Soccer newsletter: Gio Reyna gets a World Cup birthday present
DOHA, Qatar — Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and today we look at how famed Man in Blazer Roger Bennett is celebrating the coming World Cup, at commissioner Don Garber’s view of MLS, and at how the women’s national team may have more questions than answers after finishing this year with just one win in its last four games.
But we start in Doha, where Gio Reyna joined the men’s national team Sunday, his 20th birthday, to begin preparations for the World Cup, which kicks off next Sunday with Qatar meeting Ecuador. That Reyna someday would represent the U.S. in sports’ biggest spectacle is no surprise: His father, Claudio, currently the sporting director for Austin FC, was a part of four World Cup teams and his mother, Danielle, played for the women’s national team.
That Gio joined the World Cup team on his 20th birthday wasn’t a given, though, especially when you consider his recent medical history. Over the last 14 months, Reyna has been sidelined 276 days — more than twice as many days as he’s been active — by injuries and illnesses.
But when he’s healthy, he can be the Americans’ most dynamic playmaker.
“He’s a special player and I think he can help this team be successful,” said coach Gregg Berhalter, who called Reyna with the news he had made the team.
Enjoying this newsletter? Consider subscribing to the Los Angeles Times
Your support helps us deliver the news that matters most. Become a subscriber.
“It’s a really cool moment,” said Reyna, who wasn’t surprised but hadn’t packed yet because he didn’t want to jinx himself. “Once you kind of soak it in and hang the phone up, you call your parents. At the end of the day it’s still playing in a World Cup for your country.”
Reyna is the first U.S. World Cup player who had two parents play for the national team, so he has big boots to fill. That’s a family history Adidas will highlight Tuesday when it unveils a dynamic Drew Merritt mural in Queens, N.Y., that honors Reyna, his parents and his heritage.
But in a way he’s already a bit ahead of his father, who was playing in England with Sunderland when Reyna was born, then moved the family to New York when his son was 5.
Claudio played for five clubs in Europe, joining Bayer Leverkusen when he was 21. But his son made his Bundesliga debut for Borussia Dortmund at 17, becoming the youngest American to play in Germany’s top flight. Two weeks later he became the youngest player of any nationality to score in the German Cup.
And while Claudio made his first World Cup team weeks before his 21st birthday, he didn’t play in that first tournament. His son could start Monday when the U.S. kicks off against Wales.
“I’ve only really planned on being a professional soccer player. There was no Plan B, no other option,” Gio Reyna said. “Soccer is in our blood. Soccer is in our family.”
If Reyna‘s time has come a bit earlier than it did for his father, the timing for his first World Cup proved even more fortunate. Reyna missed 32 of Dortmund’s 46 matches last season before being shut down in April. If the World Cup had been played in the summer, as usual, he would have missed it.
Instead, Qatar’s punishing summer heat forced FIFA to move the tournament back four months, giving Reyna extra time to get ready.
“I had to reflect and understand that something wasn’t right. And we took control,” he said. “I had no vacation. I was just grinding in Austin with my physio and athletic coach there.
“Playing for your country in a World Cup is, I’m sure, every kid’s dream. I’m just pretty lucky it wasn’t in the summer,” he continued. “So I guess that’s the one positive you can take away from the World Cup being in the winter that, you know, I was able to go do it.”
But the time missed to injury didn’t just fuel Reyna’s comeback. It’s fueled a desire to make up for that lost time too.
“I still kind of had this chip on my shoulder from the last year and not really being able to play,” he said. “So the fact that I’m back here and able to play, I don’t take it for granted.”
Reyna, who has four goals in 14 caps with the U.S., hopes the calendar and his health aren’t his only World Cup highlights. He’d like to make family history as well. Although he’s already halfway to his father’s total of eight goals in 112 caps, Claudio, a midfielder, never scored in a World Cup match, something his son could do as early as Monday when the U.S. plays Wales.
Time’s on Reyna’s side there as well because if he doesn’t score in Qatar, he figures to have as many as three more shots at the World Cup if he stays healthy. For the moment, though, he’s focusing on just getting through this one.
“With the injuries, I wasn’t trying to look too far ahead,” he said.
Celebrating the game beyond the World Cup
Speaking of the World Cup, Roger Bennett, the slightly more balding half of “The Men in Blazers,” has another book out, just in time for the tournament.
“Gods of Soccer,” written with Michael Davies, the other man in a blazer, and Miranda Davies features short profiles of more than eight dozen of the biggest names in the men’s and women’s games, from George Best and Bobby Charlton to Diego Maradona and Hope Solo.
Not all of them have played in a World Cup, Bennett conceded, but the book wasn’t meant to hype the tournament. FIFA does a good enough job of that on its own. Bennett’s book instead was intended to be a celebration of the game.
“The men’s World Cup right now, the Women’s World Cup coming up in 2023, that was definitely the driver,” he said. “For me greatness is defined in many different ways. And yes, obviously, glory is an incredible facet of greatness. But ultimately for me the joy of football is it holds up a mirror to human nature.
