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Reyna: Manchester City's maestro

Editor's note: ESPN writer Marc Connolly spent five days in England at the end of February visiting American players who are part of the growing U.S. contingent who play professionally for top-notch clubs on both the first-team and reserve sides. MANCHESTER, England -- While Claudio Reyna is on his way out of the locker room here after a light training session at the City of Manchester Stadium, he's stopped by two of the team's female press officers. "He's so preppy ... so American," jokes Vicky Kloss to her assistant Rosie Bass, commenting on Reyna's Polo sweater and overall J. Crew look. That's when the usual questions start. "Did you wear a letterman's jacket when you were young, Claudio?" "I bet you dated the head cheerleader in school, right?" "Were you in a fraternity?" A clearly amused Reyna turns to his visitor from the U.S. and says, "See, that's what people over here think of Americans." Or the typical American player. In fact, to most soccer fans throughout Europe, any Yank included on their team's roster is called just that - "The American." Despite the playful jabbering from his Man. City colleagues, that's not the case with Reyna, though. After a career that has seen him take part in three World Cups, two Olympic Games and start for some of the world's most high-profile clubs such as Bayer Leverkusen (Germany) and Glasgow Rangers (Scotland), Reyna was a well-known entity when he signed with Manchester City last August. People all over England remember watching him lead the U.S. squad to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup while wearing the captain's armband and the number 10 shirt, which ultimately earned him a spot on the FIFA World Cup All-Star team alongside Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and Michael Ballack in the midfield. They can also easily recall seeing him play in Champions League and UEFA Cup matches for Rangers, as well as during his stint with Sunderland that lasted a year-and-half before joining City. "We all thought he was quite a bargain, actually," says loyal City fan Dominic Wright referring to Reyna's 2.5 million-pound fee ($4 million U.S. dollars). "To get a creative midfielder that has accomplished everything he has, we were quite happy. I mean, everyone knew who Claudio Reyna was." Unfortunately, the 30-year-old Springfield, N.J., native wasn't at full fitness or completely pain-free when he joined Man. City at the start of the 2003-04 season. Though he had resumed playing for the U.S. National Team in July with an exhibition match against Paraguay followed by four matches in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, Reyna was still feeling the effects of a torn ACL in his left knee from the previous October.

Connolly in England
The series of articles that Marc Connolly is writing from his travels in England during the last week of February will be published as follows:

Thurs, March 4: Jonathan Spector on the Man. United way
Thurs., March 4: Kenny Cooper thriving for Man. United's reserves
Mon., March 8: Zak Whitbread's life at Liverpool
Thurs., March 11: Claudio Reyna is the toast of the town at Man. City
Fri., March 12: Lone Wolf: Juan Osorio is carrying the flag for U.S. coaches at Man. City

