Hold the Hype? With Gio Reyna, There's No Need

The 17-year-old American soccer star isn't tempering expectations for himself. He isn't arrogant, either. He simply belongs.
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A player with just a little less certainty that he belonged out there—that he was exactly where he deserved to be—would’ve found a dozen reasons not to go through with it.

Time was ticking down on the UEFA Champions League round-of-16 decider between Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain. It was March 11. The planet was in the early stages of a pandemic, and there was angst and anger at an empty Parc des Princes in Paris. Dortmund was trailing, 3–2, on aggregate when Emre Can tripped and then shoved PSG’s Neymar, leading to a mass shoving match that spilled over the touchline. Can was ejected. Dortmund was in its Champions League death throes.

“There was a little brawl,” Dortmund’s Giovanni Reyna recalls. “Me and [PSG’s Kylian] Mbappé were on the other side of the field from where the fight happened and we kind of jogged over to see what was going on, but neither of us got really involved. We were a bit outside [the scuffle], and then we were like really close, and I was able to talk to him a little bit.”

That was Reyna’s chance, and there was no hesitation. He’d been thinking about this for a while on a couple of levels. His father, National Soccer Hall of Fame midfielder Claudio Reyna, collected jerseys during his days as U.S. national team captain and as a star for European clubs like VfL Wolfsburg, Manchester City and Rangers.

“My dad has a few bags full of jerseys,” Gio Reyna says. “He has Thierry Henry. He has [Steven] Gerrard. When I saw that, ever since I was young, I thought it was so cool and I always thought that one day—who knows if I have kids or just to look back on it—remember, oh yeah, I got Mbappé’s jersey!

Gio Reyna is a rising star for the USA and Borussia Dortmund

When Dortmund and PSG were drawn together in the round of 16, the target became more defined.

“I was talking to my friend Nico [Benalcazar, a former New York City FC academy teammate and Wake Forest defender] about it before the game,” Reyna says. "And I was like, ‘I’m going to try to get either Neymar or Mbappé’s jersey.'"

When the French World Cup winner, who at 21 is still four years older than Reyna, approached, the American took his chance. There was time to consider the context. In some places, it might be considered bad form for a player facing elimination to inquire about a jersey swap. Those should be solemn moments. Maybe Reyna, as the rookie, should’ve ignored Mbappé and rushed in to prove his worth in the scrum. Or maybe he should’ve thought about the possibility of looking like a star-struck teen. Then again, surely Mbappé had already promised his shirt to someone more significant. There were myriad reasons a person with less confidence, with a slight fear that he was out of his element, would’ve seized up and wasted that opportunity.

Reyna, 17, is not that person.

“So I just asked him, ‘Can I have your jersey?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, of course. Just see me after the game and I'll give it to you.’ So after the game, obviously, we lost. so I went up to him and tapped him quickly and asked for the jersey and he gave it to me. They were celebrating, so I kind of wanted to get out of there. But I needed his jersey, and obviously I wanted it badly,” Reyna says.

“It was crazy. He kind of like gave me a hug. It was cool.”

PSG's Kylian Mbappe and Dortmund's Gio Reyna

Mbappé is the first “big name” Reyna has acquired for his nascent collection, and it’ll be stored at the three-bedroom apartment he’s living in (by himself) near the Phoenix-See, about three miles east of Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion. It’ll represent a fitting early memory of a career that holds almost limitless promise. Reyna belonged. In fact, he was welcomed, as if he was right where he was supposed to be. Far from misplaced, his confidence was properly channeled and effective. It’s the product of a unique background that offered a front-row seat to soccer’s highest levels, as well as his own long-term commitment to make his own name. That moment with Mbappé was made for Reyna. And he was made for that moment.

***

Everyone’s familiar with the phenomenon. Time seems to move faster as you age. When you’re young, a school year lasts an eternity. A few hours in the car requires snacks, toys, bedding—an Oregon Trail-level supply chain. It’s a product of proportion (a year, or an hour, is a big chunk of a kid’s life) and the way the brain handles unfamiliar stimuli.

From the outside, and for those old enough to vote, Reyna’s career is turbo-charged. Instead of preparing for his senior year of high school, or perhaps signing with NYCFC, he’s preparing for his second season at one of soccer’s biggest clubs (plus a maiden call-up to the senior U.S. national team). Borussia Dortmund may trail Bayern Munich in Germany, but make no mistake, it’s a powerhouse—a former European and world champion that plays home games before 81,000 fans, ranks 12th in the world in revenue and expects to win. It’s not an easy team to make.

