From Family Friends to Family Feud: A Deep Dive into the Latest U.S. Soccer Drama
Updated: Jan 12
In one of the most bizarre family feuds highlighted by two of the most well-known families in the history of United States soccer, the United States Men’s National Team (“USMNT”) has once again captured the attention of American sports goers – this time for reasons much less pleasant than the team’s Round of 16 finish at the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Shortly into 2023 and less than a month after the conclusion of the World Cup, USMNT Head Coach Gregg Berhalter admitted to a decades-old domestic violence incident that was reported to U.S. Soccer by a then-anonymous source. The news took the soccer world by surprise as the accusation and admission seemingly came out of nowhere.
When asked why he decided to come forward, Berhalter said, “During the World Cup, an individual contacted U.S. Soccer, saying 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”. Upon news that its fearless leader was the subject of such an incident, U.S. Soccer hired law firm Alston & Bird to conduct an independent investigation into the matter. Although the investigation is still ongoing, the initial findings and results are quite shocking.
Setting the Stage
During the World Cup, Berhalter was harshly criticized for the players he selected to participate in each of the USMNT’s four matches. The lack of minutes for one player in particular confused American fans: 20-year-old phenom Gio Reyna. Reyna plays for Borussia Dortmund of the German Bundesliga and currently holds the record as the youngest American to appear in the UEFA Champions League – a remarkable achievement in a competition dominated by the top players in the world.
After making his debut for the USMNT at age 17, he had been a consistent selection for Berhalter, contributing numerous goals to a seemingly goal-deficient team. Americans were eager to witness the impact he could have on the team’s World Cup journey, but after logging only 52 of the potential 360 minutes, Berhalter was repeatedly questioned for not playing him more.
Berhalter’s answers cited “muscle soreness” as the reason Reyna did not receive more playing time. However, after Reyna told reporters he was 100% fit to play, Berhalter‘s response elicited a deeper dive into the true reason behind the lack of play. As it turns out, Berhalter nearly sent Reyna home during the World Cup for what he designated as “commitment issues”. The attacking midfielder was said to have shown an extreme lack of effort along with a terrible attitude during training sessions. These issues began after Berhalter informed Reyna that his role in the team would be limited for undisclosed reasons.
Reyna’s spot on the team was ultimately reaffirmed, albeit by the skin of his teeth. After issuing a half-hearted apology to the team, as mandated by Berhalter, Reyna barely survived a player vote in which 52% of the team voted in favor of keeping him in Qatar.
Everything would have eventually blown over if Berhalter had kept his mouth shut. However, he discussed the issue in detail at the HOW Institute for Society’s Summit on Moral Leadership on December 6. Ironically, Berhalter also revealed that Reyna’s situation was not supposed to be discussed with the public. Up until the Summit, the controversy around Reyna’s limited minutes was pure speculation. So, the decision to reveal details that were supposed to be kept in-house was an interesting choice for someone speaking at a leadership summit. 25 years in professional soccer should have taught Berhalter the unwritten rule of what happens in the locker room, stays in the locker room.
The Reyna’s Become Involved
With the details now in the public eye, Reyna’s parents received word of what had occurred making the situation more interesting. Gio Reyna is the son of Claudio and Danielle Reyna. Claudio Reyna and Berhalter were extremely close friends, playing soccer together from their youth days all the way through their USMNT appearances. In fact, Claudio was the best man in Berhalter’s wedding. Danielle Reyna was the college roommate to Berhalter’s now-wife, who was the victim of the domestic violence incident reported to U.S. Soccer. The Berhalter’s and the Reyna’s were so close that when Berhalter subbed Gio Reyna into a match, he said it was as if he was “putting a family member into the game.” One would think that such ”family” ties would lend the situation to be resolved as close friends do. However, what occurred was anything but a resolution.
From the initially revealed Alston & Bird investigation findings, it has been determined that Claudio and Danielle Reyna were the sources that held the information that would ‘take Berhalter down.’ Claudio Reyna admitted to communicating with USMNT executives during the World Cup, expressing his frustration with his son’s lack of playing time. Although he denies it, numerous sources have reported that during those conversations, Claudio threatened to reveal allegations of Berhalter’s past. However, his wife Danielle beat him to it after Berhalter revealed the details of their son’s situation at the leadership summit. In a statement to Fox Sports and The Athletic, she said:
“I did call (U.S. Soccer Sporting Director) Earnie Stewart on December 11, just after the news broke that Gregg [Berhalter] had made negative statements about my son Gio at a leadership conference. 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.”
Although domestic violence is a matter to be taken very seriously, the incident occurred over 30 years ago. Berhalter admitted to kicking his now-wife while the two (and Danielle Reyna) attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1991. Given their long-standing marriage, Berhalter and his wife clearly have made amends and have worked to move past the inexcusable incident, making Danielle Reyna’s decision, which Claudio Reyna explicitly supported, considered by some to be extremely petty. Berhalter and his wife should not be forced to relive the events after likely working extremely hard to move past them just because the Reyna‘s were upset their son caused some trouble.
Berhalter’s Legal Options
If Berhalter would like to continue this immature game of ‘who can get the better of who,’ he may have a couple of legal claims against the Reyna’s. Although defamation might come to mind due to a diminishment of Berhalter’s character, a quick look into the elements for a defamation claim reveals it would likely be unsuccessful.
To prove defamation, Berhalter would have to show four elements: 1) a false statement purporting to be fact; 2) publication or communication of that statement to a third person; 3) fault amounting to at least negligence; and 4) damages, or some harm caused to the reputation of the person or entity who is the subject of the statement. Given Berhalter’s admission to the incident, a defamation claim would likely fail because the first element would not be satisfied.
Rather, another claim Berhalter may pursue is a blackmail claim. However, despite the slight variability depending on whether it is an allegation in violation of federal or state law, all blackmail/extortion laws require a threat to be made. Whether or not threats were actually made, or if the Reyna’s decision was done to “get back” at Berhalter, is a key piece of the puzzle Alston & Bird is still trying to determine. Numerous sources report that Claudio Reyna made a threat, but Claudio denies it. If the investigation confirms a threat was indeed made, Berhalter may have a viable claim for blackmail.
Yet, for the sake of preserving U.S. Soccer’s reputation and not entering into a lawsuit against a previously close friend, Berhalter would be wise to leave the situation where it is at and out of the courtroom. The Berhalter’s and Reyna’s are two powerhouse families of American soccer, and the headlines their drama has thus far produced have created a sense of uncertainty about where U.S. soccer is headed next. Especially as the USMNT is searching for their next permanent head coach to lead the team through the next wave of international tournaments, this controversy has dampened the allure of a previously highly valued position.
Further, should Berhalter choose to let this situation phase out of the public eye, American soccer fans would be allowed to focus their attention on the more important topics of United States soccer: the upcoming 2023 Women’s FIFA World Cup and hosting the 2026 Men’s FIFA World Cup. The eyes of international soccer are on the United States, and maintaining a non-corrupt reputation is just as important as performing well in international tournaments.
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