U.S. Men’s National Team captain Claudio Reyna will become the seventh player in team history to reach 100 caps when he leads the team onto the field in Foxboro this Wednesday. The three-time World Cup veteran became the first U.S. player in history to be named to a FIFA World Cup All-Star team after his performance in the 2002 World Cup. Reyna reflected on his career, his time in Korea, and his hopes for the future in this interview with ussoccer.com.
ussoccer.com: 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 2006?
Claudio Reyna: “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.”
ussoccer.com: 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 Korea/Japan, 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.”
ussoccer.com: After the team’s performance in Korea and reaching the top ten in FIFA rankings, 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.”
ussoccer.com: 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 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.”
ussoccer.com: 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.”
ussoccer.com: 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 others, 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.”
ussoccer.com: Are U.S. players now treated with more respect throughout the world?
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.”
ussoccer.com: As the next World Cup qualifying cycle kicks off next month, there are a few new faces in the squad from the last group that went through this process. 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. 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.”
ussoccer.com: 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. “
ussoccer.com: 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.”
ussoccer.com: 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. 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 ten 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.”
ussoccer.com: In your heart, what were the moments that made the time with the national team special for Claudio Reyna?
CR: “I think for me personally it’s probably every time I walk 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 is incredible.”
*Members of the media using excerpts of this transcript please courtesy ussoccer.com