But from Reyna’s perspective, his nine-month transition from MLS academy player to the Champions League felt at times like one of those car rides. There was traffic, rest stops and a couple of small detours—all perfectly normal, especially in uncharted territory, but still a drag. He signed with Dortmund in July 2019 (using a Portuguese passport) and after spending time with the club’s senior side during its U.S. tour, he moved to Germany and joined BVB’s U-19s. It echoed the path of Christian Pulisic, who joined Dortmund on a Croatian passport in early 2015 and started with the U-17s.

It was far from the first time Reyna played up an age group. In 2018, at 15, he helped lead NYCFC to the U-19 U.S. Soccer Development Academy championship. And he made his debut with the U.S. U-15 national team at 13. Reyna wasn’t cowed by Dortmund’s U-19s. He’d been standing out among older kids his whole life. He’d been watching and learning high-level soccer his whole life. The fact that his soccer body was developing as quickly as his soccer brain—he stands a lean and muscular 6' 1"—highlighted his readiness.

“Last summer, I was happy just to have a good impression with the first team, because the plan was always I was going to play with the U-19s regardless of how I did on the U.S. tour,” Reyna says. “But for me, when I first came [to Dortmund] last season, it was more just about, ‘How can I get to the first team as quick as possible?’ Because that was the main goal. It wasn’t play for the U-19s—no knock on those kids. But I didn’t want to play there.”

Giovanni Reyna, Borussia Dortmund and U.S. men's national team rising star

Sebastian Kehl, a long-time BVB midfielder who now coaches at the club, said after Reyna signed that, "We want to build Gio slowly—as we did with Christian Pulisic—slowly and carefully.”

It took Pulisic 11 months to make his Bundesliga debut. Reyna put himself on a different timetable. Slowly for him isn’t slowly for us.

“I just think it's your expectations for yourself. I knew I was going to be able to do it soon,” he says. “That comes from within me. I knew I was better than the kids on the U-19s. I knew I could make the next step soon. But it’s just a matter of time.”

He trained with the first team during the 2019-20 winter break and never looked back.

“It was always the plan that in January I was going to try to move up if I was ready,” he says. “But with the roster they had, they had to sell a few guys to clear up some space. And then slowly after that, I was looking to make a first start. It didn’t come as soon as I would like. There were just all these little jumps.”

There’s not a shred of arrogance in Reyna’s voice as he says this. He doesn’t believe he’s better without evidence, or because of some out-of-control teenage id. He’s been preparing for this. He’s built for this. His parents played soccer (mother Danielle Egan Reyna appeared six times for the U.S. women’s team in 1993). His friends are soccer players. If he didn’t have such an affable personality, you’d think Gio was designed in a lab specifically to play this sport, with equal parts technique, physique and vision.

There’s reticence or doubt in there, sure. You could hear that in Reyna’s voice when he talked about living alone for the first time—at 17 in a foreign country—and the months away from his family. He’s playing too much Fortnite, he admitted, and needs to identify another hobby or two. And you could hear it, especially when he talked during his brief trip home to New York last month, when he wondered about the experiences he might be missing by doing high school online, skipping college, and devoting himself to the pursuit of his profession. But those moments pass.

“I always kind of think about it in terms of, maybe that would’ve been fun for a little bit. But I’m sure if you ask [friends back home] about what I’m doing, they would think that what I’m doing is much cooler,” he says.

On Jan. 18, Reyna made his first-team debut as a second-half substitute against Augsburg. At 17 years and 66 days old, he became the youngest American to play in the Bundesliga, which more than any other foreign league has demonstrated a willingness to sign and play inexperienced U.S. players.

***

Dortmund assistant coach Otto Addo

Otto Addo is a retired midfielder who coaches at Dortmund, with a focus on shepherding the club’s top junior players into the first team. That doesn’t just mean extra video sessions and analysis. It means checking in with teenagers, acting as a mentor, the occasional breakfast and bugging Reyna about how casually he dresses or about taking German classes. Because while Reyna does need work on his German, his soccer schooling is essentially done.

“When he was 15, he was already playing for the [NYCFC] 19s, and also training with the MLS team,” says Addo, who faced Claudio Reyna as a member of Ghana’s national side at the 2006 World Cup (Addo was born in Hamburg). “Gio was far ahead of the players of his age group in Germany because he already had experienced training sessions in another tempo, which they didn’t have. I’m 100% sure that his environment with his family, this is also somewhere he could learn. This is what I could see talking with him.

“We’re still talking after every match. Some players, they need months to develop, to get further, to get to the next step. With him, if you talk with him about something, maybe it would happen the next week, but by the second week it won’t happen again. You see a progression straight away. He’s learning very, very fast, so the process is very, very fast.”

