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w/ MNT midfielder Claudio Reyna

Off-the-wall Questions and Answers, Queries and Anecdotes from U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder Claudio Reyna.

“Captain America” sheds his shy demeanor and talks at length (in fact, he talked and talked and talked – more than we ever expected) with U.S. Soccer about a 2002 that was full of some of his highest highs, coupled with his lowest lows. But aside from recalling last summer’s remarkable World Cup success and giving us insight on his current rehabilitation from an ACL injury that cut his 2002-03 EPL season with Sunderland far too short, the 29-year-old midfield general dispels rumors of his international retirement, looks back at 10 years playing in Europe, scouts the future of American soccer at the international level, and even makes a prediction about the 2003 Women’s World Cup. Center Circle gives you the mother of all Claudio Reyna interviews. [Editor’s Note: If printing the transcript of this rare sit-down, you may want to add toner to your printer. And at least seven pages of paper.]

Center Circle: You played in both of the USA’s World Cup matches against Germany, the one from 1998 where a lot of people said that you got just plain beaten, and in the 2002 version where people said the exact opposite.  Despite similar results, what was the difference between now and four years ago?
Claudio Reyna: “Just the manner in which we played, the difference in four years.  Germany was an excellent team both times around, and this team went to the final. The way we really outplayed them for a majority of that game was incredible.  It was great that we got to a stage where we really felt that we were going to make a run for this cup. That was the nicest feeling, that going into the quarterfinal game we really felt that we were going to win it.  I think the best thing was the reaction after the game in the locker room. It wasn’t like ‘Well, we did well.’  It was just pure anger and disappointment, almost like nobody could believe that we had lost.  If you stop and take a step back, here we are disappointed that we lost to a world power. The German press was very complimentary with the way we played, which made it worse because we felt we deserved to win.  Even Franz Beckenbauer said ‘Germany got outplayed.  We were lucky to go through.’  I’m sure everyone on our team, everyone who’s an American soccer fan, keeps thinking ‘What if.’  I still do to this day.  That’s the way it goes, and you learn from that. I think you can play poorly and win, you can play a great game and lose, and that’s how soccer works sometimes, and that was a perfect example.”

CC: Prior to the injury, 2002 was a dream year for you for both club and country. Tell us about it.
CR: “Yeah, it was a great year. I moved to the Premiership just before the 2002 season, which was always a dream for me. I never thought while growing up in New Jersey that I’d even get a chance to play in Europe, and here I am in my ninth season overseas. I got a move to Sunderland, we performed well in the World Cup, and everything was really going great.  The injury happened, but up until then I’d have to say I was lucky. That injury could have happened before the World Cup. I felt for someone like Chris Armas, who did so much for the team, and he couldn’t make it.  It was definitely a great year for me, and a lot of fun. The coverage we got for the sport in our country, not only in America but globally, I think people finally stood up and said this sport – this team – is here, and here to stay.  Now the challenging thing is moving on and proving year in and year out that our performance wasn’t a fluke. We have the potential and the groundwork to become a consistent team in the World Cup.”

CC: What ran through your mind when you went down with a knee injury (Oct. 28, 2002 vs. Bolton)?
CR: “I knew right away that I tore my ACL. I think in this little ACL Club that you join, people seem to say the same thing, that once it happens you know that it’s something serious.  It was a movement that I do, and that I’ve done a million times over my career, but for whatever reason, my ACL went this time. It happened all by myself, and it was pretty painful.  I knew that I would be out for a while. I just didn’t know how long. The first thing that went through my mind was hoping that it wasn’t anything worse. I’ve seen so many of my friends and other players come back from an ACL, so it wasn’t like I thought it would be a career-ending thing.  Right away I thought ‘OK, if it’s this one, than it’s my turn to deal with a long-term injury.’ I’ve been pretty lucky over my career to have only had some minor injuries here and there. This is my first major injury, so it was a matter of how to quickly get over the disappointment and start with the rehab process, sorting everything out about surgeries and all that.  I quickly spoke to [U.S. National Team Staff Doctor] Bert Mandelbaum, and he really put me at ease right when I spoke to him, telling me about the procedure and everything that was going to happen.  I got calls from lots of family and friends, teammates, and other players who have had their ACL done. I had a lot of support quickly and it helped me.”