“So there’s greatness, there’s glory, there’s endeavor, there’s stories of tenacity. There’s stories of endurance, stories of human wonder. Really, we wanted to tell 100 incredible human stories.”
There was very little, if any original reporting included in the book. But the point wasn’t to break new ground. It was to revisit territory already well-trodden and present it to a new audience.
“Part of the mission with this book was to tell the stories,” said Bennett, who grew up an Everton fan in Liverpool. “I saw Pelé, I saw [Franz] Beckenbauer. I want her to tell their stories to an American audience, many of whom did not see those giants. Also there’s players that I didn’t see. Their stories were told to me by my parents.
“In England, football is a story of fathers and sons. It’s now a story of fathers and daughters, mothers and sons. But the stories they tell are passed down generation to generation.”
Few commentators do a better job celebrating the joy, wonder and wackiness of soccer than the Men in Blazers who, in addition to authors, are a podcast team and hosts of a streaming soccer program on Peacock. They are, in Bennett’s words, their own “media platform” — one they are taking on a 10-city national World Cup tour beginning Tuesday at Terminal 5 in New York City.
The L.A. stop, which Bennett said will feature special guests, will take place Dec. 9 at The Novo. Click here for ticket information.
World Cup stat watch
Some World Cup scoring stats from the research team at Gambling.com — for entertainment purposes only, of course.
229: Brazil has scored the most goals in World Cup history with 229 in 109 fixtures (2.10 per game). West Germany/Germany is second with 226 in the same number of games. The U.S. has scored the 22nd-most goals with 37 in 33 matches, a rate of 1.12 per game.
22: Brazil’s 1950 team is the highest-scoring World Cup host in tournament history with 22 goals in six games, although it lost 2-1 to Uruguay in the final. Uruguay’s 1930 team is the second-most-prolific host with 15 goals in four games; that rate of 3.75 goals per game is the highest in the tournament’s history.
27: Hungary’s 1954 “Mighty Magyars” scored the most goals at a World Cup, with 27 in five fixtures (5.4 per game). But Hungary lost the final 3-2 to West Germany.
171: As for the most prolific tournaments for goals, France 1998 and Brazil 2014 both had 171 goals across 64 fixtures, a rate of 2.67 per game.
Change is coming for MLS
Under commissioner Don Garber, MLS has grown faster than any sports league in the U.S. over the last 12 years and has more than doubled in size to 28 teams. In fact, eight of the 14 teams in this year’s playoffs — including LAFC and the Philadelphia Union, who met in this month’s MLS Cup final — weren’t even in the league in 2009.
A 29th team will begin play next season in St. Louis, where more than 60,000 fans already have made deposits for season tickets, and Garber hopes to announce a 30th franchise, either Las Vegas or San Diego, early next year.
But those weren’t the only reasons Garber’s state of the league address this month was even more upbeat than usual.
Overall attendance topped 10 million for the first time; the league has a new 10-year, $2.5-billion broadcast deal with Apple TV+, the most lucrative in its history; it will kick off a monthlong, 47-team tournament with the Liga MX next summer and about 40 MLS players are expected to take part in the World Cup this month.
According to Sportico, five MLS teams — including LAFC and the Galaxy, who ranked first and second, respectively — are worth at least $705 million. And that was before the MLS Cup final got its highest total viewership since 1997, when it drew 2.155 million combined on Fox and Univision. Of the nearly 1.5 million who watched on Fox, 43% were in the coveted 18-49 demographic. That’s a significantly higher percentage than what the NFL or World Series gets.
That’s the upside.
The downside? That attendance jump largely was a result of Charlotte, which plays in an NFL stadium and drew 600,000 in its inaugural season. Fifteen other teams had a decrease in attendance and, according to Soccer America, the league-wide average of 21,033 was down 1.4% from the last pre-COVID season in 2019.
As part of the TV deal, all games will be done in-house — many, if not most, from a remote studio thousands of miles from the stadium — rather than by local broadcasters with knowledge of the teams involved and a relationship with the fan bases. And the addition of the midsummer Leagues Cup tournament will mean even more fixture congestion at a time when Garber said the league is considering changes to its playoff format.
And despite the Sportico survey, MLS, which just finished its 27th season, has yet to turn a profit.
Still, cities and investors are lining up — literally — to join MLS and San Diego appears to have jumped to the head of that line, slightly in front of Las Vegas.
As Mark Zeigler wrote in the San Diego Union-Tribune, MLS has long viewed San Diego as an attractive partner. Now it finally may consummate a relationship.
“I’m a big believer in San Diego,” Garber said. “It’s a gateway city. We’ve got a brand new relationship that is very formal, on and off the field, with [Mexico’s] Liga MX. To think about what the opportunities are going to be if we have a team in San Diego with their connection down south and the player development opportunities, we’ve always believed in the market.”
San Diego, Zeigler wrote, has three of elements generally required for MLS expansion: a soccer-friendly market, well-capitalized ownership and a suitable, modern stadium in two-month-old Snapdragon Stadium, the 32,000-seat home of the NWSL’s San Diego Wave.