"It was difficult the first month or so," says Reyna. "I didn't really have a preseason under my belt, so I really didn't get into the swing of it. My knee was still on my mind back then." After being inserted into the lineup for the final eight minutes in a 4-1 victory over Aston Villa on September 14, manager Kevin Keegan started him twice and brought him on as a substitute twice over the next five games, before Reyna earned a regular spot in the starting XI. He's gone on to play in 24 matches for the Blues that includes four UEFA Cup appearances, three FA Cup games and one League Cup match. He's notched one goal, and has established himself as one of the better players on the team. "Claudio is doing really well for us," says Keegan, who is in his fourth year as Manchester City's manager after a year-and-half long stint as the English National Team manager in 1999-2000. "He's a very good player, and we like him a lot here." Keegan has used Reyna in a variety of positions this season, as his formations have changed on a seemingly game-to-game basis depending on who is available due to injuries and suspensions. "We play many systems, changing from a 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2, and on some occasions, we've played a 4-3-3," says Reyna. "Sometimes I've been asked to be the player that gets forward and creates things and set up chances. And some games I'm asked to hold in the midfield and let some of our creative players like Steve McManaman and Shaun Wright-Phillips get forward. That's when I act as more of the link between the defenders and the attackers. As long as I know my role before the game, that's fine. "These days midfielders have to be good when defending, and then also when on the attack because in the modern game it's so up and down. It's an advantage for any player who can do that." Says assistant coach, and fellow American, Juan Osorio, "He's a very important player for us in the middle of the park. In the 3-5-2 system, I think he can be an anchor man, but he can also be one of the two players in front of the anchorman." That type of versatility has made it easier for the coaching staff to try different things, which is what tends to happen when your team's record is 1-10-7 in league play since mid-November. What's been frustrating is that Man. City has talented players all over the field with experienced professionals such as David James in the goal, McManaman in the midfield as well as strikers Nicolas Anelka, Robbie Fowler and Costa Rican star Paulo Wanchope. "We have a good squad here," insists Reyna, despite the team's place in the table that stands at 16. "We started off well, and then had a period when nothing went well. Obviously, the Premiership is a tough league. We try to play soccer the right way here, and it is fun. Although our position doesn't show it, I think we're a club on the way up. With a little bit of tinkering here and there, it could be a club that's in the top eight year-in and year-out. Everything's in place for the club to move on." He's right. For starters, the club plays in a gorgeous new facility that the team moved into last August. The 48,000-seat stadium was funded by the city's Lottery Sports Fund, and is the main attraction of Sportcity, which includes national centers for tennis, squash and cycling with immaculate venues for each, as well. It is much like the Home Depot Center in that regard, and the overall feel is much more American than other stadiums around England. "Everything is first-class here," says Reyna. "Look around the facilities. We have everything you'd ever need." When speaking of his time at Man. City, Reyna keeps coming back to the fans, commenting on the intense loyalty they show each week no matter what the result was the weekend before. "That's what separates the little clubs from the big clubs - the fans," he says. "Wherever we go, we have great support. It's similar to Rangers in that way. Even when the team dropped to the second division, I heard they were still getting 30,000 or 35,000 people at each game." Man. City fans haven't had a lot to cheer about over the past decade, so Reyna says they kind of expect mediocrity in some ways. He's also taken with the way they respect players away from the field around town, despite the fanaticism that exists for the team within the city, more so than Manchester United even. "English fans are very respectful," he says. "That's why there's no need for moats or fences around the fields here. It's usually one or two that sometimes give them a bad name. They are very passionate about the game, but they're always respectful when they see you regardless of who they support. I've noticed that, because in other countries you might have to be careful around a fan from the opposition. People might recognize you, but they don't really bother you or anything." That's even the case when Reyna is hanging out with Tim Howard -- a teammate on the U.S. National Team, but also a rival who plays for Manchester United -- at a Starbucks, as they often do during the week, which would be like seeing Derek Jeter and Mike Piazza having lattes in New York City. Actually, the fact that Reyna and his wife, Danielle, are able to spend time with other Americans has been one of the best aspects of switching clubs. Living in a small village about 20 minutes south of Manchester, the Reynas live within a five-minute drive of both Howard and Eddie Lewis, who plays for Preston North End of the First Division. "We go over to each other's houses for dinner a lot," says Reyna. "We're all good friends, and it gives us a chance to get away and talk about different things. You kind of feel you're at home. It's not difficult for an American to settle in England, but it helps that we're all in the same boat how we're over here alone without family and without many friends, so we have each other to hang out with. We've become a little group. "Plus, there's other guys like Kasey (Keller) and (Brian) McBride that we talk to on the phone and run into now regularly. It's even more important for the wives, as they have someone they can automatically be friends with. They get together a lot and go shopping and just hang out. It gives us a chance to get together without a cultural boundary to have to knock down. It's just easy for us." Then again, Reyna is someone who has never had a problem getting along with people, especially his teammates. On a side like Man. City that features players from several different cultures from all over the world, there's a bit of a divided locker room with definitive cliques. One of the few players who can easily float between the small groups of players is Reyna, who can speak three languages, and is known for his low-key, easy-going nature that has earned him respect within every team he's ever played for. Osorio says that he definitely leads by example, as well, and is a good influence on the younger players throughout the entire club. "As a half-American, myself, I'm very proud of him, and so glad that he's come here to show what good professionals the Americans are," says Osorio, who spent one season with the MetroStars as the team's strength and conditioning coach before coming over the Man. City in 2001. "He's always early; he does all the extra work; trains extra hard; and carries himself like a true professional wherever he is. He's done justice for the American soccer players because he's shown everyone how reliable they are." In a recent match against Chelsea, which Man. City lost 1-0 despite carrying the play for most of the match, the respect he's earned is apparent. Nearly every time he touches the ball, the fans give one of those five-second golf type of claps that shows their appreciation of a well-played ball or a quick maneuver to open space to widen the field, which also shows their knowledge of the game. "He always seems to make the right pass at the right time," says Wright, a lifelong Blues supporter. "It's only been half of a season, but it feels like he's been here a long time, as he's already become a City favorite. You can tell by listening to those in the Colin Bell Stand (a spirited section on the West side of the stadium named after one of the club's all-time greats) how popular he is." Osorio says they simply appreciate good footballing, and that's exactly what Reyna has brought to the side. "Claudio has an ability where he can almost stop the game for a bit, and make the next play because he reads the game so well," says Osorio. "He's very tidy with the ball, and a clean passer. His range of passing is quite complete -- he can play short balls, long balls, clever balls around the corner and the 10- to 15-meter mid-range passes." With this Sunday's match against Manchester United serving as both a derby match and an opportunity for City to break out of its funk and move up the table to avoid fighting relegation come April and May, Reyna will have to break out the complete arsenal of passes. And, when given the chance to get forward, take aim at Howard. If anything, it'll give the two American stars in Manchester something to talk about over coffee next week. Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN He can be reached at: