MEXICO CITY — All at once, Gio Reyna showed the promise of the U.S. national team’s future and the frustration of its present.
Just back from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for more than half a season, the young American midfielder entered Thursday night's World Cup qualifier in the 60th minute. In the match's most memorable moment, the 19-year-old ran onto a ball poked loose by Walker Zimmerman outside the U.S. penalty area and sprinted half the length of the field on a dazzling run of 14 touches.
Reyna evaded six challenges before Johan Vásquez managed to knock the ball away about 30 yards from Mexico’s net, a bolt that evoked memories of Diego Maradona's dash to a goal against England in a World Cup quarterfinal on the very same Estadio Azteca pitch.
“Mexico was the host of the ‘86 World Cup, where Maradona scored his wonderful goal, and I had visions of that while Gio was dribbling,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said after the 0-0 draw. “Unfortunately he didn’t finish it off.”
Neither did the U.S., which would clinch a return to the World Cup with a game to spare by beating Panama on Sunday at Orlando, Florida — if Costa Rica fails to win at El Salvador.
A son of former U.S. captain Claudio Reyna and women's national team midfielder Danielle Egan, Gio made just his 10th international appearance, his first since straining his right hamstring in the opening qualifier at El Salvador on Sept. 2.
Gio blushed when told of Berhalter’s comparison.
“I don’t know about that, but, yeah, it was a nice run,” Reyna said. “In the end, it didn’t really turn out to anything.”
His father played one game in Azteca's thin air, a 2-1 loss in a 2005 qualifier. Claudio also had returned from a long-term leg injury, one that had limited him to three matches with Manchester City over the previous six months.
Gio showed explosive speed, volleying Kellyn Acosta’s looping pass in the 72nd minute to Jordan Pefok, who sent an open left-foot shot wide from 6 yards in one of the best American chances of the night.
Reyna's run came in the 77th minute. He romped to his right and evaded a sliding Héctor Herrera, deked left to slalom past Vásquez and sprinted into the center circle to spin around Herrera again. Reyna outran Gerardo Arteaga. dribbled past Raúl Jiménez and cut left and then right to blow past Jorge Sánchez’s slide tackle. Only then was Vásquez able to knock the ball away.
Reyna stretched his arms out wide and slapped them together as Christian Pulisic whacked the bouncing ball into the waiting arms of goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa.
Not quite the same as when Maradona evaded Peter Beardsley, Peter Reid, Terry Butcher (twice), Terry Fenwick and goalkeeper Peter Shilton, but close enough.
“You could see that he's stronger. He looked quick, and he's getting fit,” Berhalter said. “When he gets 100% fit, he's going to really help this team for longer stretches.”
In his third season with Germany's Borussia Dortmund, Reyna did not return from the hamstring injury until Feb. 6. Two weeks later in his third match back, he left the field in tears when he felt pain in a leg and collapsed, thinking he would be sidelined for another long stretch. But he was back as a second-half sub on March 13, played a full 90 minutes last Sunday and reported to U.S. camp.
“I guess the main thing was probably just fitness," he said. “All the stuff on the field is kind of just I've been doing it my whole life."
Berhalter often points out how young the U.S. is at it tries to rebound from failing to reach the 2018 World Cup. The starting lineup averaged 24 years, 136 days, relative geezers to the record youth of 22 years, 61 days that began the Oct. 13 victory over Costa Rica.
“It’s an exciting group of players,” Berhalter said, “and you think about the prospect of these guys getting even better is really exciting.”
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