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Jan 24, 2007

Reyna a U.S. star fans can identify with

Claudio Reyna has spent the past dozen years forging the most successful European career in American soccer history, but every step of the way, he dreamed of eventually coming back home.

When Reyna left New Jersey for Germany, Major League Soccer had yet to kick a ball. And while the United States was enjoying the afterglow of the 1994 World Cup, soccer had yet to grab a foothold in this country. Now, Reyna returns to a country that is embracing the sport, and a league that is as healthy as it has ever been.

No, Reyna isn't David Beckham. He is not an international superstar who will draw the casual fan to come see MLS matches. Reyna is simply an American soccer star who American fans can identify with, a player they have watched star in World Cups, a player who blazed the trail for so many Americans in Europe. He is a New Jersey boy coming home while he still has something left to show the fans who have admired him from afar for so long.

Reyna's signing with the Red Bulls makes all the sense in the world, but that still isn't preventing some skeptics from wondering whether MLS's newly created designated player rule should be used to sign an American player at the tail end of his career, no matter how storied a career it has been.

This logic is misguided because no one ever said the new rule was exclusively for foreign players. The rule was established to help MLS teams sign players who would have normally been out of their price ranges. Reyna, who was making almost $60,000 a week at Manchester City, certainly qualifies. Reyna could have stayed in England earning much more than the previous MLS maximum salary of $300,000, but the new "Beckham Exception" allowed the Red Bulls to offer Reyna a salary that could persuade him to come home as many as two years earlier than he might have under normal circumstances.

Would it have been a more ideal scenario to have Reyna sign for the league maximum rather than taking up a designated player slot? Of course it would have been, but Reyna has earned and warrants a designated player slot. If he were not an American and were a three-time World Cup participant and former All-World Cup team player who was still a starter for an English Premiership team, would anyone have a problem with signing him as a designated player? Somehow, I doubt it.

The overriding question for some American soccer fans is just what does Reyna do that warrants a big MLS salary? He doesn't score goals in bunches or deliver assists on a regular basis. What Reyna does is play the game on a higher level than any American before him. His vision and passing ability has made him a standout in England and should translate well to MLS. His ability to read the game and put himself in good positions at all times not only makes him a valuable player, it also helps make his teammates better.

If your last memory of Reyna on the field was of him turning the ball over in the U.S national team's 2-1 loss to Ghana, then you probably forgot that Reyna was easily the U.S. team's best player in its first two World Cup matches last summer. He was the only American to show a willingness to attack against the Czech Republic and he delivered an inspired performance against eventual champion Italy even as the Americans played a man down.

Bruce Arena certainly remembers that, just as he knows full well what Reyna can bring to a team both on the field and in the locker room. There is a reason Reyna has served as captain of three different club teams (Wolfsburg, Sunderland and Manchester City) and that presence should only help the development of young Red Bulls standouts Josmer Altidore and Marvell Wynne.

The biggest cause for concern among Red Bulls fans has been Reyna's history of injuries. The scenario is all too familiar to them, a New Jersey-born national team star coming home to play at Giants Stadium only to have injuries keep him sidelined for most of his MLS career. Yes, the memories of Tab Ramos' injury-plagued time with the MetroStars are still fresh in the minds of many fans, and Reyna's injury-checkered past has some panicking.

Reyna is certainly an injury risk, but the potential rewards make the risk worthwhile. It would be foolish to ignore Reyna's recent track record of injuries, but anyone who thinks Reyna will be content to collect a paycheck on the injured list for the next two years doesn't know Reyna. For the past three years, Reyna has stated his desire to not just come home, but to come home with enough left to be a standout. If he were physically incapable of coming here and being a top player, Reyna wouldn't have bothered signing with the Red Bulls.

No, Reyna isn't David Beckham, Ronaldo or Zinedine Zidane. He isn't a world star capable of selling out stadiums. What can be said of Reyna is that he is a winner, a leader and a symbol of how far American soccer has come since he left for Europe. He deserves the chance to come home and finish his career in the United States, and Americans deserve the chance to see him.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.