By Ridge Mahoney
Senior Editor, Soccer America
By coming to MLS after more than dozen years overseas, Claudio Reyna has begun not only the final chapter of his playing career, but also closed out his tenure as the American who accomplished the most overseas.
There are others with impressive resumes. John Harkes won trophies and played more times at Wembley than most Englishmen. Kasey Keller's arrival overseas preceded Reyna's and he's still there.Brad Friedel has been among the top keepers in the Premier League since he transferred to Blackburn in 2001. Brian McBridehas scored goals consistently since leaving MLS and current employer Fulham thinks enough of him to offer him more than $2 million to extend his stay by one more season. Steve Cherundolo has been a starter at Hannover for seven years.
Yet nobody matches Reyna's record of playing only in the top-flight for five teams in three countries: Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, Glasgow Rangers, Sunderland and Manchester City.
True, Sunderland sold him to Manchester City after it was relegated from the English Premier League at the end of the 2002-03 season, but for a team that finished with only four wins in 38 games, the fact City was willing to pay nearly $4 million for Reyna is a testament to his abilities.
Either that, or then-manager Kevin Keegan was a twit for shelling out that much money for a player who -- in the eyes of many American fans and journalists -- doesn't do much and gets injured a lot. Reyna rarely does the spectacular -- the 50-yard slalom, the long-range thunderbolt, the stoppage-time bicycle kick - though how different the American World Cup could have been had his 25-yard blast hit the side netting instead of the goalpost with the USA trailing the Czech Republic, 1-0. That his U.S. career ended as it did against Ghana is cruelty incarnate. The best U.S. player on the ball coughed it up. Injury. Goal. Trouble.
What Reyna does adroitly is the essence of the game: move into the right spaces at the right time, control and keep the ball with touch and timing and balance, pass accurately and smartly. How greatly the New York Red Bulls will improve with Reyna is dependent not so much on him, but his teammates. His game is complementary, an enhancement of the players around him. His ideal role was once referred to as a "grafter," the player who can link defense and attack while filling a variety of roles within the same match depending on the situation.
He can take charge and run the attack, he can push the ball up the field, he can drift wide and deliver crosses, he can hit the target on free kicks, he can shoot from distance. He can also win tackles, cut off passing lanes, track runners and dribblers, and contest balls in the air. But if he's asked to do all of that every game, by midsummer, when he turns 34, the tank might already be nearly empty and his injury-plagued past will almost certainly recur.
European coaches weren't crazy or stupid to want Reyna. They saw in him an all-around midfielder especially proficient at using the ball shrewdly but also willing to stop the opposition. That's the Reyna Red Bull needs, not some fantastical mutation.
His true worth will be measured not so much by goals and assists and shots and corner kicks, but in games played and points accrued therein.