It was a chilly winter day in Manchester, England five years ago and Claudio Reyna sat at the Manchester City training facility contemplating his future. Asked about the possibility of one day returning to his native United States to finish one of the most successful professional careers in American soccer history, Reyna thought long and hard, and focused on one point.
"I want to go back when I can still play at a high level," Reyna said that day. "I'm not going back just to get a paycheck and retire."
That was always the plan for Reyna. To make a triumphant return to the United States and become a key player for the MLS franchise in his native New Jersey. It didn't quite work out that way though, after nagging injuries plagued him and his long-awaited return to the United States slowly turned into a nightmare.
Faced with the reality that, at almost 35 years of age, his body just could not deal with the rigors of the pro game any longer, Reyna made a decision that couldn't have been easy. He called time on a 14-year career that was one of the most successful ever enjoyed by an American player.
To appreciate the value Reyna had as a player, you need only read the words of former U.S. national teammate DaMarcus Beasley, who put Reyna's value into perspective two years ago:
"He's a great captain. He's a laid-back cool guy off the field and gets along with everybody. Everybody loves Claudio," Beasley told USA Today prior to the 2006 World Cup. "On the field, technically he's our best player. He's so smooth. He's very nonchalant. He always reminds me of [Zinedine Zidane].
"It looks like he's not working hard, but he is," Beasley said. "He makes a long pass, and it looks like he's not even trying. He's so cool, so calm, so unfrantic, I guess you can say: He can play on any team on the world. Put him on Brazil, he can play. Put him on Holland, he can play. Put him on Argentina, he can play. He can fit in anywhere."
In the end, it was Reyna's body and not his skills that failed him. Reyna's MLS career started well, with him helping the Red Bulls get off to a 3-0-2 start in 2007, but injuries began taking their toll and forced Reyna to miss nine games that season.
There was some question about whether Reyna would retire prior to the 2008 season, but Reyna returned and found himself reunited with new Red Bulls head coach Juan Carlos Osorio, who was a coach at Manchester City for three seasons while Reyna was there. When asked about his plans for beyond 2008, Reyna refused to even entertain the questions or speak about the possibility of retirement. All he wanted to do was focus on this season.
The 2008 season started promisingly for Reyna, who started in the team's first five matches, but when he left the team's 1-1 tie with Toronto FC on May 1 at halftime with a calf strain, the injury would be the beginning of the end. Reyna started just one more game. Reyna's final professional game was the Red Bulls' 5-1 loss to the Chicago Fire on May 25.
The stat totals for Reyna's brief time in MLS are far from jaw-dropping: 27 games, three assists and zero goals. Though the numbers were far from impressive, Reyna could still play at a high level when he did, in fact, play. Unfortunately for him and the Red Bulls, Reyna's best required an all-out approach that almost invariably resulted in Reyna suffering more injuries.
His missed games due to injury, coupled with his high salary (approximately $1.25 million) made Reyna a whipping boy for Red Bulls fans who saw him as the reason for their team's struggles. Holding a designated player slot, most fans would prefer to see that spot used on a playmaker or goal scorer, Reyna's standing among fans sadly reached almost villainous proportions.
It had to be a bit surreal for Reyna, who spent a dozen years in Europe, where player salaries are hardly a focus of attention because almost all players are paid well and there is no salary cap. In MLS, where Reyna's salary accounted for a considerable percentage of the Red Bulls overall salary cap space, Reyna's pay was an albatross around his neck from the moment he was introduced as the Red Bulls first designated player.
"I just wish so much wasn't made of that, of people's salaries," Reyna said in an interview at the start of the season. "A player signs a contract and he's on the team and you should judge them on what they do on the field. It seems like here people want to focus on salaries."
There is no getting around the fact that when the Red Bulls signed Reyna to a two-year guaranteed contract worth $2.5 million they made a big mistake. Not because Reyna wasn't a good player, but because in the financial landscape of MLS, tying that much money and a valuable designated player slot to a 33-year-old player with a history of injuries (to play on artificial turf no less) just wasn't a wise decision. You could argue that it was the worst decision in MLS history.
Reyna's career will hardly be defined by his two injury-plagued seasons in MLS, but rather by his dozen years in Europe. A time that saw him set records for largest transfers paid for an American player on multiple occasions. His composure and skill made him a key figure at Wolfsburg in Germany, Glasgow Rangers in Scotland and both Sunderland and Manchester City in England.
And much like his decade with the U.S. national team, Reyna's natural leadership ability helped earn him the captain's armband with three different European clubs (Wolfsburg, Sunderland and Manchester City). It is that leadership that was probably his biggest contribution to the Red Bulls. When the team was enduring a tumultuous 2007 season, it was Reyna who sources say kept the team together. It was also Reyna who made it a point to mentor the team's young players, including Jozy Altidore.
"Claudio's a great player and a special person, someone who has definitely helped me," Altidore said before he left for Spanish club Villarreal. "He's what you want a captain to be, someone who can talk to everybody and give you confidence on and off the field."
Just as it was with the U.S. national team, Reyna's legacy as a player will be his combination of leadership, skill and technical ability not seen in an American player before or since. Reyna always intended to return home to let American fans see that player in person, but time just ran out.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.