Usually, when one of our sporting legends retires, we Americans spend weeks praising him (or her, usually him, though) and reflect on his career while wondering if anyone will ever meet or surpass his standard. ESPN devotes a considerable amount of time to run retrospective videos on “SportsCenter” and brings in numerous experts to debate that athlete’s place in history. Everything else takes second priority. Heck, when Brett Favre retired back in March, you would have thought that nothing else was going on in the world with the amount of coverage they devoted to him.
Too bad none of this applies to soccer.
Claudio Reyna, one of the greatest American soccer players ever, and one of the first Americans to establish himself in Europe, retired on Wednesday. Yet there were no special tributes to this giant of American soccer on “SportsCenter.” There was barely even a mention of him, which was especially insulting because it was one of the slowest sports days of the year, what with baseball being on the All-Star break. Of course, there was plenty of time for a video retrospective of baseball’s first half, speculation about Brett Favre’s future, and coverage of a Tiger Woods-less British Open. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise where ESPN’s priorities lie, what with their bun-to-bun coverage of the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.
It’s too bad, since Reyna really was a giant in American soccer. Before Reyna, no American had captained a European-based club. Before Reyna, no American had ever made the World Cup All-Star Team. Before Reyna, no American had commanded multi-million dollar transfer fees. Before Reyna, Americans in Europe were more of a novelty act and weren’t taken seriously by their teammates, by management, and by the media. While MLS undoubtedly had more of an impact in paving the way for American stars to thrive in Europe, it was Reyna who first broke the ceiling for his Yankee brethren and provided the blueprint for everyone that followed.
Then again, given the trajectory of Reyna’s career, it’s somewhat understandable why he didn’t get the fanfare that someone of his stature surely deserved. After all, Reyna was the original Great American Hope. He had a storied career at the University of Virginia and promptly signed with Bayer Leverkusen, sending expectations through the roof. He was supposed to be the standard bearer for U.S. soccer both at home and abroad, the heir to the overachieving pioneers of 1994 such as Harkes, Wynalda, Lalas, Ramos, and Balboa (none of whom were nearly as talented or as skilled as Reyna).
So, when Reyna didn’t set the world on fire, didn’t break into the starting line-up at Leverkusen, and didn’t become the American version of Diego Maradona (minus the debilitating drug addiction, of course), he was immediately deemed to be a disappointment. His national team coaches didn’t exactly do him any favors. Steve Sampson and Bruce Arena tried to fit a square peg in a round hole by giving him the #10 role and hoping that Reyna, as one of the few Americans who could hold onto the ball in the face of defensive pressure and complete a pass, would grow into it. The results were mixed, to say the least, and it wasn’t until his days at Rangers and at Sunderland that he finally seemed to settle into his groove as a versatile midfielder who could play defense and contribute to a team’s offensive attack. He may not have become a great playmaker, but he became a good all-around threat who always made his team better.
In many ways, Reyna’s career epitomizes America’s attitude towards soccer as a whole. Take the 2002 World Cup, for instance. Reyna was at his peak and playing the best soccer of his career. He was captain of the team, and was the kind of inspirational leader that his peers in Europe and South America were. Yet, during the pre-tournament build-up, the American media focused their fawning eyes on the likes of Clint Mathis, the goal-scoring cover-boy (remember him?), and on Landon Donovan and DeMarcus Beasley, the young up-and-coming Next-Big-Things.
Unfortunately for Reyna, he was never the former and he was no longer the latter. Yet, there he was turning in solid effort after solid effort, culminating in a Man-of-the-Match performance against Germany in the quarterfinals and the aforementioned spot on the World Cup All Star Team.
Sadly, he didn’t get the acclaim that he so richly deserved. In many ways, he was a victim of American reliance on highlights. For all his brilliance, he didn’t produce a memorable goal like Clint Mathis did against South Korea (which, in all fairness, should rank among the most important goals in U.S. history) or Landon Donovan did against Mexico, nor did he make a jaw-dropping play like Brad Friedel did when he stopped all those penalty shots. He made that great run against Mexico that led to Brian McBride’s goal, but otherwise, his brilliance was more subtle and understated, obvious to soccer fans but not necessarily to the casual SportsCenter crowd.
It’s too bad that his career seemed to end on a whimper rather than with a bang. He had a dreadful 2006 World Cup, culminating in a forgettable performance against Ghana where he lost the ball in his own box and left the match on a stretcher. He spent the last few years fighting various injuries, and his time in MLS is best forgotten. Even his signing was somewhat overlooked in the wake of Whats-His-Name’s arrival in Los Angeles.
Nevertheless, Reyna did what he could to justify his price tag, even if he couldn’t produce on the field. He mentored Jozy Altidore, another in a long line of young American talent, and by all accounts, he was the one who held a rapidly imploding Red Bulls team together last season. He wasn’t flashy like Beckham and he wasn’t a goal-scoring machine like Blanco, his two fellow high-profile MLS imports. But he made the most of his abilities and did what he could to help his team.
For Claudio Reyna, maybe it’s easier to look at him and wonder what could have been than it is to applaud him for what he actually achieved. Compared to other Great American Hopes, he may not have had the flash of Donovan, the speed of Beasley, the style of Dempsey, the aerial ability of McBride, the charisma of Mathis, the scoring nose of Jovan Kirovski (remember him?), but he had plenty of things that they lacked. He had toughness. He had versatility. He had leadership skills. Most importantly, he was resilient. He showed that he could succeed even when most people in the world, especially in his home country, counted him out.
Indeed, his ability to overcome adversity made Claudio Reyna the best available example of American soccer. He may not have been the savior that American soccer was looking for, but no one epitomized the American spirit more.