clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The USMNT Scandal Reflects the Incestuous Nature of American Soccer

A small clique of elites runs U.S. Soccer, passing it on from fathers to sons, from mentors to mentees. In retrospect, it was inevitable that two prominent American soccer families would get caught up in a bubbling stew of conflicted interests and backstabbing.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For a federation that governs more than 12 million participants across a vast expanse of land, U.S. Soccer is a very small outfit. While the governing body for the sport in the country currently has more than 100 employees, it has been dominated for decades by a tiny elite.

You have to go back a long way to find a men’s national team head coach who didn’t split off from the same coaching tree—with the notable exception of Jurgen Klinsmann. Bob Bradley (2007-11), Dave Sarachan (2017-18), and Gregg Berhalter (2018-present?) were all former assistants of Bruce Arena (1998-2006 and 2017) at the college, pro, or national level, while Berhalter also played under Arena on the USMNT. Arena, in turn, was mentored by Manny Schellscheidt (1975), as were several other national team managers. They all hail from New Jersey or New York.

Key executives and upper-level staffers at the United States Soccer Federation tend to stick around for most of their careers. One president often begets another. In 2020, when then-president Carlos Cordeiro—the longtime left-hand man of previous president Sunil Gulati, who himself was the protégé of former president Alan Rothenberg—was forced to resign, the new president, Cindy Parlow Cone, was styled as a reformer. Yet the job she was elevated from was federation vice president. Before that, the longtime women’s national teamer sat on five different U.S. Soccer committees. Even the outsiders are insiders.

“It seems to be recycled names,” says former men’s national team player and ESPN analyst Herculez Gomez. “It does seem to be centralized. And that’s not a good thing, when something is so monopolized. U.S. Soccer needs to be open to new ideas, different perspectives.”

A small clique of people runs the American game, passing it on from fathers to sons, from mentors to mentees. But now, two prominent American soccer families are caught up in a bubbling stew of conflicted interests and backstabbing so lurid not even the BBC could resist doing a four-minute segment on the drama across the pond. The feud pits the current national team head coach, Berhalter, against one of the American game’s biggest names, Claudio Reyna, who also happens to be the father of perhaps the most promising U.S. talent ever.

If you’ve somehow missed the Reyna kerfuffle, or can’t quite get your head around it, here is a brief explanation: Star forward Gio Reyna didn’t play much at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, watching from the bench as lesser players got on the field and tired ones didn’t come off of it. There was speculation about an injury, which Reyna himself dispelled after the opening game against Wales. A few days after the U.S. exited the tournament, Berhalter gave an off-the-record talk at a conference and told the crowd a story about a player who was nearly sent home from Qatar for a lack of effort in practice. His statements leaked. Inevitably, the name was reported: Gio Reyna. Reyna confirmed the news on Instagram, and explained he’d been “devastated” to be told that his role at the World Cup would be limited. A young player threw a petulant fit. Happens all the time. We thought the story was over. It was not.

Last Tuesday, Berhalter posted a long message on an unverified Twitter account with only a few dozen followers at the time. “During the World Cup an individual contacted U.S. Soccer, saying that they had information about me that would ‘take me down’—an apparent effort to leverage something very personal from long ago to bring about the end of my relationship with U.S. Soccer,” he wrote. Then he confessed to an incident of domestic violence between him and his now-wife, Rosalind, in 1991, when he was 18 and they were both soccer players at the University of North Carolina. During a drunken night out, Berhalter said, he kicked Rosalind in the legs during an argument. In a separate statement, published minutes after Berhalter’s tweet, U.S. Soccer said it had hired a law firm to begin an investigation and then announced that Berhalter, whose contract with the federation expired on December 31 and whose future was already the subject of ongoing speculation, would not lead the team at its annual January camp—an assistant of his would.