CC: Why did you choose to conduct your rehabilitation in the United States?
CR: “For many reasons.  I think the U.S. is probably the leading place in the world as far as rehab and physical therapy.  Probably the most important thing was to get away and really get a clear mind.  If I had gone to the training ground every day, mentally it would have been difficult, whereas here I could break it up with a couple of months in California and then go to Delaware. I got to see family and friends, and spend Christmas with my family for the first time in five or six years. Just to be back in my home was probably the number one reason. Because our season is nine or 10 months long, I don’t get a lot of time to see a lot of people in the States and see places that I haven’t been to in a long time. Sunderland was great with it.  They allowed me to do what I wanted to do from the beginning, and I think it’s been very important in my rehab that I’ve been able to get away and relax, and do it in my own little environment.  Also, in England and Europe everybody knows soccer players, so you get the constant questions of ‘When are you going to be back?’  ‘How you doing?’ ‘How’s the knee?’ Over here you can avoid that.  You can kind of get away and be invisible, and do your work without people knowing who you are and having to be in the spotlight all the time.”

CC: Where are you in the rehabilitation process at this point?
CR: “I’ve been training on the field for the last couple weeks.  I’ve had limited contact, but really almost 100 percent.  I’m getting that final confidence of being back on the field and trying to play like I was before without any worries of my knee. I’m happy to be a part of this camp, to get around the team and all the players that I haven’t seen for a while. Of course, through the summer it’s going to be kind of like a pre-season for me. Essentially the month or so leading up to my surgery was my off season and now I have to really put in some work this summer to make sure I’m ready for next season. I’m 29 years old, so I have a lot of great years ahead of me.  Everyone’s been telling me to make sure that I take my time and do it right, and I have been.”

CC: For either club or country, what was the best team you’ve ever played on?
CR: “That would have to be Rangers team of 1999-2000.  That year we just steam-rolled through the Scottish Premier League.  We were in the Champions League, and the players on that team were incredible.  We had Dutch internationals, we had Scottish internationals – some of the best players overall as a collective team. The likes of Arthur Newman and Giovanni van Brockhurst, Jorge Albertz, Lorenzo Amoruso from Italy, Michael Mols from Holland, Ronald de Boer, guys that are just fantastic players … Barry Ferguson, who is a great, great player from Scotland.  On top of it, I had a great coach in Dick Advocaat.  That team easily ranks as number one as the best team that I’ve ever played with. I learned so much from that year, more than any other year in my life.”

CC: There were a lot of rumors after the 2002 World Cup that maybe that was the last time we would see you play for the national team.  All things being equal, should we expect to see you on the national team in four years?
CR: “Yeah, I think so.  I spoke to Bruce about it and a lot was made out of statements in the press. Initially, the main reason – and the only reason – that I wouldn’t want to keep playing so much is for my family. I do a lot of traveling and the older my kids get, they know that I’m away more, and it gets difficult.  I think you can ask any of the guys who play in Europe, and they’ll tell you the travel back and forth is difficult on the body.  At times you don’t feel like you’re at 100 percent, that you’re letting either your national team down or your club team down.  It’s hard to make a 100 percent commitment to both.  So my reason at first for saying that was just that.  I think I was caught at a moment where I was so tired and physically drained from traveling that I really was thinking.  I talked with my family, in particular my wife, who is the most important person.  She asked me ‘Why would you not want to do it?’  It really had nothing to do with the success of the World Cup either.  I think it would be silly to say ‘Oh, just because we had a good World Cup, I’ll stay on.’ It’s a four-year commitment that I think people don’t realize. It’s just not something you can hop on and off whenever you want.  I feel good, especially now after this injury.  I’m really ready to go again and get this team back to the World Cup. It’s an exciting team to be a part of I think now.  Soccer is growing and it’s nice to put on that jersey. I think especially after Sept. 11, you have an extra pride to represent your country, and having that and still being at the prime of my career I think I’d be letting myself down more than anyone else, if I didn’t play for the U.S. team. So, I want to get back there, and I think I can help. Until there’s someone who is better than me in that position, and I honestly will know when there is someone better than me, then I don’t think I’ll step down. I think I want to play now until my legs give up or when someone probably tells me. I think I’ll know myself when it’s time to move aside and let someone else play. I’m excited about putting that shirt on again and I miss that. I’ve watched the games recently, and I’ve missed being a part of that.”