The best players in any team sport typically see and sense more. The game slows for them, and recognition and reaction become formidable weapons. So sometimes when time slowed down, it was to Reyna’s advantage.

Giovanni Reyna is a rising star for Borussia Dortmund and the U.S. national team

A little more than two weeks after his debut, Reyna came on as a 66th-minute substitute in a DFB-Pokal game against Werder Bremen. Twelve minutes later, the game slowed. Where Bremen had four defenders, including a pair within two yards, Reyna saw a way through. His brilliant first touch off a feed from Julian Brandt allowed Reyna to bypass the first one. Three more touches left two more opponents grasping. Then as the fourth closed him down, Reyna released a surprising and stunning 18-yard curler into the upper-right corner. It was as astonishing a debut goal as you’ll ever see. Reyna was playing at a different speed.

“I just didn’t really think. I saw the top corner kind of open up and I just tried to put it there,” Reyna says. “It’s gonna be hard for me to score a better goal. But I think I’ll score a better one. I have time.”

It went viral both in the USA and in the back of the BVB bus on the return from Bremen’s Weserstadion. The seats in the back face each other, giving the younger players who sit there a bit more privacy. Or so they thought. Reyna wasn’t sure what viewing he was on when he realized veteran forward Mario Götze was standing over his shoulder. Götze, 28, knows a thing or two about scoring goals worth repeated viewing–his volley won the World Cup for Germany in 2014–and he had a little laugh at his young teammate’s expense.

“He was a young player too, like a young rising star, so all those types of guys know how it works and they help me out. But he was like, ‘You’re going to watch this all day,’” Reyna remembers. “He said when he came back to get water, he just knew. It was just over and over again, and he was standing above me and said he watched it like four times before I realized. I was just watching it over and over, looking at everybody’s reaction, looking at the fans—just over and over.”

That’s a good sign for Reyna, because like Mbappé’s jersey, the goal and his enjoyment of it reveal an instinct to stop and appreciate his journey. He’s eager, but not in such a rush that he’s unaware of his surroundings, or of the potentially fun and meaningful rest stops along the way. It’s also a sign of what makes Dortmund special. There, a player like Götze, who joined BVB as an 8-year-old, along with established stars like Marco Reus and Mats Hummels, understands that interacting with the younger players and setting an example is part of the club’s culture. There’s arguably no team in Europe that does a better job giving minutes to developing players while mounting a credible assault on top honors. BVB is so good at it that it attracted the likes of Jadon Sancho from Manchester City’s academy, and recently Jude Bellingham from Birmingham City (he turned down Manchester United). Even Englishmen want to go there, because Dortmund consistently improves them and boosts their value.

Reyna need look no further than Pulisic, who was sold to Chelsea for $73 million, a record for a U.S. player, after four years at the Westfalenstadion.

“Young players, they really give them all the experiences they need. And then it's almost like when they're ready, they kind of just let them loose and then show the world what they can do,” Reyna says. “I think it's just the way that they groom their players and they really just ease them into it and get them the experience they need and the confidence they need. And I think another thing that happens is the balance between the young and old players that we have here. … We can get bits and pieces from everybody. They all bring a bit of maturity to the team and I think they help us grow.”

Giovanni Reyna scores vs. Werder Bremen

Reyna, naturally, thought his goal in Bremen demonstrated that he was ready to be let loose. It was made clear to him afterward, he says, that he was finished with the U-19s. He was given a locker in the first team’s training room, and so prepared himself “to take another step.”

But then came more waiting, at least by his standards. Reyna was a sub in Dortmund’s next seven matches, including the Champions League home-and-home against PSG, during which he notched an assist. Then the pandemic struck, and the world shut down. Reyna holed up in his apartment, a world away from his family and without the structure provided by soccer. Two months crawled by, but Reyna seemed less frustrated by that than by the perceived lack of playing time.

“One of the hiccups I guess so far for me was there was a few months where I thought I should be starting games or at least getting a start. I scored a goal and I did well against PSG and I was thinking, 'Oh, maybe the start is going to come this weekend,' and then maybe it's next weekend, and it didn’t," he says. “I always have to think about it and I say, ‘Look, when Jadon first came he wasn't playing, and he was my age. When Christian first came, he wasn’t starting every game. So just the process they have with these players, it was just frustrating for me because I thought I wanted a bigger opportunity and a bigger role to start coming a little bit sooner. But, you know, the way that they kind of groomed their players, their young players, into the system and developed them into young superstars, which they've done with so many players, is second to none.”

