MANCHESTER, England - While standing on the fake turf laid down in Manchester City's warm-up room in the bowels of the City of Manchester Stadium, Claudio Reyna stood as relaxed and content as he has in years.
And for good reason. His torn ACL is now completely recovered, he's settled in to his new surroundings, and he's back to playing at a world-class level for both club and country.
He even has fellow teammates from the National Team -- Manchester United's Tim Howard and Preston North End's Eddie Lewis -- within a few minutes drive to hang out with during his free time.
During an exclusive interview, the American captain looked back on the Feb. 18 friendly between the U.S. and Holland, World Cup 2002, his National Team future, and his biggest influences.
Connolly: Everyone would have been happy to lose 1-0 to Holland a few years ago, but now there's a lot of disappointment back in the U.S. because there were chances to tie or even win that game. Was it frustrating for you?
Reyna: Holland is a team that always has possession, so if you look at the possession side of things, you'd say that they dominated. But I think we did well limiting their chances. Kasey (Keller) didn't have to make any saves that were out of this world. He made the saves that he, himself, would expect to make. We had some great chances at the end, but we walked away realizing that we lost 1-0 to one of the best sides in the world without playing that well ourselves. That's a huge positive.
As a team, we weren't firing on all cylinders. Maybe if John O'Brien or Eddie Pope played, it might have been different. At full strength, it would have been interesting to see if we would have played a little better. We came together, though, after many of us haven't been with the National Team for eight months, if not longer. It definitely was a positive because we walked away realizing that we have improved a lot, and it was a great experience for a lot of the younger guys.
I think that's generally the attitude that Bruce (Arena) has brought to the team. To not back down and to go out every game and try to win and not be satisfied with just going there to hold our own and accepting losing. That's the attitude throughout the squad, so I think Bruce deserves a lot of credit for that. We always go into the games feeling good about our chances. But after being successful in the World Cup, we also know that teams are going to be gunning for us, especially in CONCACAF, so we have to be extra motivated.
Motivation is the most important thing. If you get too comfortable, teams will sneak up and beat you. The perfect example for that is Turkey. They didn't qualify for the European Championships after finishing third in the World Cup. There are other examples of that all the time in South America or in Asia where teams slip off a bit and become overconfident from previous successful times, and just like that, you're fighting an uphill battle. So we're putting ourselves in a great position to be the benchmark in CONCACAF where everyone is chasing us always. Jamaica seems like they are improving a bit; Honduras has improved over the past few years; Costa Rica and Mexico are always there, so it's going to be hard.
The attitude can't be that 'we've arrived.' We have to stay on it, and keep improving. As one of the veterans of this team, that's something that I have to let everyone know as we go into World Cup qualifying. It starts over again. We have to be more alert and just as prepared, because I think it'll be more difficult than it was last time.
: Before the World Cup in 2002, there were times when you mentioned you weren't sure if you'd be around for the next round of qualifying or for the World Cup in 2006. What changed your mind? Did it have to do with being invigorated by some of the younger guys, or was it more of a personal thing?
: It was strictly a personal thing with all the travel and having kids. Until people really go through qualifying a couple of times while playing in Europe, they don't realize how hard it is to travel from England to Central America or to the U.S., then come back on an overnight flight and have a day to get yourselves ready for a Premiership level game. The only guy who can really understand my situation was Kasey, and I talked to him all the time. He knew where I was coming from and he thought the same thing as me at the time. Being away from your family all that time was getting more difficult each time, as well.
I was saying that I might not play because of my respect for the National Team. With the National Team, you have to always be fair, and realize that it's a four-year cycle. I wouldn't want to say I'm done after two years or right after the qualification campaign, which is why a World Cup is always a good time to stop. That's one of the reasons I talked about it.
At the end, I still, more than anything, was leading towards coming back. I talked to Bruce a few times, and then it worked out with my injury that I got a break in one way and sort of brought back my desire -- not that I really lost it -- to play again for the National Team. What helps, too, is that we don't have a constant thing to play for like with the European players and the European Championships. So the last year-and-a-half has been nice, and I'm definitely looking forward to this next cycle when World Cup qualifying starts up again in June.
: As far as the last World Cup goes, how often do you think back to the Germany game?
: Not a lot these days, to be honest. I did, however, during the six months after the World Cup. It comes up whenever I see fans on the street. The feeling is pretty obvious that we should have won that game. It's over, though. What's important is that we went out as winners. Regardless of losing a game to the team that finished second in the World, it was a great team performance throughout the tournament. That game capped it off. For a good seventy minutes of that game, we dominated a powerhouse in Germany. And it was in a World Cup
-- not in a friendly.
There was a lot of 'ifs,' but that happens a lot in soccer, so you have to let them go. There have been games within the last month here at Man. City that I'm thinking about because we should have won, so it let's me realize that that's just how it goes sometimes. You have to look forward and forget that.
The World Cup was a wonderful time for U.S. Soccer. If you're going to play that way and lose, you want to do it against one of the greatest soccer nations in the world. And we did just that against Germany. We walked out with our heads up.
: Speaking of great games, are you someone who watches a lot of games on TV when you are home, or do you try and get away from soccer when you're off the field?
: Yeah, when I'm away from it, I'm away from it. But there are certain games that I like to watch. It's different over here because you have such a choice of games where in America you don't have as much to watch. Well, it's gotten better, but when I'm home in the summer, there's not too much on. That's when I turn my switch to off and completely get away from it.
When I'm here, I watch big Champions League games. Not all of them, though, since there are too many. A lot of people love them and will watch every game, but I'm one who tends to choose and only likes to watch the best level. Real Madrid is a team I like to watch. Same with Barcelona. If Man. United is playing a great game in the Champions League, like against Arsenal, I'll watch. Other than that, not too much.
We get all the same shows and sit-coms from back home here, so at night we watch that or maybe a movie.
: Of all the places you've been and clubs you've played for, who is the coach that has influenced your game the most?
: It would have to be, at a youth level, my dad. The early years are very important. Up until the time I went to Virginia, he was my head coach. So he probably taught me the most about the game, and all the little things that have stuck with me to this day about being a soccer player and a professional as well.
On the professional level, it would have to be Dick Advocaat from when I was at Rangers, and who is now coaching Holland. Probably more than any other coach, he realized what my strengths were as a player, and put me in the role where I flourished and played my best. He and his staff as a whole just taught me a lot about the game in general.
: What about a teammate that has influenced you the most?
: There are quite a bit. One that always sticks out is Bernd Schuster. I went to (Bayer) Leverkusen when I was twenty years old and he was still there. He was an incredible legend who played for thirteen years in Spain for Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, which is basically unheard of. I don't know if any other player has ever done that. He came back to Germany at thirty three. He was an amazing passer of the ball and such a great professional. That stuck with me.
With him, I'd also put Rudi Voller. To be twenty years old and to be playing with legends of the game like Bernd and Rudi quickly made an impression on me. To see how they were at thirty-four and thirty-five years old and still coming every day to training wanting to go hard, never taking a day off, and wanting to win every game, was amazing. They were such team players, too. To see how they handled themselves day-in and day-out has always stayed with me.
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.