Then things really took a turn. The following day, ESPN reported that Danielle Reyna, Rosalind’s UNC teammate and best friend who had witnessed the incident, and who is Gio’s mother, had been the one to make the blackmail-ish threats to the federation. Danielle’s husband, Claudio, was Berhalter’s childhood friend and longtime national teammate. Claudio’s a National Soccer Hall of Famer and the federation’s former youth technical director. None of that, however, stopped him from also sending multiple complaints via text message to members of U.S. Soccer, including technical director Earnie Stewart and men’s national team general manager Brian McBride—both former teammates of Claudio and Berhalter. The Reynas confirmed to The Athletic that they had contacted the organization, but still defended their intent. “I have known Earnie for years and consider him to be a close friend,” Danielle said. “I wanted to let him know that I was absolutely outraged and devastated that Gio had been put in such a terrible position, and that I felt very personally betrayed by the actions of someone my family had considered a friend for decades. As part of that conversation, I 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.”

Ew. Gross. All of it.

This kind of thing can happen only when entire families are intertwined over the course of generations. Now it’s caught at least the short-term future of U.S. Soccer in the crossfire.

This is all very normal in American soccer. Anybody who is anyone in the domestic game has known everybody else who is anyone for decades. Everybody sticks around forever. Nobody goes away. To wit, the senior Reyna and Berhalter played youth soccer together, coached by Reyna’s father, Miguel. They went to St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark together, a school that somehow produced four men’s national teamers and 11 pro soccer players overall (as well as, uh, Watergate mastermind G. Gordon Liddy). Maybe that’s because the school is in New Jersey, which has yielded a wildly disproportionate number of national team players—six National Soccer Hall of Famers issued just from little Kearny (population 40,000). But that still doesn’t account for Claudio being the best man when Berhalter married Rosalind. The incident from college had been forgiven and the families stayed close. The Berhalters’ son, Sebastian, played for Austin FC, where Claudio is the sporting director and Berhalter’s former assistant, Josh Wolff, is the head coach; Gio Reyna, of course, played, or possibly still plays, for Berhalter.

There’s no use in scrawling a scorecard of blame here. But the whole sorry episode is instructive in that it lays bare the incestuousness in American soccer. What’s more interesting now is working out where the federation will go from here. How does it come back from this?

Gio is perhaps the men’s national team’s most talented player—possibly of all time, and yes, even more so than Christian Pulisic. And at the World Cup, several high-ranking federation officials I spoke to were extremely complimentary of Berhalter’s work as national team head coach. Speaking at yet another conference, Berhalter has said that he hopes to return to the job. So what, or who, is going to give?

It’s been pointed out that it would be hard to imagine U.S. Soccer going to the lengths of commissioning an internal investigation, heaping yet more attention and scorn on an ugly incident it would sooner forget, if it had no intention whatsoever of retaining Berhalter. It follows that if the federation were leaning toward letting Berhalter go, the whole sordid ordeal would provide the perfect cover to ditch him, in spite of his competent performance at the World Cup. Conducting a full investigation and finding some credible resolution, on the other hand, could erect a permission structure to bring Berhalter back, so long as more dirt isn’t dug up. (Danielle Reyna dumped another barrel of fuel on the fire by claiming that Berhalter’s confession “significantly minimize[d] the abuse on the night in question” in her statement to The Athletic.) Then again, U.S. Soccer may be skittish after years of bad PR over its equal pay fight with the women’s national team and its failure to act when NWSL players reported widespread abuse.

“I fully believe that [Berhalter] was on his way to being re-signed for a second term,” says Gomez. “This comes to light and now I don’t know how U.S. Soccer goes back to Gregg Berhalter. The last thing the U.S. Soccer Federation ever wanted is this. They spent the last half decade in legal battles with players. If [Berhalter] were to come back, the uproar from a sector of fans and sponsors, I just don’t think that’s a headache U.S. Soccer wants.”

Perhaps not. After two-time Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane reportedly turned down the U.S. job, the federation might well move on to some other member of the fraternity, some other branch from the tree. But chances are that, one way or another, the Berhalters and the Reynas will have to find a way to get along again. Because neither is likely to go away.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a regular contributor on soccer to The Ringer. He is writing a book about the United States men’s national team. He teaches at Marist College.