He is, though, ready to talk — about his fiancée and their recent engagement; about his uber-tight family and his late-teen loneliness; about his complicated relationship with defending; and about a life that, somehow, is still only 21 years old.

‘Everything kind of came natural’

For the first dozen years of his charmed soccer life, “everything kind of came natural and quickly and easy,” Reyna says. As the gifted second son of soccer royalty — his parents, Claudio and Danielle, were both former U.S. national team players — he romped through youth leagues to the NYCFC academy, then to Borussia Dortmund, and to the German Bundesliga at age 17. “Of course,” he adds, “[I] worked really hard to get where I was.” But there were no roadblocks, no significant setbacks.

“I didn’t really have any sort of challenge [in soccer],” he says, “until the injuries.”

They first struck when Gio was 18 years old. All he really wanted to do in life was play, but his right hamstring kept failing him. It failed in September, and again in February, and again in April, and Reyna burst into tears. Why?!, he wondered. What am I doing wrong? Why does this keep happening?

Those thoughts raced in Germany, and at home with his family in Austin, Texas, where he spent most of that lost 2021-22 season. He thought about how he’d been robbed of his “breakout year.” At times, he’d sit alone in his room all day, stewing, feeling sorry for himself. “I was in a dark place for a little bit,” he says now. His parents, and especially his mom, helped pull him out of it. She empathized, but also reminded Gio: “Your brother went through much worse.”

She was talking about Jack, her first son, who died from a rare form of brain cancer when he was 13, and when Gio was 9.

Gio, outwardly and inwardly, has carried that perspective and Jack’s presence ever since. The entire experience, of losing a sibling and child, was harrowing for the family, but it “made us, obviously, much stronger than we ever were,” Gio says. “It made us stick together. It made us love each other more.”

When Gio moved an ocean away to Dortmund, his parents remained his support system, his warmth, the comforting voices he could call anytime, anywhere. They spoke, and still do speak, roughly five times per day. When the COVID-19 pandemic swept through Germany and trapped Gio in his apartment, surrounded by white walls and uncertainty, they’d chat via phone or FaceTime for hours on end. They’d speak about training, about mundane things; anything to preempt Gio’s boredom and loneliness.

Gio Reyna of Nottingham Forest  and Erling Haland of Manchester City during the Premier League match between Nottingham Forest and Manchester City at the City Ground, Nottingham on Sunday 28th April 2024. (Photo: Jon Hobley | MI News) (Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Former Borussia Dortmund teammates Gio Reyna and Erling Haaland reconnect ahead of a Premier League match between Nottingham Forest and Manchester City in April. (Jon Hobley | MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images) (NurPhoto via Getty Images)

By the fall of 2020, though, at 17 going on 18, Gio also felt ready to “start making the next step in my life.” That, he said at the time in the Players’ Tribune, meant “living alone and focusing a bit more on myself versus being their kid — which I always will be, of course.” He started reading up on “history, politics, the Black Lives Matter movement,” he said. More recently, he says now, he’s been trying to break his innate Gen-Z addiction to Instagram and TikTok by learning about money management and charity work.

By the fall of 2020, he’d also met Chloe, his now-fiancée, via family friends at a Fourth of July party that summer. She was in college; he was in Germany; but they connected — long-distance, and in-person whenever they could. When asked what allowed them to maintain their relationship while separated by an ocean, Gio says: “I guess just our love for each other.”

He smiles. He knows it’s “the corny thing to say.” But sincerity has crept into his voice — because it’s the truth.

He was actually visiting Chloe at college, he says, in December 2022, days after his World Cup ended, when the drama of Qatar exploded into public view. He addressed it on Instagram as Gregg Berhalter’s comments and subsequent reports circulated; then he tried to escape — to the Dominican Republic, on a couples vacation with Chloe and two friends.

“Obviously, you get texts, and you read things, and you see things,” Reyna says. But here he was, on a beach or a golf course, living a blessed life with people he loves. “I was just trying to enjoy the time with them,” he says, “and get away from all that.”

Reyna, the soccer junkie

Eighteen months later, he still prefers to stay away from “all that.” After months of radio silence, he has tip-toed back into interviews. But he mostly declines to discuss the World Cup and its messy aftermath. When asked, for example, how much he knew about his parents’ communication with U.S. Soccer officials during and after Qatar, he responded, in part: “I don’t want to say too much on it right now.”