CC: You’ve had an amazing U.S. MNT career, dating back to before the 1994 World Cup. In ’94, the U.S. surprised people by getting to the second round, but a lot of people said it wasn’t great football. And Brad Friedel said that the talent level might have been better in 1998 than in 2002. But you get to this World Cup, and there isn’t a whole lot of hope except for the people around traveling with the team a lot or the team, and you get to the quarterfinals. How amazing was that culmination for you?
CR: “It was the highlight of my career without a doubt, probably from the Jamaican game (a 2-1 win in Foxboro on Oct. 7, 2001) on. That was probably a month after Sept. 11 and we qualified for the World Cup. So much weight I think was off everyone’s shoulders, and then just to lead up to the World Cup, I think the whole experience there was something that I think none of us will forget; not only the things that happened on the field, but also the bonding of the team off the field. The first game against Portugal, even though I didn’t play, was incredible. We were all jumping up and down. I think the nicest thing about the whole experience was how when we scored everyone celebrated. When we won everyone ran on the field. In the locker room everyone was behind each other. That was probably the nicest thing to see about it.  In 1998 it was the complete opposite. You didn’t see it, but the guys that weren’t playing were upset, shoulders were slouched, could care less, and the whole mix of that was terrible. Not blaming players in particular, but I think leading up to the World Cup there were so many different things that caused that in 1998, and it didn’t happen this time. I think in the locker room you could see that everyone was so happy for the team’s success, and that’s the nicest thing about it. You could see that in other teams as well. I like doing that when a team scores. They run to the bench and everyone’s celebrating, and that’s what it’s all about really. Making sure that everyone’s there, not for personal gain and glory, but for the team accomplishment. I agree with what many players have said, that the 1998 team was probably more talented. But as a team it didn’t even come close to this 2002 team, and Bruce gets a lot of credit for that. A lot of the veteran players, the players who had been around for France ’98, made sure from the minute that the France World Cup was over that that situation would never happen again. Even if we didn’t make it out of our group, even if we didn’t win a game, we were going to do it right, and we did. I think the nicest thing is that we left the World Cup winners even though we lost. That’s the nicest thing. I think ourselves, Ireland, teams like Turkey, and of course Brazil, walked away winners. I think at the end a lot of teams did, and we were one of them. You could see the way we came home with a hero’s welcome, what we did for the sport, that was the nicest thing about it. It wasn’t just the results on the field and beating Mexico, beating Portugal, and getting a tie against the host nation. It was just the whole collective experience, and just doing it right.”

CC: After the team’s performance in Korea, people have begun to say that the U.S. is 10 or 20 years away from winning a World Cup.  Do you think that’s a realistic timetable?
CR: “I wouldn’t want sit here and start talking nonsense like ‘We’re going to win a World Cup soon.’ You just have to take a step back and look at the great soccer nations that have never won one. The likes of Spain, the likes of Holland, and countries like England who have fantastic players and teams who haven’t won one in 40 years. It’s just too difficult to think that we’re going to just stroll through and win the tournament.  I think it’s getting more difficult, especially with 32 teams qualifying for the World Cup. I would say let’s shoot for making a semi-final, and I think you can see from this World Cup that once you get to the knockout stages you need that element of luck. I think Brazil had it, and I think Germany had it as well.  If we can combine a little bit of luck with the players we’re developing, I think a semi-final should be our goal within the next two or three World Cups. There are too many great soccer nations to think that we can just win a World Cup. I think we all want to dream.  Once we made it to the final eight, I was one of eight captains dreaming of holding that trophy.”

