Claudio Reyna: The perils of being a playmaker

Claudio Reyna is a mainstay in the U.S. midfield but can't get a spot in Germany.

Claudio Reyna is marking time.

He's marking time at the U.S. national team's hotel in San Salvador, clicking his heels at a meaningless match. Before he joined the U.S. team for the CONCACAF qualifiers, he was marking time in Germany.

He's marking time because his club career is on hold. Had he spent the fall with his Bundesliga paymaster Bayer Leverkusen, he'd have been riding pine. New coach Christophe Daum, a guy with one eye on the field and the other on the headlines, likes it that way.

Daum likes Reyna just fine, but isn't inclined to play him. Nor does he want to get rid of him.

"Every time I pick up a newspaper, I'm reading about how much he likes me," sighs Reyna. "But I'm thinking, if he likes me so much, then why doesn't he play me?"

It's not that other clubs aren't interested. Kaiserslautern, led by former Werder Bremen and Bayern Munich coach Otto Rehhagel, wants the 23-year-old UVa product. The Red Devils, relegated at the end of last season, are the runaway leader in the Second Division going into the winter break and are virtual shoo-ins for promotion.

Leverkusen and Daum are happy to loan him out for six months, but don't want to sell him. So Reyna twiddles his thumbs in a Central American hotel lobby as faxes fly between the two clubs and Reyna's agent.

"I think an outright move would be the best thing all round," says Reyna. "If I look at it logically, say I went to Kaiserslautern on loan, I'd get there after the winter break and play a couple of games, then I'd have to come back here for World Cup qualifying, I'd have no chance of breaking into the lineup. The loan period would expire, they'd have no idea what I can do, and I'd be back where I started at Leverkusen.

"If I was sold outright, I'd have a fresh start with a new club. That doesn't look like it's going to happen, so it's all pretty frustrating."

The life of a playmaker is seldom smooth. New coaches either swear by them, or can't wait to jettison them. Terry Venables, for example, couldn't get the best out of Diego Maradona at Barcelona, nor could he wait to offload the temperamental Bernd Schuster when he arrived at the Nou Camp.

Both Barcelona and Schuster have figured in Reyna's career. The former, impressed by Reyna at the 1992 Olympics, offered him a place. And Reyna crossed paths with the latter last season at Leverkusen.

"I think I must have been the only 19-year-old in history to turn down Barcelona," smiles Reyna, who opted to join Bruce Arena at Virginia. "But I wanted to go to college, I wanted that experience, I think it's something every American kid is programmed to do and I wanted that, too.

"I look at the 19-year-old kids at Leverkusen and see all the things that they have to deal with, and there's no way I could have done that. At the time, I just wasn't prepared. I don't regret my decision for a minute."

Schuster made the headlines last season at Leverkusen, when he criticized the team and coach Erich Ribbeck in the press and promptly found himself stripped of the captaincy and fired by the club. He moved on to the J-League and is now playing with UNAM in the Mexican First Division.

"I think I must have been the only guy in Germany who didn't read the papers and didn't know what was going on," recalls Reyna. "I drove into training and there were maybe 50 or 60 reporters and TV crews at the gates. Then I got there and found out Bernd had been fired."

Schuster demanded his contract be paid in full and took out an injunction to allow him to train at the team's headquarters.

"We'd train in one area, and Schuster would be on his own at the other end," says Reyna. "We'd play an away game and he'd train, they got him doing double-sessions.

"But I have to say I have never seen anyone take a more professional and more disciplined attitude than Bernd Schuster. I really respected him."

Schuster's fall from grace coincided with a spate of injuries, Reyna's emergence in the lineup and Leverkusen's slide down the standings. The team slipped from second place entering the winter break to narrowly avoiding the drop to the Second Division. Ribbeck -- "a nice guy who showed a lot of faith in me" -- got the axe, Daum appeared and Reyna's career entered a turnaround.

The chief beneficiary has been Steve Sampson. There have been none of the to-ings and fro-ings between U.S. Soccer, player, and European club that Ernie Stewart or Kasey Keller have had to undergo.

"We have a new stadium at NAC Breda with 12 new offices and I've seen more of those offices than I have of the field," grumbled Stewart of the time he's squandered haggling with club officials for a release.

"It's the best of both worlds for us right now," says Sampson. "Claudio can play and train with us, and at the same time he's getting paid by Leverkusen.

"The key is, he must play. If he's not going to play with Leverkusen then he's far better off with us. If he can go to Kaiserslautern, then great. Sitting on the bench doesn't do him any good."

Reyna's on-field performances in CONCACAF qualifying ranged from peerless to poor with little in-between. Against Trinidad & Tobago in Richmond, he turned in a masterful performance. Two weeks later in Port of Spain, he was "lost in the pocket" according to Sampson, and wilted earlier than his teammates. And his performance against Costa Rica in San Jose mirrored those of his colleagues.

In the Stanford return, however, Reyna shone in a four-man midfield. Give the guy the ball at his feet and someone to pass to, and nine times out of 10 he'll get the job done -- as he showed by setting up Brian McBride's goal with a sublime diagonal ball to Ernie Stewart. And at Cuscatlan, allowed acres of space and no pressure, he turned in an excellent display.

"Claudio is certainly one of the purest playmakers that this country has ever had," says Sampson. "His vision is as good as any, his ability to get himself out of trouble, to see the gaps by himself and to make a quality decision with the ball is very good.

"Defensively, he's improved dramatically and continues to improve. The one area that he needs work on, is for him to give the same effort in the 85th minute as he does in the fifth minute. Whereas, a year ago Claudio was a 60-minute player, now he is a 75-minute player.

"Typically, in a tough match, in the 70th minute his legs start to become very heavy. His workrate slows and that's an area that we can improve upon ... Is he receptive? He understands that if he wants to play and continue to playand be an impact player for 90 minutes, he has to work on his game."

Meantime, Reyna continues to mark time. Better to be the brains of the U.S. midfield than a Bundesliga benchwarmer. For the moment, at least.

by Soccer America Senior Editor Duncan Irving.

(Note: this article originally appeared in the Jan. 20, 1997 issue of Soccer America.)

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