What a shame that Claudio Reyna's splendid career should end in anticlimax. The final stage of that career, his signing with the Red Bulls in January 2007, proved to be one step too many.
It has been a sad year and a half since then, an injury-haunted period that condemned Reyna to sporadic activity and an image of an ineffectual player. He never had the opportunity to show the New
York/New Jersey fans -- his
fans, remember, for he was born among them -- just how good a player he was.
And he was good, very good indeed. He had something that is a rarity
among American players -- he had a soccer brain, and it seemed to have been there right from the start. I recall watching him when he played with his boys team, Union County, when he must have been no
more than 13 or 14 years old, and there was already something different about his play, a sort of thoughtfulness.
Certainly he seemed totally at ease and unhurried -- and that is
already a rare quality in the helter-skelter world of youth soccer. He took the same cool quality with him to high school, to St. Benedict's Prep, where Coach Rick Jacobs built the team around him,
and they won everything in sight. They won by playing intelligent soccer, something very different from the usual high school style.
At the center of the St. Ben's style were Reyna's
soccer brain and his immaculate ball skills. South American ball skills, really -- and why not, for his father Miguel was an Argentine immigrant with a deep understanding of the game.
From Rick Jacobs -- who understood that the best way of coaching Reyna was to let him play -- Reyna went on to college soccer. Whether that was the best thing for him is open to question. But at least
Reyna got the best college coach, in Bruce Arena -- a coach who, like Rick Jacobs, instinctively knew that here was a player who needed no elaborate coaching, a player who was a "natural."
In those years, with Reyna calling the shots, Virginia made college soccer a pleasure to watch -- quite an achievement. Honors piled up for Reyna -- college awards and NCAA titles. Three years of
college sufficed (or, if you were of my opinion, were three too many) and Reyna departed for Europe, for Germany, then Scotland, and finally England. During those 12 years, there were 112 U.S.
national team appearances and four World Cups.
Reyna understood the game, the secret internal mysteries of the game, in a way that probably cannot be taught. That must have been in his
genes, a gift from his father. The magical instincts that tell a player what to do at any moment on the field, how to react, when to move, when to stay and so on. All of which are essential to a great
player -- but of little use unless the ball skills are there.
There was skill in Reyna's game, skill in abundance, and there was beauty. He was an elegant player -- not because he tried
to look good, but because he had the natural ease of movement that comes with complete confidence.
It was inevitable that he would be compared with, should be considered the successor
to, Tab Ramos. Both were sons of Latin immigrants (Ramos' family was from Uruguay), both stars at St. Benedict's, at college (N.C. State for Ramos) and for the national team. The parallels are close,
but the differences were wide. Ramos was an explosive dribbler, a scorer of wonderful goals, an exciting, flamboyant game-winning presence. Reyna would win games, too, but it was his passing and his
smooth, almost sly, running and movement -- his playmaking -- that was the key to his effectiveness.
He would score his share of goals, too -- though later in his career he seemed to
prefer playing deeper in midfield. Reyna's style on the field was all of a piece with his personality off the field -- a quiet man, but quiet in the way that strong personalities are quiet -- quiet
because they know their strength, know they don't need to make a noise to be noticed or have an effect.
If only ... well, there's always an "if only," and there's not much point in
bemoaning the fact that Reyna was unable to show off his undoubted strengths in MLS. The Reyna we watched in Giants Stadium was but a shadow of the real man, a faint reflection of a player who, at his
best, sparkled as few Americans have been able to do.
I'm sorry to see him depart -- but he can be sure that he has had, and will continue to have, a positive influence on the American
game. We need more players like Reyna, thinking, skillful, stylish midfield playmakers. His success speaks loud and clear to the doubters: Yes, we can, and we must, produce more player like that. We
need more Claudio Reynas.