Amid management turmoil, USA kicks off new World Cup cycle with Serbia loss

Last Updated on January 26, 2023 by

Alexi Lalas briefly described the environment surrounding the US national team’s first camp since the World Cup in Qatar.

“January camps are always something strange,” the player-turned-satellite radio broadcaster told Sirius XM, “but this one is even more so because of the circumstances.”

Amid those circumstances, a young squad without the vast majority of its World Cup representatives lost its first match since returning from Qatar. Serbia’s inexperienced side rallied for a 2-1 win in a friendly on Wednesday night in front of 11,475 spectators at BMO Stadium, the former Banc of California Stadium.

The circumstances involve the coach of the World Cup team, a talented young player, their respective families, physical abuse, possible blackmail and an ongoing investigation. Taken together, all those factors could play a pivotal role in determining the future of the squad.

As a refresher: Gregg Berhalter, who coached the Americans in Qatar, told Gio Reyna, the 20-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder, that he would play a minimal role during the tournament. Reyna’s parents, Claudio and Danielle, have represented the United States internationally, with Claudio playing in three World Cups and for first division clubs in England, Scotland and Germany.

The two families were close. The men were high school and World Cup teammates, and the women were college teammates.

But during the World Cup, Berhalter received a message from someone who claimed to have information that would “take me down,” he said.

After the World Cup, Berhalter spoke on December 6 at a management conference and described how he and the squad disciplined a player for a poor effort in training. Although Berhalter did not name any names, Gio Reyna was that player. Five days later, Danielle Reyna called US Soccer, the national federation, to reveal that Berhalter slapped his future wife in the leg outside a bar in 1991, when Berhalter was a freshman in North Carolina.

US Soccer is now investigating Berhalter, who admitted the incident and whose contract expired after the World Cup.

Gio Reyna sparked controversy Sunday with a goal celebration that appeared to be directed at his parents, or US Soccer, or Berhalter … or all three. (He came off the bench to score another stoppage-time winner for Dortmund on Wednesday.)

Into this thing came Anthony Hudson, one of Berhalter’s assistants. The son of former Stoke City, Chelsea and England midfielder Alan Hudson has become the acting manager for this week’s friendlies against Serbia and Colombia.

“Really, there’s no coaching course or anything that guides you through moments like this,” said Hudson, who managed the New Zealand and Bahrain national teams before joining Berhalter. “This is a really different situation.”

Complicating the situation is Hudson’s relationship with Berhalter.

“Listen, I’m close to Gregg,” Hudson said. “It was not easy for me. We were involved in scouting. We did many projects during that time. I have great respect for Gregg. I have so much to be grateful to Gregg for giving me the opportunity. He’s still a good man.”

Hudson’s friendship with Berhalter accentuates the sadness that runs through the squad.

“I think we all share the same sadness,” Hudson said. “Everyone is affected by it. You know, this is a real shame because a lot of good work has been done. It’s a shame for everyone involved: players, staff, Gregg. It’s not a nice situation. When all this happened, all the attention went away from all the good work and was moved in another direction.”

But in preparing for a camp without most of those World Cup veterans, Hudson had to refocus. The composition of the roster intensified the challenge: 13 members had never played in a senior international game, and six were 20 years old or younger.

The squad, however, included five players from the World Cup team: defenders Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long, midfielder Kellyn Acosta, forward Jesus Ferreira and goalkeeper Sean Johnson. They were joined by another veteran, striker Paul Arriola.

“When they came in, we had a meeting with the management group.” Hudson said. “I shared a bit of my personal view of the situation. I tried to be very honest. We talked about what the camp would be like. Then I said, ‘I will rely on you even more in this camp. We have a younger squad and we rely on you to keep the standards high, help the younger players, help the culture of the team, help teach some of the guys some little nuances of how we play.”

“The vibe in the locker room is great,” Brandon Vasquez said. “Everyone gets along very well. Every time we walk on the field, you can see this. The team chemistry is really there even though we have a lot of new faces. Everyone who watches the US national team knows exactly their style of play and we’re going in and doing exactly that.”

“I think the vibes, the atmosphere, the energy of the group was amazing, like it’s not even a thing,” added Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder Paxten Aaronson. “A lot of it goes to the core guys, the guys who had experience here, like Walker, Aaron, Paul. They did a great job of keeping the standards set high and telling the new guys what to aim for, what to achieve.”

“That’s why we chose them to come in,” he said, “because we know the character of these people.”

In Serbia, the United States faced an opponent with only three players who competed for the national team, with the most experienced making only two appearances. None of the 18 played in the World Cup.

The United States took a 1-0 lead in the 29th minute on Vazquez’s nine-yard header from Julian Gressel’s right-wing cross. But Serbian Luca Ilic converted a 21-yard free kick in the 43rd minute, then Veljko Simic scored from 13 meters after receiving a ball from Nikola Stulic, who cleared the Americans’ Jalen Neal.

“I’m disappointed with the result, of course, but I was really happy with the performance,” Hudson said. “We created a lot of good chances. Individually, there were some really, really great performances. When we got a goal behind. I thought we showed a lot of bravery. I loved the fact that the players were really driving to go forward and attack the back line.”

The United States will conclude this month’s camp on Saturday with a friendly against Colombia in nearby Carson. Beyond that…

“At the end of the day, it’s out of our hands,” midfielder Paxton Pomykal said, “and there’s nothing we can say about it.”

Hudson expressed the same sentiment with some personal eloquence.

“We play these two games,” he said. “Then, I’ll go home and watch my dogs and see what happens next.”