CC: It must be a little difficult for you to follow everything that’s happening with the youth development in U.S. Soccer, but what you have you seen about the next generation of American players?
CR: “I’m aware of it. I think the players now with the development of youth programs are better off than I was, or the guys even before me were, because U.S. Soccer has taken major steps in making sure the youth levels are identified and that players are taught the game at an earlier age. We have some good players from what I hear coming through, but we’ve always had great players coming through. I played in the Under-17 World Cup and some of the players on my team were also hailed as the next coming of Diego Maradona, and don’t even play professional soccer now. In some ways you can see that there are better players coming through, but you still need to let these kids grow. They have to learn a lot, and making that jump to playing against men is a huge jump. I think even if you asked Landon (Donovan) and DaMarcus (Beasley) they’d say that when they made that jump from the youth level to playing against men and experienced guys on a daily basis was a big, big difference. The good thing is that we now have a league that players can jump into and play year round, which we didn’t have when I was younger. There seems to be real legitimate talent coming through MLS, and that’s great for the sport.”

CC: You said you’ve already played 10 years with the National Team, which is amazing, and you’ve still got good years ahead of you. What do you want your legacy to be with the U.S. Men’s National Team?

CR: “I think overall probably from the time I came into the program until I leave it, that the team and the sport are better off.  I think we’re on the right path. I think there’s no one player or coach who can change the face of a sport.  Perhaps Tiger Woods in golf, he’s doing that, but in soccer it’s a team sport.  Landon has received a lot of attention, as well as DaMarcus, but we need a lot more of these players to come through to develop a team, and that’s what soccer is: a team. I said earlier that I think we’re at that stage now where we have a great pool of players to choose from, and any coach for the future has a good job on their hands. They have a lot of players and different positions to choose from, and the competition is better than ever. When I first started I remember playing National Team games at high school stadiums with 8,000 people, and now if we go play anywhere it has to be in a bigger stadium.  The sport has grown tremendously in the last nine years. I’ve got another four or five years playing, then I hope to continue on after and help get the sport to grow in this country. That’s probably the nicest thing, that during my time the sport has taken a huge step and it has nothing to do with just me.  I’ve been a part of that nice growth in our country and in the sport.”

CC: What’s your favorite non-World Cup moment of your U.S. career?
CR: “It would probably have to be the days we qualified for both World Cups.  For the 1998 World Cup, it was the match in Vancouver when we played Canada. I scored a goal and we won 3-0. Number one would have to be beating Jamaica in October of 2001 and finding out right after the game ended that we qualified when the other results went our way.  It was all the more special because it was just a month after Sept. 11.  I really don’t like to talk about Sept. 11 that much, because everyone knows it was such a sour moment in our country, but it was the first time I think a U.S. team represented our country in a sport and it got a lot of attention. To be able to not only win, but to also qualify that day, was special. It was all the more sweet because I was the captain. There’s something special about being the captain of a team.  At first when I was given the captain’s band I was like, ‘Whatever,’ but as games went on and as I grew into that role, I really appreciated that it was an important role. I really enjoyed that part of it as well, being the captain that day.”

CC: We’ve spoken a lot about the U.S. men’s team, but you have some ties with the women’s team as well. How do you expect them to do in this year’s Women’s World Cup?
CR: “I expect them to win it. I think they expect to win it. I guess if you compare them to the men’s side, they are probably like Brazil. They are probably the favorite or Germany, whoever you want to say. They’re one of the teams going to the tournament that everyone’s talking about winning. Like our men’s team, they have a lot of good young women coming through, and even younger girls coming through. I’ve heard of this girl from New Jersey who I think is 18, Heather O’Reilly, and everyone’s talking about her being the next Mia Hamm. It’s great, I think that the women’s team…I think some people may not believe, but they’re going to be only better than what they were before, and some of the older veterans would say that. The young girls coming through now had them to look at and idolize, and are only going to be better. They have a league now to play in, and I would think that anything else than winning it would be considered a disappointment for them coming off the great World Cup in America in 1999 when they beat China.  There are some other great nations who have developed as well and are really good. The women’s game has advanced as well in the last few years. I think it’s probably going to be between them and China. It would be great to have a rematch.”

