The US Soccer Federation has been no stranger to controversies over the years. From being awarded the hosting duties in the 1994 World Cup despite not having a top flight soccer league, to the debacle of the 1998 Men’s World Cup, the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the overall treatment of the Women’s National Team that eventually led to a $24 million settlement and resignation of USSF President Carlos Cordiero, to allegations of a toxic work environment by USSF employees against Jay Berhalter and Dan Flynn.
That says nothing of the failure to eliminate conflicts of interest like having Don Garber serve on the US Soccer Board of Directors while also running Soccer United Marketing, the company that controlled the marketing rights to the national teams. Of course, there was also Jay Berhalter being the Chief Commercial and Strategy Officer when his brother Gregg was hired as USMNT manager.
The newest controversy to strike the federation also seems to have been in equal measure completely avoidable and inevitable. To summarize, Claudio and Danielle Reyna were upset at the treatment of Gio Reyna during the World Cup and made their feelings known. They went as far as making veiled statements about having information about Gregg Berhalter that would bring him down during the tournament to Earnie Stewart and Brian McBride.
Once the tournament ended, it was revealed that Berhalter made comments about a player not meeting expectations on and off the field at a leadership conference, that player being Gio Reyna. After his statements went public, the Reynas had a call with Earnie Stewart when they disclosed an incident of abuse by Berhalter against his wife Rosalind in 1992. This set in motion the investigation and further revelation about Claudio Reyna’s behavior when he felt his son was mistreated.
The small network that makes up US Soccer set the stage for the scandal to erupt. Gregg Berhalter and Claudio Reyna had been close friends since middle school and their wives knew each other for decades. The report by Alston & Bird noted that “Mr. Berhalter and Mr. Reyna met when they were 11 or 12 years old. They played soccer together on a club team coached by Mr. Reyna’s father. Mr. Berhalter told us that he and Mr. Reyna became ‘best friends growing up’ and were “really close.”’
Reyna, Berhalter, McBride and Stewart had also all been friends since their time with the national team in the 1990s. In fact, the meeting that was held between the Reynas, Stewart and McBride occurred due to their friendship. According to investigators, “Mr. McBride commented that such a meeting would not typically occur with parents of players, but they agreed to it as a courtesy to Mr. Reyna given their long friendship and history as former teammates.”
The report also noted that when Claudio Reyna interviewed for the USMNT General Manager position in January 2019 that “Jay Berhalter informed us that Mr. Reyna recommended Mr. Berhalter to the interview panel as his top choice for the Head Coach position.”
The relationship between the four former USMNT players, who all were members of the 1998 and 2002 World Cup squads, created an old boy network where favoritism blurred the lines between their professional and personal lives. Throw in high emotions, feelings of being slighted, and a desire for retribution and a reaction was set in motion leading to the situation that unfolded once the World Cup ended.
The report by Alston & Bird includes Claudio Reyna behaving inappropriately on a consistent basis. It notes one witness “who described several incidents in which Mr. Reyna contacted U.S. Soccer officials to make complaints regarding his sons. [Redacted] characterized Mr. Reyna’s historical outreach as ‘inappropriate,’ ‘bullying,’ and ‘mean-spirited.”’ By now, the specific incidents including complaints about referee decisions, female referees, travel arrangements, playing time and others have been well circulated.
While the Reynas certainly seem to be the most culpable in creating this scandal, US Soccer itself also holds responsibility for what happened. Internally, the fact that the inappropriate contact from Reyna went on for six years and he was allowed to harass US Soccer employees over that time is inexcusable. It is reminiscent of the toxic environment that US Soccer staff described under Jay Berhalter. It is impossible to know if Reyna would have sent bullying messages if the General Manager and Sporting Director were not his friends. However, the behavior continued despite Stewart and McBride knowing about what was happening and having positions were they were responsible for ensuring their employees were not bullied by someone they knew personally for over 20 years.
With both McBride and Stewart departing the organization, US Soccer has sought a consulting firm to find a new Sporting Director and review the sporting department. It seems clear that in order to take steps forward as a soccer federation the priority of the search for Stewart’s replacement and sporting department review is managing the extensive conflicts of interest that the network which comprises US Soccer creates. It is critical that these are managed so that instances of favoritism, like the hiring of Gregg Berhalter or the enabling of Reyna’s mistreatment, cannot be repeated.
While Berhalter has had some success, the biggest victories the team can claim are wins against Mexico in the Gold Cup and Nations League and draws against Mexico at the Azteca and England in the World Cup. This was far from Berhalter’s goal to “change the way the world looks at American soccer.” The players may like him, but the team needs a manager who can reach a higher level.
The federation must not waste this scandal by once again enabling mediocrity and ignoring toxic behavior by having decision makers who base their actions on allegiances to an old boy network. Sadly, if history gives any indication to what the future may hold, it’s more likely that choices that favor networks and mediocrity rather than merit will continue to guide the US Soccer Federation.