As Addo emphasizes, Reyna may not get it the first time, but he will soon after. That’s seeing things quickly.

Addo says the right combination of hunger and patience is required to make it at the highest level. He thinks Reyna has it.

“On one hand, the will to play every game and also to be confident enough to say, ‘I should be playing,’—or to think it, maybe not to say it," Addo says. "This is what is driving you and what’s also making you better every day and work even harder. But then also on the other hand, to be patient. I could see he was frustrated in what he was telling me also and I said, ‘You’re right. You trained well.' And my job is to make him understand that the other players, they have a little advantage because they already proved over many years that they deserve to play, which he can’t prove because he is young. … It’s a long process, but I can understand why he feels like that.”

It’s not uncommon for younger players to get some first-team love and then play as if they’re satisfied. They’ve made it. Those players are gone after a couple of years, Addo says. That won’t be an issue with Reyna. You don’t become U.S. national team captain and trade for Thierry Henry’s jersey after a single goal at the senior level. Reyna wants to get there quickly because he knows how glorious it can be.

“When we have training, I still see him carrying things, helping out, showing that he’s still a young player. Even though he’s had some great games for Dortmund, he’s still grounded. It’s great to see,” Addo says. “I want him to be hungry and to be a learner for his life. He should never be satisfied. He should always ask for more. He wants to play in the World Cup. He wants to start for the USA team. He wants to be a regular player for Dortmund. This drive is so good, and this will keep him moving and not be satisfied or relaxing.”

Reyna started the final two games of Dortmund’s season.

***

It was after one of those games, a 2-0 win at RB Leipzig, that Erling Haaland said a bit more than usual. The spectacular but succinct Dortmund striker finished off a quick, seeing-eye redirect from Reyna in the 30th minute, then showered effusive (by his standards) praise on his young teammate following the match.

“I called him the ‘American Dream’ before, and that’s true,” the 20-year-old Norwegian said. “He’s 17 years old, and what he’s doing on the pitch today is amazing. He has a huge future in front of him.”

Haaland has been a sensation for Dortmund since arriving from Red Bull Salzburg (where he played for American coach Jesse Marsch) over the winter. Hearing those words from a player whose name has been on everyone’s lips this season was special for Reyna.

“He’s said it before, but he said it against Leipzig and that one for some reason made headlines everywhere,” Reyna says. “It’s not embarrassing. It’s really nice for him to say of course. He’s helped me a lot there, so for him to say that about me ... he’s very hard on me, but in a good way, where if I don’t give him the ball he’ll definitely tell me something.”

Haaland didn’t say “Dortmund dream," it's worth noting. He said “American dream.” It’s rare for a player, especially a foreign one, to stick with the same club throughout a career. Precedent suggests both Haaland and Reyna will be on the move at some point. But Reyna will always be American. His commitment to the U.S. national team, despite his potential eligibility for England (born there), Argentina (relatives) and Portugal (relatives), was never in question. As with just about everything else, he’s eagerly awaiting the chance to make his senior international debut.

Dortmund's Giovanni Reyna and Erling Haaland

His club career is his own. U.S. fans will follow him, but not necessarily become fans of his club. It’s his national team exploits that will bind his career and legacy to that of his parents, and his own name and story—which he cares about sharing—to American fans. Few watched Claudio Reyna with Wolfsburg or City, but millions watched him in the 2002 World Cup. Gio’s club games are a bit more accessible, but they’ll rarely, if ever, stir the same sort of emotions.

Change the topic of conversation to the national team, and a broad smile breaks across Reyna's face as he leans forward and offers his vision of the future.

“Playing for the national team has always been a dream. I watched the World Cup when I was younger. Unfortunately, we didn’t make the last one but you know, that’s something I want to put right,” he says. “We have a really, really good young group and I think we can build something with them for the next, who knows, 10 years. We can be together for a long time.”

This U.S. team, under second-year coach Gregg Berhalter, remains a work in progress. The pandemic slowed its development, and a significant percentage of the youthful core, like Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Sergiño Dest and Weston McKennie, have played a limited number of matches together and have no World Cup experience. They’re at least in their 20s, however, and are established first-teamers in Europe. They’ve had camps and caps under Berhalter. Reyna has none of those advantages. But not surprisingly, he doesn’t see that as a hurdle.

“I don’t want to go into the national team and be on the bench. I want to make a difference right away,” he says. “I want to play alongside these guys, as a number 10 or whatever, on the wing, wherever they need me to play. I don’t look at them like they’re ahead of me, even though they are in their careers. They've had more years than me and more in terms of the national team, but, yeah, I want to be playing and starting games in qualifying and starting games in the Gold Cup. And then in 2022, I want to be starting in the World Cup. I'm definitely not satisfied if I’m not.”