CC: When you started your professional career, there were a few players from the United States playing in Europe, but having little impact.  Today, there are Americans all over Europe, some making major contributions in the top leagues.  Are you surprised at the progress the U.S. players have made?
CR: “No, I’m not surprised.  I’ve seen a lot of guys first hand with the national team who I think could play in Europe.  But many guys had to go through some baby steps. I know I did.  I spent a year just learning the professional way in Europe.  Kasey Keller started in a lower division in England.  Brad Friedel had his moments where he didn’t play. But I think if you look at the guys that are still there, be it the likes of Gregg Berhalter, Tony Sanneh or Jovan Kirovski, they demonstrate that you have to persevere.  It’s not easy, even for the best players that come from other countries. There are guys who get bought for $10-15 million from Argentina and Brazil, and they struggle in Europe because it takes a few years to get used to the pace and the physical side of the game. Our guys stuck it out, wanted to prove that they could play in Europe, and now we have a lot of players sprinkled throughout Europe. I think now because of the success of the U.S. team and players doing well, it’s opening the doors. I think doors have been opened already, but probably just more doors in different countries. It’s great for the future, and I think a lot of players now can see that. Growing up for me, there was no American playing over there when I was 10, 11, 12 or 13.  Now all these kids growing up see my name and Brad’s name, and Kasey’s name attached to clubs in England, and guys in Germany with Tony Sanneh and Gregg, and guys at Ajax like John O’Brien. These kids feel that they can do it as well, and it’s great. I think for the future there’s going to be more and more players over there. I know MLS is trying to grow, and it’s important for the league here to develop players, but I think in the end if players can get over to Europe they should, because it’s going to help them progress quicker.”

CC: Are U.S. players now treated with more respect throughout the world after the last year?
CR: “Yeah, without a doubt. I think it’s no longer a joke. People don’t make fun of us anymore. We’ve had to deal with that in prior years, but this World Cup changed that.  We’ve gotten results in friendlies against every team you could name – all the top teams like Argentina, Germany, Brazil – but those were primarily in friendlies.  Until we did something at the World Cup, nobody was really going to take us seriously, and we did it. We finally did it. I think people realized that it wasn’t just a few good players, we had a lot of good players, and I think that’s what is nice about it as well. So many guys did well, so many guys stood out, and that has to do with the team going over there and having a good attitude.”

CC: You said you watched a couple of the games since you’ve been back in the States. Who are you excited to play with?
CR: “A lot of the younger guys, even though I think they need to get as much experience as possible. I think that there is a good group of young players coming through. I think Tim Howard’s done well.  He’s probably the guy who’s going to solidify himself as the number three goalie.  Unfortunately for him, he’s competing with two of the best, but he’s a great kid and he’s a great goalie for the future of U.S. Soccer. There are players like Bobby Convey, who I think did well in the few games that I saw. Carlos Bocanegra as well looks as if he’s going to slide into the team, and has adjusted really well to the jump to the next level. Also, there’s a lot of so-called veterans who are going to want to come back and prove that they still have something to offer.  The next cycle is going to be interesting, I think that’s nice that we have competition now all through the field at different positions. There are a lot of players who feel they have a chance to play, and that’s nice. It’s a good problem for Bruce to have. I think many coaches in the past didn’t have this problem that so many players are available for him to pick.”

