It is time to talk about tempering expectations. The phrases “wonder kid”, “next big thing”, and “generational talent” are thrown around far too often in world football. In the digital age of sharing and retweeting; hyperbolic statements are often blown out of proportion. Media personalities with large followings are often origin of hype trains. If an impartial observer were to step back and analyze all of the “hot takes” a media personality was to publish on a weekly basis it would be inconceivable that one individual had the bandwidth, let alone time in the day to watch and analyze all of the teams/players that they’re evaluating. Excessive promotion of young players is detrimental to their development and can cause casual supporters to view their clubs in a negative light when their playing time declines due to a drop in form.
Starting with the debut of Christian Pulisic, Borussia Dortmund has been at the epicenter of the American soccer media’s hype train. While that train seemed to lose a bit of steam after Pulisic’s departure to Chelsea, it quickly regained momentum with the debut of Gio Reyna. Both young men have been anointed as “the future of the USMNT” at various points in their young careers. After a handful of decent performances, the chatter of “is Gio Reyna already better than Christian Pulisic?” broke out. Listeners of the Men in Blazers podcast are treated to an almost weekly segment of how the USMNT is on the verge of global dominance. When discussing Gio Reyna, Men in Blazers co-host Rodger Bennett recently said, “He’s only one of the biggest teen prospects in global football.” To put this into context, Bennett made this statement after Reyna had made a grand total of 27 professional appearances.
Yes, 27 appearances will demonstrate if a player has ability however, it is not a big enough sample size to determine if a young player is one of the best on the planet. Bennett, who will never be accused of being late to an American hype party, said similar things of Christian Pulisic in a Vice News mini documentary that debut in 2016. The remarks on Pulisic, after a bit more success both in Bundesliga and European competitions, came after only 31 professional appearances. Neither of these young men had played the equivalent to a full season of first team soccer. Yet, Bennett along with many other members of the soccer media had no problem exploiting their brief success in an effort to capture the attention of the American market. Engaging in rhetoric such as this for the sole purpose of capturing the attention of the casual fan is irresponsible and creates a false narrative around the club and player.
When Chelsea paid a fee north of $70,000,000 for Christian Pulisic I was shocked. In fact, I expected Interpol to issue an arrest warrant for Michael Zorc for robbery! When the transfer was completed Pulisic had lost his place in the starting 11 to Jadon Sancho and in the game time he did receive, he was spending more time complaining to the referee than troubling the opposition. If you’d entered the echo chamber that is the American soccer universe you would have never realized he was struggling for form. You would have been convinced Lucien Favre was some yahoo of a manager, who didn’t know how to pick a starting 11. Two years on and Pulisic continues to flash moments of brilliance, coupled with inconsistency and lengthy injury spells. Maybe the tinkerer wasn’t wrong and Pulisic’s game had some faults in it.
Now let’s turn our focus to BVB’s newest American, or as Erling Haaland has dubbed him “The American Dream.” If you wanted to see prime examples of Gio Reyna’s strengths and weaknesses you would only need to look at one match, the 19/20 DFB Pokal fixture against Werder Bremen. In the 78th minute he scored an amazing goal from a shot just outside of the box, and then seven minutes later received a yellow card for diving. This season, in matches against Eintracht Frankfurt and VfB Stuttgart, Reyna has continued to show his ability to score highlight reel goals. Unfortunately, as the season has progressed the goals have dried up and his poor habits have been magnified. In the season opener against Borussia Monchengladbach, he was awarded a controversial penalty after what many, including myself, considered to be a dive. Against Union Berlin, he was completely outmuscled by Taiwo Awoniyi which led to a goal off of a corner. More recently against Armenia Bielefeld, he was pushed around the park like a plastic bag blowing in the wind. Yet with all of his faults being displayed for all to see USMNT fans continue to questions Reyna’s decline in game time.
Lofty expectations and overinflated evaluations of young players isn’t an issue unique to supporters of Borussia Dortmund. Max Meyer is another great example of a career gone awry after a promising start. In 2016 his hype train was off and running at warp speed. That season Meyer appeared in a Champions League Nissan commercial alongside YaYa Touré. Schalke’s recent debacle of a season might make their Champions League years seem like a distant memory, but at that time people were anointing Meyer as the future of German Football. Instead of renewing his contract with Schalke, he chose to let his contract expire in hopes of joining a club in England or Spain. He was linked with Bayern, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Real Madrid. However, when it came time to leave Germany he joined…..Crystal Palace? A team who had never appeared in the Champions League. Since leaving Schalke he spent two forgettable seasons at Crystal Palace, before joining FC Koln. Questions about his attitude have followed him since the beginning of his transfer saga at Schalke. Where would Meyer be if he hadn’t been surrounded by people telling him he was the next big thing? Would he have stuck it out at Schalke, or perhaps spent more time fighting for his spot at Crystal Palace? Unfortunately, he seems to be just another name on the long list of wonder kids who never lived up to their lofty expectations.
Enough about Schalke, let's refocus on Gio Reyna. Receiving playing time in a squad as talented as BVB isn’t a right, it is a privilege. At the moment Reyna is competing with Marco Reus, Throgan Hazard, Jadon Sancho, Julian Brandt, and Reinier. Any impartial observer would say Reyna has no right replacing Reus, Hazard, or Sancho when they’re all fit. And you know what, that is ok! As of right now, he should be focused on competing with Reinier for super-sub minutes. Contributing as an integral rotational piece to a top European side as an 18-year-old is still an amazing accomplishment. So, put down your pitchforks when his name isn’t in the starting 11, it isn’t the end of the world. One could argue being forced to earn his place in the team will do his career a greater benefit in the long run than a guaranteed place in the starting 11.
Yes, Reyna is an extremely talented young option. But let’s not kid ourselves and act like he is the next Kaka, at least not until he irons out his deficiencies. As long as the criticism is related to his play on the field and not an attack on his person or worthiness of a human being it should be accepted. He does need to work on his on-field attitude, and one need only to look at Jude Bellingham to see age isn’t an excuse for the pouting when things don’t go his way. His future success equates to a promising future for BVB and the USMNT; it is ok to patiently wait for that future. Let the young man grow into his body and find his footing before anointing him as the second coming. That strategy obviously didn’t do Christian Pulisic or Max Meyer any favors. And perhaps exposing Reyna to some criticism instead of coddling him, and limiting his exposure as a “brand” will benefit his career in the long-run.
Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below. Is the assessment of Reyna and the attention surrounding BVB’s top young talents too harsh or right on the money?