That’ll be up to Berhalter, of course, and whatever decisions the manager makes will be educated ones. No coach knows Reyna better. Berhalter and Claudio Reyna went to high school together in New Jersey. Their wives played at North Carolina together and have been close friends since they were kids on Long Island. The two families are practically family, and now, Gio and Berhalter’s son, Columbus Crew midfielder Sebastian Berhalter, are best friends.

“We have a Snapchat streak. I talk to him every day,” Gio says.

Gio Reyna seeks his first USMNT cap

Gregg Berhalter has watched Reyna grow up, and he’s seen the boy following in his father’s footsteps approach manhood with discipline, direction and total confidence in his abilities.

“I think people just underappreciate exactly how he’s able to process this,” Berhalter says. “He’s so big he looks like an adult. We have to remember he’s very young and he’s doing this at such a high level, and it comes down to his drive. He’s extremely driven and it’s always been like that. He was always very competitive and always pushing himself to be better. When he was young he was always playing with the older kids and trying to win, and it manifests itself into him playing at NYC and going to Dortmund really quickly, because he’s so driven. He believes he can be the best.”

Reyna missed out on a call-up in March when the pandemic closed the FIFA international window. The upcoming windows in October and November remain open, however, and Berhalter said he felt like there was an “80% chance” the USA might get a game or two. One option that would include Reyna is a European friendly using players from clubs based there. Either way, there’s time before qualifying begins next June, and Reyna already is being gradually integrated into the team. Berhalter paid him a visit in Dortmund in late 2018, shortly after he was hired, and Reyna already is a member of the national team’s group chat.

He’s a different player than his father. Claudio Reyna controlled games. Gio changes them.

“Claudio had really, really good vision—really understood what was happening in the games well. And Gio has this ability to disrupt defenses,” Berhalter says. “What I’ve seen from Dortmund, they’ve played him high as a No. 9, or as a false 9. They’ve played him central. They’ve put him in all different positions and what really struck me is he has really good transition moments, very good receiving between the lines, very good side shuffling past defenders. He goes by them with power. And all these things he’s doing at a really young age. That’s what’s enticing as a coach. If he continues to develop it’s going to be scary what he can do.”

And Berhalter expects Reyna to continue to develop. Dortmund is too good of an environment, and Reyna is too desperate to reach a higher level, for there to be any other outcome. Whether he starts in the first World Cup qualifier won’t change that.

“There’s not going to be a limit to what Gio can do, and we’re here to try to support him and guide him through it. But it’s unlimited what he can do,” Berhalter says. “You definitely want that type of drive in a player. It’s much easier to talk about than to actually do it, that’s the thing. When you're playing in these qualifying games, it’s life or death. It’s our job to prepare him.”

Reyna thinks he’s ready. And he’s willing to work like crazy to get ready. Somehow, within this unique player, both things can be true.

His summer break was short. He’s already back in Europe, attending BVB’s preseason workouts in Switzerland where he scored three goals in two friendlies. The speculation about Sancho’s future—will he or won’t he be moving to Manchester United—is the dominant story line. It’s not out of the ordinary, Berhalter says, for a Dortmund player to look ahead and imagine the next benchmark. It’s in the club’s DNA, and that of the young men it signs and develops.

Gio Reyna faces Bayern Munich

Reyna has a lot to look forward to. It’ll be his first full season as a senior pro. He’ll turn 18 in November, which not only will allow him to sign a first-team contract, it’ll permit him to get his German driver’s license. There will be pressure to build on what he’s already accomplished, probably more internal than external. But it’s clear BVB knows who it has on its hands.

“He’s taking weeks where others are taking a year to understand things—not only to understand, but also to transfer it onto the pitch,” Addo says. “His soccer intelligence is far ahead.”

Reyna has a routine now. He’s comfortable in his apartment. He knows his way around. He has a personal chef. He’s made a few friends on the team, several of whom live in his neighborhood. He’s experienced the bright lights of the Champions League, Bundesliga ups and downs and the adversity of a pandemic. He’s older and wiser. Time, theoretically, should speed up a bit.

He has every intention of making sure it does.

“Now, I’m ready,” he says. “Even towards the end of the year, I wasn't fully like out of my shell. But this season, coming back, I think a lot will change. Against Leipzig, I think you can see a little bit of it—that I was ready to play. I think now this season, I want to make a really big jump.”

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