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'Unbelievable' Reyna can be key to USMNT's World Cup dreams

7:00 PM GMT+8 27/03/2022
Giovanni Reyna USMNT
The Borussia Dortmund star might not be 100 per cent fit, but he may not have to be to still play a leading role in Sunday's clash with Panama

Want to know how good Gio Reyna is? Just watch the clip.

It is a few seconds of individual brilliance, of grace and poise and joy and everything else that makes the beautiful game beautiful.

The clip, a few seconds of Reyna darting in and out of Mexico's midfield on a mazy run in the heavy Azteca air, went viral almost immediately. His own coach, Gregg Berhalter, called it Maradona-esque, alluding to the famous Goal of the Century in Mexico scored 16 years before Reyna was even born.

"I don't know about that," said Reyna, as he and team-mate Christian Pulisic could do nothing but laugh at the comparison between a 19-year-old American kid and, perhaps, the most dazzling and awe-inspiring soccer player of all time.

Berhalter was not comparing Reyna to Maradona, because doing so would be foolish. And, ultimately, Maradona's miraculous run through the England defense ended with a historic goal, while Reyna's ended with the young American running into a brick wall.

But what Reyna does have is that ability to absolutely turn a game on its head, to create the one or two moments that determine whether the U.S. men's national team wins or loses.

And, on Sunday night, those one or two moments may just determine whether or not the USMNT goes to a World Cup.

The U.S. will face Panama on Sunday in their penultimate World Cup qualifying game and the situation is clear. Better Costa Rica's result against El Salvador and the U.S. is in. Lose and see the path to Qatar get a whole lot more difficult.

Heading into Sunday's match, the USMNT will be pretty shorthanded. Weston McKennie and Sergino Dest are ruled out due to injury. The injury bug bit Brenden Aaronson too, robbing the USMNT of perhaps its most consistent playmaker, while Timothy Weah and DeAndre Yedlin will miss out due to suspension.

You can tack on Reggie Cannon's Covid-related absence as well, with Berhalter's team missing several key pieces and backups.

But what the U.S. does have is Reyna.

The Borussia Dortmund star had been out of the fold since September, having missed nearly the entirety of World Cup qualifying due to injury. With Reyna gone, the U.S. has been without one of its primary playmakers and, perhaps, the team's most talented attacker.

And it is not just sequences like the one spoken about at length above that. It is also the one that occurred just moments prior.

Shortly after coming on, Reyna nearly created what would - and should - have been the game-winning goal, getting onto the end of a perfectly-hit, over-the-top ball from Kellyn Acosta.

Reyna, quite rightly, squared the ball to Jordan Pefok, who was left with an entire net to shoot at. But, unfortunately for Pefok and the U.S., the striker shanked his shot wide to the right.

But it was that moment that showed another side that Reyna brings. He brings both the physical gifts and the intelligence, the ability to score a goal and the ability to create one.

"He's a lovely kid but, when he gets on the pitch, he's just a player that is incredibly confident with himself and it's backed by the abilities he's got," said defender Antonee Robinson.

"You see him coming on at the Azteca, it's his first game in a while, and there's no fear whatsoever. He just knows, 'I'm going to get on the pitch and try and run the show,' and that's what he did.

"He was really effective when he came on and it's been unfortunate that we haven't had him for every camp because we obviously want all our players to be available when possible."

That is another factor in Reyna's current situation: availability.

Upon returning from injury in February, Reyna immediately aggravated that same injury. He only placed once before joining the USMNT, going 90 minutes exactly one week before the U.S. face Panama on Sunday.

Because of that, Berhalter has spoken about the need to manage expectations and, more importantly, minutes. Reyna is not yet back at full strength, a frightening thought given the glimpse he provided at Mexico.

So is Reyna ready to start and, if he is, can he go out wide or in the midfield? Berhalter says that remains to be seen.

"Potentially," Berhalter said when asked if Reyna could start centrally on Sunday. "We talked about it. It could happen again. We've got to look at where he is physically and if he's ready to play or not. That's a concern of ours.

"I thought he had a good impact coming in the game of the night, so we'll see."

The fact of the matter is that the USMNT are a much better team with Reyna in the XI. An attacking unit featuring Pulisic and Reyna is the best the USMNT can field right now.

No matter who starts at the striker position, and that very much remains up in the air heading towards gametime, they will get their chances with Reyna and Pulisic on the field.

The question is just how much the U.S. can get out of Reyna, and if he can provide those moments of magic like he did against Mexico. If he does, then the U.S. will more than likely be looking forward to a trip to Qatar this winter.

"If this is the camp that he's going to come and make a real impact and help us seal the deal and get to the World Cup, then it's going to be an amazing feeling," said Robinson.

"The kid's got unbelievable talent, and it's great to have him on the team."