A simmering feud between two of the most high-profile families in American soccer spilled over into a full-blown scandal this week as out-of-contract United States men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter went public with details of a decades-old domestic violence incident that was recently brought to the attention of U.S. Soccer by the wife of one of his closest friends.
Danielle Reyna, the wife of U.S. soccer legend Claudio Reyna and mother of budding U.S. star Giovanni Reyna, announced Wednesday that she disclosed details of a 1991 incident — which involved her college roommate and Berhalter’s wife of 25 years, Rosalind — to U.S. Soccer Federation sporting director Earnie Stewart, triggering an independent investigation commissioned by the USSF.
The whole ordeal is one of the most bizarre episodes in American soccer history and one that appears to have been set into motion by something usually associated with youth sports: parents’ anger about their kid’s lack of playing time. Except, in this case, one of the parents (Claudio Reyna) is a former USMNT captain and National Soccer Hall of Fame inductee who played at four World Cups, and is a childhood friend and former teammate of Berhalter.
There’s a lot to unpack, but let’s look at how this all unfolded and what’s next for those involved.
The Berhalters and Reynas: From ‘like family’ to family feud
In American professional sports, few families have ever been as closely intertwined as these two. Claudio Reyna and Berhalter grew up together in New Jersey. In youth soccer, Claudio’s father was their coach. They were high school teammates at St. Benedict’s Prep, where they fielded the best team in the country for two years.
After they both played college soccer in the ACC (Reyna at Virginia, playing for Bruce Arena; Berhalter at North Carolina), they both embarked upon European careers. Both received their first USMNT cap in 1994, shared the pitch at the 2002 World Cup and played their last game with the national team in 2006. At North Carolina, Rosalind Berhalter (nee Santana) and Danielle Reyna (nee Egan) were four-year teammates, roommates and best friends. According to the United States National Soccer Team Players Association website, Reyna served as the best man in Berhalter’s wedding.
When Berhalter was hired as USMNT coach in 2018, U.S. Soccer prominently displayed Reyna’s glowing comments about his friend in a written feature, and that relationship extended to their respective sons. In June, Berhalter told ESPN’s “The Gab & Juls Show” that when he coaches Gio, “It’s almost like you’re putting a family member in the game.”
And interestingly enough, Claudio Reyna, in his capacity as the Austin FC sporting director, signed Berhalter’s son, Sebastian, from the Columbus Crew on loan for the 2021 MLS season. However, Reyna did not exercise the option to make the loan permanent, with Sebastian now in Vancouver.
How the rift began before the World Cup
Although only 20 years old, Gio Reyna has long been viewed as one of the most talented prospects the United States has ever produced. He dominated at the youth national team levels and debuted for Borussia Dortmund, one of Germany’s top clubs, just after turning 17. Weeks later, he became the youngest American to appear in the UEFA Champions League, assisting Erling Haaland on a game-winning goal against a Paris Saint-Germain side featuring Kylian Mbappe and Neymar.
Reyna’s national team debut came in November 2020, when Berhalter, who has known Gio his entire life, started him in a friendly against Wales, a day before his 18th birthday. After that point, Reyna was mostly a locked-on starter for Berhalter, scoring four times in his first eight appearances.
However, injury issues — some of which stemmed from a hamstring injury he picked up in the first game of World Cup qualifying on Sept. 2, 2021 — limited Reyna’s availability for both club and country for most of the year leading up to Qatar. After Reyna featured regularly for Dortmund in October and November, though, it appeared he was ready to play a major role at the tournament. For a team that struggled to score goals and create chances during qualifying, having Reyna back figured to solve some of those problems.
Instead, prior to the team’s first game against Wales, Berhalter informed Reyna that his role would be limited for reasons that have not been clearly established publicly. By his own later admission, Reyna did not take the news well. His attitude and effort were negatively impacted and he did not play, with Berhalter instead opting to use Seattle Sounders FC winger Jordan Morris off the bench late to try and find a winning goal.
