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Comment: Threats and slander. The damages caused by the parents of Gio Reyna will haunt US Soccer

Gregg Berhalter did nothing wrong.

Not recently, anyway.

And the parents of the winger of the national soccer team Gio Reyna? Well, they are selfish jerks who should have known better.

Those, basically, are the findings of a 10-week investigation by an Atlanta law firm retained by US Soccer. The firm examined the origins of a sad, sordid and embarrassing soap opera involving Berhalter, former – and perhaps future – coach of the US national team, and the parents of one of his star players.

Now the federation, which released that report on Monday, says it’s time to move on. However, the damage caused by the unnecessary drama could take months, if not years, to repair.

In short, Berhalter, the team’s coach since 2018, told Gio Reyna on the eve of the World Cup last fall that he would have a limited role in the tournament. The player took the news badly and pouted, forcing his teammates and coaches to step in and address his attitude; Reyna finally apologized, but the water didn’t stay under the bridge.

Days after the World Cup, Berhalter spoke at a leadership conference in New York where he shared an anecdote about an unidentified player whose behavior in Qatar had been so disruptive that the coaching staff discussed sending him home. Media reports later identified that player as Reyna, who played just 52 minutes in the tournament.

That’s when things really went off the rails.

In response, Gio’s parents, Claudio and Danielle Reyna, both former national team players, sent a text message to Earnie Stewart, then the head coach of US Soccer, to complain about Berhalter. According to the Alston & Bird report, Stewart then had an hour-long phone conversation during which Danielle Reyna told Stewart about a 31-year-old physical altercation between Berhalter and Rosalind Santana, her college roommate and the woman who she would later become Berhalter’s wife.

The incident was never reported to the police and the Reynas had no intention of going public but, according to the report, “were thinking of starting to spread the story to others in private.”

Sounds like blackmail, huh? But it also follows a pattern. According to Alston & Bird’s investigation, a person whose name has been redacted from the report recalled Danielle Reyna, speaking of Berhalter at an event during the World Cup, saying: “Once this tournament is over, I can make a phone call and give an interview, and his cool sneakers and bounce passes will be gone.”

Former US Men’s National Team coach Gregg Berhalter.

(Andre Penner / Associated Press)

The message, the unidentified witness told investigators, was that Berhalter’s “cool guy” image could end quickly and that Danielle Reyna could “beat” him.

It’s important to pause here and consider the player at the center of this drama. Gio Reyna, 20, is a dynamic and talented athlete who could become one of the greatest American players of all time. But he’s also prone to injury, having played the full 90 minutes just once in 16 appearances for the national team. And 11 of his 15 Bundesliga appearances for Borussia Dortmund this season have come as a substitute.

He is used to coming off the bench. It’s cash coming out of the bank. So Berhalter’s plan to use him off the bench in Qatar made sense. But even if he didn’t, he’s the coach and the decision is his, something Claudio Reyna, a four-time World Cup player and former team captain, certainly knows.

However, the older Reyna repeatedly used her status within US Soccer to seek favorable treatment for her son. Starting in 2016 and running through the 2022 World Cup, the report says, Reyna protested to US Soccer officials about her son’s playing time, the sanctions and suspensions her son received, and selection decisions for the camps. of US Soccer in an attempt to change those results. The complaints were particularly troubling from a man who replaced Stewart as captain during the 2002 World Cup and wore the US armband in his next seven World Cup games.

Berhalter, by the way, played alongside Reyna in two of those matches.

If there’s one good thing to come out of this drama, it’s that US Soccer has vowed to rewrite its policies to include language defining parental conduct and inappropriate communications with the national team. In the short term, however, that can’t erase the massive damage the Reynas’ personal vendetta has caused, both to themselves and to the national program they once played for.

Claudio Reyna, 49, once considered one of the best sports directors in MLS, resigned with Austin FC in January and is listed on the club’s website as a technical advisor. Meanwhile, for the young and talented USMNT, the momentum he’s gained over the past four years has stalled, if not reversed. Although Berhalter publicly acknowledged and apologized for the 1991 altercation with the woman who is now his wife, and the investigation ordered by US Soccer into the incident cleared the coach, his contract expired three weeks after the Reynas’ first phone call with Stewart and the controversy that conversation engendered necessarily delayed the federation’s decision on a new manager.

Stewart’s subsequent decision to leave US Soccer and return to his native Netherlands last month delayed that decision further because his replacement as head coach will need to be hired before a new manager can be chosen. That leaves the national team rudderless for a World Cup cycle that will end with the tournament being played in the US.

More importantly, the smear has unfairly tarnished the reputation of Berhalter, a good, decent man who, incidentally, has the best winning percentage of any USMNT coach who has worked more than two games. Virtually every player on the World Cup team has spoken favorably of the 49-year-old Berhalter, who is expected to be a candidate to return as coach when the selection process for that position begins.

However, that might not happen until the summer, leaving the US to play interim coach Anthony Hudson in this spring’s Nations League and this summer’s Gold Cup.

Hudson is among those ready to move on. Later this week he will announce his roster for this month’s Nations League games with Grenada and El Salvador and why he didn’t say Gio Reyna will be on that team, he also didn’t say he wouldn’t.

“He’s a talented and important player, a young player,” Hudson said after a recent meeting with Reyna in Germany. “This happened. We, as a staff, made the decision to take action and there was a response from the player, a positive response. Beyond that, I don’t see Gio’s involvement in anything.

“I am not forgiving anything that has happened. … The other things are separated from the child, from the player”.

You’ve read the latest installment of On Soccer with Kevin Baxter. The weekly soccer column will take you behind the scenes and highlight unique stories. Look it up every Tuesday morning at latimes.com/soccer.