Claudio Reyna's Success In Europe Paved The Way For American Players

The year is 2002, and eternal rivals are squaring off in knockout play on the world’s biggest stage. 

Fans in South Korea have barely had time to settled into their seats before the Yanks’ captain went barreling forward past multiple El Tri defenders, played a crisp ball into the penalty area to Josh Wolff, who in turn set up Brian McBride for the game’s opening goal in the eighth minute.

Reyna's brilliant run set up McBride for the early goal.

Landon Donovan added an insurance goal midway through the second half en route to a historic win and passage to the quarterfinals, good for the U.S. national team’s best finish at the World Cup in the modern era.

Birthplace: Livingston, New Jersey

Years active: 1994-2008

Teams: Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, Rangers, Sunderland, Manchester City, New York Red Bulls

Notable achievements: NCAA title (three times), Hermann Trophy, MAC Award, Scottish Premier League, Scottish Cup, 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, World Cup All-star, first American to captain a European club

The son of Argentine and Portuguese immigrants, Reyna was born in Livingston, New Jersey, and was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps by earning a living on the pitch. He spent his childhood idolizing the likes of Diego Maradona and the Argentina national team and would soon get a chance of his own to become a pivotal figure for his birth nation.

Reyna attended the University of Virginia, where he suited up under the direction of Bruce Arena and played a key role in three consecutive championships before launching his professional career. He first landed at Bayer Leverkusen in 1994 following the World Cup and quickly found a better home on loan at VfL Wolfsburg, where he became the first American to captain a European club.

In 1999 he made the jump to Scotland to join Glasgow Rangers and wasted no time in becoming a fan favorite in a two-year stay with 10 goals in 64 appearances. Sunderland became his next destination in 2001, before he really took flight in the English top tier in a four-year spell at Manchester City (2003-2007), where he appeared in 87 matches and found the back of the net on four occasions.

A 12-year stint in Europe across multiple leagues is impressive for any player, let alone during a time when Americans consistently plying their trade across the pond were few and far between. His first season in the Scottish top flight concluded with a league and cup double, and one of his best moments came in August of 1999 in the Champions League qualifiers when he played and scored in a 2-0 win over Parma — a legendary side that included the likes of Hernan Crespo, Gianluigi Buffon, and Fabio Cannavaro. 

Rangers fans nearly brought the house down following their midfield maestro’s thunderous hit.

The New Jersey native made a name for himself in some of the most competitive environments with his composure on the ball, vision, ball-winning, and ability to pick out a pass from different areas of midfield – all qualities not typically associated with American players at that point in time. His success was foundational for the growth of the game in this country and “Captain America,” as he was known, was a fixture in the center of the park for the Yanks for nearly a decade and wore the armband from 1998-2007. 

Tab Ramos’ words paint a picture of just how crucial he is in the history of U.S. Soccer:

"I think Claudio is without question the most accomplished American player that we've had," said the former U.S. international. "He was probably the first American player I've ever seen go to Europe and play calm and play his game, whether it was Rangers or Manchester City, and you knew that he belonged there. That was a big step for U.S. soccer."

Reyna wielded massive influence on both sides of the pond.

Despite his success for club and country, numerous injuries perhaps prevented him from achieving even more and particularly in the latter stages of his career. The final stop came ahead of the 2007 MLS season when he joined the New York Red Bulls as their first Designated Player. He would only make 27 appearances in two years for the club based less than an hour from his hometown, as leg injuries ultimately kept him from replicating the standard of play he set in Europe.

Reyna’s most recent ventures both began in 2013. On May 22, he was named New York City FC’s Sporting Director ahead of their inaugural season in 2015 and has built a strong reputation for spotting and developing young talent. That same year he launched the Claudio Reyna Foundation, which works to “improve the health and wellness of inner-city youth in low-income communities.”

The Hall of Famer will forever be remembered as one of the greatest players the U.S. has ever produced, and he will undoubtedly continue to positively influence the sport in this country for years to come.

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