Alexi Lalas, a television commentator who represented the United States in two World Cups, succinctly described the setting surrounding the national team’s first camp since the World Cup in Qatar.
“January camps are always kind of strange,” Lalas told Sirius XM satellite radio, “but this is even more so because of the circumstances.”
In the midst of those circumstances, a young squad without the vast majority of its World Cup representatives lost its first match since returning from Qatar. An inexperienced Serbia side rallied for a 2-1 victory in a friendly Wednesday night in front of 11,475 spectators at BMO Stadium, the former Banc of California Stadium.
The circumstances involve the World Cup team’s coach, 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 squad’s future.
As a refresher: Gregg Berhalter, who guided the Americans in Qatar, told Gio Reyna, Borussia Dortmund’s 20-year-old midfielder, that he would have a minimal role during the tournament. Reyna’s parents, Claudio and Danielle, represented the United States internationally, with Claudio playing in three World Cups and for first-division clubs in England, Scotland and Germany.
Both families had been close. The husbands were high-school and World Cup teammates, and the wives were college roommates.
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 leadership conference and described how he and the squad disciplined a player for poor effort in training. Although Berhalter mentioned no names, Gio Reyna was that player. Five days later, Danielle Reyna called US Soccer, the national federation, to disclose that Berhalter kicked his future wife in the legs outside a bar in 1991, when Berhalter was a freshman at North Carolina.
US Soccer is now investigating Berhalter, who admitted the incident and whose contract expired after the World Cup.
Gio Reyna propelled the controversy Sunday with a goal celebration that seemed 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 morass stepped Anthony Hudson, one of Berhalter’s assistants. The son of former Stoke City, Chelsea and England midfielder Alan Hudson became the acting manager for this week’s friendlies against Serbia and Colombia.
“Really, there’s no coaching course or anything to guide you in moments like this,” said Hudson, who managed New Zealand’s and Bahrain’s national teams before joining Berhalter. “This is a really different situation.”
Complicating the situation is Hudson’s relationship with Berhalter.
“Listen, I’m close with Gregg,” Hudson said. “It has not been easy for me. We’ve been involved in scouting. We did a lot of projects during that time. I have a lot of respect for Gregg. I have a lot to be grateful for to Gregg for giving me the opportunity. He’s still a good man.”
Hudson’s friendship with Berhalter accentuates the anguish permeating 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 so much good work was done. It’s a shame for everyone involved: players, staff, Gregg. It’s not a nice situation. When all this happened, all the attention has gone away from all the good work and has been shifted in another direction.”
But in preparing for a camp without most of those World Cup veterans, Hudson had to redirect focus. The roster composition intensified the challenge: 13 members never played in a senior international match, and six were 20 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. Another veteran, forward Paul Arriola, joined them.
“When they came in, we had a meeting with the leadership group.” Hudson said. “I shared my personal view of the situation a little bit. I tried to be very honest. We talked about what the camp would look like. Then I said, ‘I’m going to lean on you even more in this camp. We’ve got 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 of the little nuances of how we play.’”
“The vibe in the locker room is great,” forward Brandon Vasquez said. “Everybody gets along really well. Every time we step on the field, you can see that. The team chemistry is really there even though we have a lot of new faces. Everybody watching the US national team knows exactly their style of play and we’re stepping in and doing exactly that.”
“I think the vibes, the atmosphere, the energy of the group has been 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 have been experienced here, like Walker, Aaron, Paul. They’ve done a great job of keeping the standards set high and telling the new guys what you have to hit, what you have to achieve.”
Hudson expressed no surprise.
“That’s why we chose them to come in,” he said, “because we know the character of these guys.”
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 glancing nine-yard header off Julian Gressel’s right-wing cross. But Serbia’s Luca Ilic converted a 21-yard free kick in the 43rd minute, then Veljko Simic scored from 13 yards after receiving a ball from Nikola Stulic, who dispossessed the Americans’ Jalen Neal.
“I’m disappointed with the result, obviously, but I was really pleased with the performance,” Hudson said. “We created a lot of good chances. Individually, there were some really, really big performances. When we got a goal behind. I thought we showed a lot of bravery. I loved the fact that players were really driving to get forward and attack the backline.”
The United States will end this month’s camp Saturday with its friendly against Colombia in nearby Carson. Beyond that…
“Ultimately, it’s out of our hands,” midfielder Paxton Pomykal said, “and there’s nothing we can really say about it.”
Hudson expressed the same sentiment with a bit of personal eloquence.
“We play these two games,” he said. “Then, I’m going to go home and see my dogs and see what comes after that.”