After the game, Reyna told ESPN he was “100 percent” healthy and that Berhalter “doesn’t have to tell me why he didn’t put me in or why he does.” This contradicted Berhalter’s postgame explanation for Reyna’s omission, in which he said, “It was trying to get [Reyna] up to speed… But we’ve been building him up and think he can play a big role in this tournament. The question is when.”
This was the first public sign that something was amiss and Reyna’s status remained a puzzling storyline throughout the tournament. Reyna played seven minutes against England, did not get off the bench against Iran (even after winger Christian Pulisic left at halftime due to injury) and was a halftime sub against Netherlands, coming on at striker, before shifting out to the right wing.
None of this sat well with Claudio Reyna, who furiously texted friends about his son’s treatment by Berhalter throughout the tournament, including to Stewart and U.S. men’s national team general manager Brian McBride, all of whom played together on the national team.
Berhalter’s ‘off-record’ remark angers the Reynas
By all accounts, the issues related to Reyna’s use at the World Cup should have been put to bed when the tournament ended. Of course, that didn’t happen. It might have, however, had Berhalter not discussed the incident at the HOW Institute for Society’s Summit on Moral Leadership in New York on Dec. 6.
The summit, which included highly accomplished leaders from various fields, was intended to operate with what is known as Chatham House Rule, which essentially means nothing discussed among the roughly 200 people in attendance was supposed to be shared publicly. To help explain how he, as a coach, deals with difficult decisions, Berhalter alluded to his handling of Reyna.
Things came to a head on Dec. 11, when Charterworks published a partial transcript of Berhalter’s appearance, featuring the part about Reyna nearly being sent home. “We had a player that was clearly not meeting expectations on and off the field. One of 26 players, so it stood out,” Berhalter said. “As a staff, we sat together for hours deliberating what we were going to do with this player.”
Berhalter continued: “We were ready to book a plane ticket home, that’s how extreme it was. And what it came down to was, we’re going to have one more conversation with him, and part of the conversation was how we’re going to behave from here out. There aren’t going to be any more infractions.”
On Dec. 12, the day after Berhalter’s comments went public, Gio posted a message on Instagram where he wrote that the reports of nearly being sent home from the World Cup “highly fictionalized,” adding he was disappointed that details regarding his participation in Qatar were not kept “in house.” It remains Gio’s only public comments on the matter to date.
The irony here is that in trying to provide an example of his own leadership to a room full of mostly strangers, Berhalter made a massive leadership error in sharing what should have remained an in-house issue. Even though Berhalter didn’t use Gio’s name and was under the impression the comments wouldn’t be published, he had nothing substantive to gain from making them.
An investigation announced, and the Reynas’ role revealed
Already irate from their son’s World Cup experience, Reyna’s parents contacted Stewart on Dec. 11, the day that Berhalter’s remarks were released. Fast-forward to this week, when Berhalter released a lengthy statement on Tuesday saying someone had contacted U.S. Soccer with information that would “take him down,” and revealed he had kicked his then-girlfriend, Rosalind, following a bar-room argument while in college at North Carolina.
After Berhalter’s statement, U.S. Soccer quickly followed with one of its own, saying it hired an outside law firm to investigate the incident after the allegation was raised on Dec. 11. Prior to Stewart being informed of the domestic violence incident, sources told ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle that things were trending in the direction for Berhalter to be retained. It wasn’t a done deal by any means, but after the allegation was made, discussions were halted and Berhalter’s contract expired on Dec. 31.
After Tuesday’s announcements, ESPN reported on Wednesday that Danielle had disclosed details of a 1991 incident, with her and Claudio then releasing subsequent statements.
“I wanted to let [Earnie Stewart] know that I was absolutely outraged and devasted 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,” her statement read, in part. “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.”
Added Claudio: “I support my wife, Danielle, and her statement. I too was upset by Gregg’s comments about Gio after the U.S. was out of the World Cup, and I also appealed to Earnie Stewart on December 11 asking him to prevent any additional comments. While in Qatar, I shared my frustrations about my son’s World Cup experience with a number of close friends, Earnie and Brian McBride among them. However, at no time did I ever threaten anyone, nor would I ever do so.”