There was one nagging question, though, that I hoped he would answer: Was the World Cup — the tournament at the top of his bucket list, the pinnacle of his sport, the childhood dream — fun?

“Uummm,” he begins. “It’s one of those things, when you’re in the moment, you wish you’re playing, you’re pissed you’re not playing.” But, in retrospect: “I was 19 and I did get to play in a World Cup. Looking back, when my career is done — it’s really a dream come true. … And it was still a good experience with a good group of guys. So, it was awesome.”

The aftermath was less awesome. The painful feud between his parents and the Berhalters also erupted publicly. “It was a tough time for me,” Reyna says. His friends and colleagues at Dortmund were “very supportive,” and he scored off the bench in each of his first three games back from winter break. But, throughout that spring, really ever since the injuries, he has struggled to get off the bench for good.

That struggle, for playing time, has gnawed at Gio, a self-described “soccer junkie” whose brain could think about the sport all day. It can pick apart training sessions. It can search for microscopic areas of improvement. It can prepare for forthcoming games. It can stray to matches he’ll consume on TV. He watches a lot of soccer — Chloe “would probably tell you too much,” he says with a grin. “We kinda have two TVs in every house we’re in, just in case.”

The obsession, of course, part of why he’s a special player. But, he says, “it gets to a point where you kinda need a break, and need to do something else.”

He is still working through that work-life balance. Chloe moved to Europe to live with him last summer, which certainly helped. Board games — especially Rummikub — have become a getaway. Walks and adventures are healthy, too.

Soccer, to be clear, is still Reyna’s passion. A pitch, in a comfortable environment, is still his favorite place on Earth. But he’s learned that it doesn’t need to be all-consuming.

“As you’re growing up, when I was 17, 18, 19, you’re just so driven and hungry just to play, play, play,” Reyna says. “And I still am now. But I’m a little bit older, I’m mature, there’s other things that are important in life also. So, you learn to take a step back at times, and appreciate what you’ve done, which is — I’ve done well so far. But, definitely looking to do better.”

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - MARCH 24: Gio Reyna #7 of the United States wins the Concacaf Nations League Best Player Award after the Concacaf Nations League final match between Mexico and USMNT at AT&T Stadium on March 24, 2024 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Stephen Nadler/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Gio Reyna played a pivotal role in the USMNT’s win over Mexico in the the CONCACAF Nations League final on March 24, 2024 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Stephen Nadler/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images) (Stephen Nadler/ISI Photos/USSF via Getty Images)

New beginnings on and off the field

After a trying 2023-24 season, first at Dortmund, then on loan at Nottingham Forest, Reyna made his first big move of a big summer in … Turks and Caicos. Rain almost foiled his plan. But, for a few evening hours, on vacation late last month, skies cleared. Gio and Chloe stepped out to the beach. He proposed. She said yes. They celebrated.

Then Gio jetted off to suburban Washington, to join up with the USMNT. After friendlies against Colombia and Brazil (Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET, TNT/Telemundo), he’ll spend his three days off in New York, helping Chloe plan their wedding. Then he’ll head to Texas for Copa América, his biggest stage since the World Cup — and his first major tournament as a catalyst.

He returned to the USMNT three months after Qatar, first under interim coaches, then under Berhalter. Playing in a semi-free attacking midfield role, he starred in consecutive CONCACAF Nations League finals, helping the U.S. to victories over Canada and Mexico. His reunion with his head coach, after nine months of not speaking, was complicated. But, Reyna said in March, over a year after the drama, “both of us are so far past it.”

Now, he is ready to speak even louder with his feet. He has established himself in a crowded USMNT midfield, often as a playmaking No. 10 but sometimes deeper. When healthy, the only thing that can keep him off the field, away from his happy place, is a lukewarm attitude toward the physical, gritty, sometimes brutal side of the game — in other words, his defensive shortcomings.

And he seems to know that. When asked whether he likes defending — “be honest,” I told him — he pauses, and hints at a laugh, then takes the question and runs with it.

“I’ve grown to like it more, for sure,” he says. “It’s definitely one of the sides that I’m still working on. Of course, any attacker would say they love having the ball at their feet … but I’m kind of at the stage of my career where I do want to start playing midfield at every team I go to.”

He began his Dortmund rise as a winger, with “less responsibility; if you lose the ball there, it’s fine, and defending there is probably the least important area of the whole field,” he says. “But, I want to play in the middle now.”

For the USMNT, and for Dortmund, or wherever he may go in the future, “I want to have that responsibility.”

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