Tuesday, July 15, 2008

'Captain America' Claudio Reyna Retires

New Jersey has such a rich, wonderful history when it comes to American soccer. Names like John Harkes, Claudio Reyna, Tony Meola, Tab Ramos and Bob Bradley drip off the tongue, as do clubs and schools like Kearny Thistle and St. Benedict's Prep of Newark. (I'd even throw my alma mater Ocean City High School in there when it comes to the roundball tradition.) 
College sides from Rutgers and Princeton merit a mention, and let's not forget venues such as Giants Stadium and pro teams such as the Cosmos -- and, yes, the very successful Ocean City Barons, too -- when it comes to the Garden State ranking up there with the elite of Yank futbol legacy. Well on Wednesday, we lose one of our own when midfielder Reyna hangs up his boots after a phenomenal career. Think about the places he's played: the aforementioned St. Benedict's, the ACC powerhouse University of Virginia, Vfl Wolfsburg of the German Bundesliga, Glasgow Rangers of Scotland, Sunderland and Manchester City of the English Premier League and New York Red Bulls of MLS. But it is Reyna's exploits for the United States Men's National Team that will cement his place in the pantheon of the game as long as it is played in this country. This son of Portuguese and Argentine immigrants became the first American to be named in a FIFA All-World Cup Team after driving the United States into the quarterfinals in 2002, where they gave Germany all it could handle in a 1-nil loss in Korea. Reyna played a key role for the USA in the 1998 World Cup in France and the 2006 version in Germany. He reminded us all what a force he could be when his shot hit the post in the loss to the Czech Republic in the opening match of the latter tourney. Unfortunately, his blunder in the last group match against Ghana and his injury-filled tenure with the Red Bulls (while he occupied a Designated Player slot and drew a $1.1 million salary) has clouded people's perspective of his accomplishments lately, but when the dust clears Reyna will join Harkes as the two most decorated and talented American outfield players to ever lace up the boots. (I think Reyna lacked Harkesy's drive, grit and goalscoring ability, but I think even Harkesy would agree that Claudio was slightly more skilled on the ball and a good passer.) The bottom three photos in this entry were taken by me at Bulls matches this season, as Reyna signed shirts for Alex and Ben and took a corner right below us in our corner-flag seats in Section 107. The lads and I were able to chat with him briefly on 4 or 5 occasions (the most recent time being in the elevator after the USA-Argentina match) and I always found him to be polite and engaging. He would often hand his baby off to his wife to sign for the various kids gathered around, which I thought showed real class. Funnily enough, of all the players from the Red Bulls, other MLS clubs, USA, Argentina and even the few West Ham players I've met in England, Reyna is the only one I've ever asked for an autograph. (As I explained to Harkesy one time, being 38 years old I really have no desire to ask fellow grown men for their autographs. I'd rather shake a hand, enjoy a brief word and let the kids do the hero worshipping as I snap a photo for the boys' memories. Besides, of all the American players Harkesy was -- and still is -- my only hero, but thanks to some incredible luck, some journalistic hustle on my part and true graciousness on his, we actually enjoy a mutual friendship, which is much cooler!) I don't even know why I asked Claudio to scrawl his name on my shirt, but the lads still tease me for saying, "Claudio, how 'bout one for the old man?" after he signed their shirts. Now that he will no longer be playing, I'm glad I deviated from my usual protocol. I hope he enjoys his retirement and finds a way to give back to the game, much like Harkesy does on the airwaves or Ramos does with his youth academy. Kudos on a great career, Claudio. And thanks for taking us along on your unique ride through Europe's -- and the world's -- great stadiums. Every American boy who's ever kicked a ball in earnest would have traded places with you in a heartbeat!