CC: Bruce has said that Landon and DaMarcus were a major reason why the team did well at the World Cup, partly because they have experienced so much success at the youth international level and so little failure.  What did their presence contribute to the team?
CR: “They both surprised me with how well they did, especially DaMarcus. I think Landon had a jump start with the National Team and was around the group and knew everyone.  DaMarcus pretty much made the team right before the World Cup, and probably during the first week of training camp was very shocked and surprised and in awe of being there.  It looked like he wouldn’t even play a part in the World Cup, but in a matter of days and weeks just before the World Cup you saw the strides he made.  It was incredible, and I think you saw it in the games leading up to the World Cup that both him and Landon were out to prove that they weren’t just there to go along for the ride. They wanted to play. They do have that young attitude that ‘We’re here. We can play,’ and it’s difficult at a young age to just jump into a team with men essentially that have been with the team for a long time, and take their starting spots, and that’s what they wanted to do. Then they went out against Portugal, and they both played great games; they weren’t awed by the situation. You saw them very confident, but in a quiet way in the locker room. Leading up to the game, they weren’t blown away by the magnitude of this game or who they were playing. To them it was just another game. That’s the approach they had, and I think neither of them had any doubts that they were going to do well, and they proved it.”

CC: What is it that makes Bruce Arena such a great manager?
CR: “He makes sure that the team is most important.  He’ll be the first to praise players, and he’ll also criticize players. I think that he knows the right buttons to push with each individual. It’s fun to play for Bruce. He can turn around and say something that is so funny and have the whole team laughing, and then he knows when to get serious and raise his voice, and put his foot down. That’s a good mix. He knows from experience when to do that.  Everything he does is for the benefit of the team, and I think that’s probably his best trait as a coach. The atmosphere when you come into camp is great.  We work hard, yet we’re relaxed off the field. There’s no tension. There aren’t too many meetings. But yet we’re still organized, and he’s very business-like with his organization, making sure that everything runs smoothly.  Not just on the field in training, but our traveling and making sure that we’re run like a professional team. He does a great job of that, and I think people don’t see a lot of that side of him.  As a player, and especially for me being around the national team for 10 years now, the way the organization is run now is tremendous.  A lot of the credit goes to U.S. Soccer.  They did a great job of making sure that we got everything we needed leading up to the World Cup. “

CC: There’s a famous shot of you that most Americans soccer fans probably know, the one with you walking off the field with the American flag draped around you after the Germany game. What was your favorite moment at the World Cup?
CR: “That turned out to be a pretty cool moment.  I didn’t plan it that way.  I just went over to the stands and somebody threw me a flag. I picked it up and did some things, and it just turned out to be great.  I’m glad that we were able to show how proud a group of guys we were to represent our country.  It was a great feeling to find out that we made our nation proud.  I mean there were people who knew nothing about soccer who were coming up to us after we got back in New York City and hugging us, giving us high-fives. We were kind of blown away by it all, and surprised by the excitement that we stirred up halfway around the world.  So many people were telling us ‘You can’t believe this, but people are getting up at four in the morning to watch you play.’  Of all the World Cups, we thought this would be the last one that would create any excitement in our country, and it turned out to be incredible, with guys on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Soccer, for whatever reason, kind of sits on the other side of the fence with American sports. We’ve got our four major sports, but for a month or five weeks or so we were the biggest news in the country. We were at the top of ‘SportsCenter,’ things like that. Unfortunately we weren’t able to see any of it. That was probably the best thing that ever happened, that we made a country proud especially in the moment, and the circumstances that we’re living through nowadays in our country with everything going on. That was the coolest thing.”

CC: In your heart, what were the moments that made the 2002 World Cup so special for Claudio Reyna?
CR: “I think for me personally it was probably every time I walked out of the tunnel wearing the captain’s armband and leading our team onto the field.  The feeling of being the captain of the U.S. team was incredible.  I could cry now just thinking about it.”


Table of Contents
1) At the Movies (w/ WNT midfielder Aly Wagner)
In Threes (w/ Under-23 MNT midfielder Logan Pause)
Queries and Anecdotes (w/ MNT midfielder Claudio Reyna)
Mark That Calendar (MNT vs. Wales – May 26 / MNT vs. N.Z. – June 8)
5) FAN Point/Counterpoint (Who will be the 2003 MLS Rookie of the Year?)
"You Don't Know Jack (Marshall)" (WUSA Firsts)

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