The lead investors in San Diego’s expansion bid are the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and the London-based Mansour Group, founded by Egyptian businessman Mohamed Mansour, which generates a reported $7.5 billion in annual revenues and has 60,000 employees. Mansour and his sons invested $118 million in Right to Dream, a high-performance youth soccer academy with facilities in Ghana, Denmark and Egypt. They also own a team in the Danish Superliga.
If everything appears to be falling in place in San Diego, they’re falling apart in Las Vegas, once considered the favored market. Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris, co-owners of Aston Villa in England’s Premier League, are leading the Las Vegas bid, but they need to build a roofed stadium given the extreme desert heat. That effort has been hampered by a suddenly unfavorable economic climate with soaring interest rates and construction costs.
“Stadiums are expensive,” Garber said. “Indoor stadiums are really expensive. So, we’ll see how all that plays out.”
On the playoff format, something MLS repeatedly has retooled, Garber said in his annual address the league once again is considering changes.
“If we can come out where tomorrow is better than today, we’ll do it,” he said. But, he added, there is no desire to change simply for the sake of change. He called the current format “fantastic and amongst the most exciting playoffs we’ve ever had.”
“Here in North America,” he said, “playoffs are a driver of excitement and a driver of focused interest for fans. And our fans are no different.”
Change won’t be long in coming, though. When San Diego or Las Vegas join the league, probably in 2025, look for MLS to go from two conferences to three 10-team divisions, a format that would emphasize regional rivalries but also require an overhaul of the regular-season schedule as well as the postseason tournament.
USWNT ends year with a lot of questions
The men’s World Cup hasn’t even started, but the women’s tournament is coming up quickly. And with just eight months to go, the reigning champion U.S. has a lot of work to do if it hopes to win a third consecutive title.
The Americans closed the year Sunday with a 2-1 win over Germany in Harrison, N.J., but it was far from a comfortable victory, with the U.S. needing to rally from a miserable first half to avoid losing a fourth game in a row.
The Americans, trailing 1-0 after 18 minutes, came back behind goals from Sophia Smith and Mallory Pugh minutes apart early in the second half. For Smith, the goal was her 11th of the season, making the 22-year-old the youngest player to lead the team in scoring in a calendar year since Mia Hamm in 1993 — coincidentally, the last time the U.S. lost three games in a row.
Pugh’s goal was the 25th of her international career to go with 27 assists, making her just the sixth player in U.S. history to reach 25 in both categories before her 25th birthday. Hamm is part of that group too.
“They’re inspiring to watch play and they show that at the stage of the career they’re at, they’re ready to compete against some of the best teams in the world,” coach Vlatko Andonovski said of his two young stars.
Alex Morgan, 33, also got in the record book by appearing in her 200th game for the U.S.
Germany, ranked third in the world by FIFA, beat the top-ranked U.S last week, handing the Americans their first loss at home in 72 games and extending a losing streak that began last month with losses in friendlies to No. 4 England and No. 6 Spain. The U.S. was outscored 6-2 in the three losses and hardly looked dominant in Sunday’s win while giving up 15 shots.
The U.S. will begin preparations for next summer’s World Cup in New Zealand and Australia in earnest in January when it travels to New Zealand for a training camp and a pair of friendlies. It finished this year with a 14-3-1 record, the three losses equaling the combined number the team suffered between 2018 and 2021. It also marked the first time the Americans lost three times in a year since 2017.
And finally there’s this …
The Galaxy on Monday exercised contract options on defenders Martín Cáceres and Séga Coulibaly, midfielders Daniel Aguirre, Jonathan Pérez and Adam Saldaña and forward Preston Judd and declined options on goalkeepers Jonathan Klinsmann and Richard Sánchez, defenders Eriq Zavaleta and Jorge Villafaña and midfielder Víctor Vázquez, although the Galaxy is continuing discussions with Vázquez, 35. ... Hamburger SV of Germany’s second-division 2 Bundesliga will play friendlies against a pair of local clubs this week, when it faces the Orange County Soccer Club on Tuesday at the Great Park of Irvine and the Ventura County Soccer Club, the reigning USL League 2 champion, on Friday at Ventura. Kickoff for both games in 7 p.m. … Midfielder Sacha Kljestan, who is out of contract with the Galaxy, appeared to have coaching as the first choice on his post-playing-days bingo card. But now he’s going to give broadcasting a try in Qatar. Fox announced Monday that Kljestan, Jimmy Conrad, DaMarcus Beasley and Melissa Ortiz will help anchor its FIFA World Cup Now digital show from Doha. In addition to Kljestan, Cobi Jones and Landon Donovan, who both played for the Galaxy, also are on the Fox team. The Galaxy might not have a player on the U.S. World Cup roster for the first time since 1994, but it is well represented in the broadcast booth.
In case you missed it
“When we are on the world stage and you’re in a venue like Qatar, it’s important to bring awareness to these issues. That’s what ‘Be the Change’ is about. It’s not just stateside that we want to bring attention to social issues.”
USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter on his team’s effort to highlight LGBTQ rights and exploitive labor practices in Qatar during the World Cup
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.