Taylor Twellman says he is saddened by reports that Claudio and Danielle Renya threatened to release details about USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter.
So, what’s next for Gio, Claudio and Gregg?
Let’s start with Gio. His immaturity in Qatar should have been easy enough to forget. Given everything that’s happened, that becomes harder, but that’s through no fault of his own. None of what has happened since the World Cup should have any impact on his standing with the national team and he remains the highest-ceiling player in the entire pool.
For Claudio, this will likely be a reputational hit more than anything. It wouldn’t be surprising if there were prior issues brewing between him and Berhalter because it seems so bizarre that he wouldn’t give such a close friend the benefit of the doubt when it came to professional decision-making, even if that meant less playing time for his son. So, to react by sending disparaging text messages to U.S. Soccer executives about Berhalter during the World Cup is puzzling behavior.
The person who hired Reyna in Austin, owner Anthony Precourt, has a close relationship with Berhalter from their time in Columbus — as does the team’s head coach, Josh Wolff, a longtime Berhalter assistant coach — which could make for, at minimum, some uncomfortable moments.
Berhalter’s way forward is less clear. He said he’s interested in continuing as manager, but he’ll presumably wait on the conclusion of the investigation into the 1991 incident and see where he stands with the USMNT job. Assuming he doesn’t get it, maybe he’ll be in line for some time off before deciding what’s next. Before Columbus, he managed Swedish side Hammarby, and sources told ESPN during the World Cup that Berhalter was interested in exploring European club options.
It’s a difficult path to project for Berhalter, who was candid about what happened with Gio in Qatar.
“If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t have told that story,” Berhalter said in an interview with the Harvard Business Review on Thursday.
And who’ll next coach the USMNT? What about the investigation?
First up is the annual January camp for a pair of friendly matches against Serbia (Jan. 25) and Colombia (Jan. 28) in Southern California. The camp customarily calls in a younger group of domestic-based players, so neither Reyna nor any of the Europe-based stars will participate.
Anthony Hudson, a Berhalter assistant for the past two years, will serve as the interim coach for the games, having previously served as the head coach of Bahrain (2013-14), New Zealand (2014 to 2017) and MLS side Colorado Rapids. Hudson, it should be clear, is not a serious candidate to become the permanent head coach. His appointment has everything to do with short-term availability and continuity, with other U.S. youth national team coaches filling out the staff.
It’s unclear when to expect a permanent coach to be hired. Before that will happen, U.S. Soccer executives said Wednesday that a full review of the men’s program will be completed, along with the independent investigation into Berhalter’s domestic violence incident. They were unwilling to attach an estimated timeline for how long those processes will take.
“Obviously, we need to speed this along so that we can name who is going to be the head coach of the men’s national team and start gearing up for World Cup ’26,” U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone said. “So, we want to move quickly, but not rush.”
In the same news conference, Stewart allowed for the possibility that Berhalter could be rehired. In Thursday’s chat with the Harvard Business Review, Berhalter expressed his desire to be the coach for the next cycle.
While both parties haven’t ruled out his possible return, from a practical standpoint there is very little possibility that will happen. The last thing U.S. Soccer wants is for the unwanted noise of the past month — and particularly this week — to extend into the future, and if Berhalter were to be rehired, it would buoy the topic for the foreseeable future.
Even before the domestic violence incident surfaced and the drama attached to it came to light, there were plenty of reasons for U.S. Soccer to move on from Berhalter. While he accomplished many of the key objectives — including a good showing at the World Cup, where the team advanced after going unbeaten in the group stage — nothing about his track record indicates he’s fit to lead a team deep into a World Cup.
And with a talented core group that should be at or nearing their athletic prime in four years, that should be the goal. The team has CONCACAF Nations League matches against Grenada and El Salvador in March, but those games aren’t important enough to rush the hiring process, either. It seems realistic, however, that a new coach could be in place by this summer’s Gold Cup, which begins June 26.