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NYCFC’s Reyna on building ‘inspirational pathway’ for youth

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When it comes to American soccer, there are few fonts of wisdom as well-earned as Claudio Reyna.

Before he was New York City FC’s sporting director, the New Jersey-born midfielder did just about everything possible for a player of his era en route to becoming a USMNT centurion (112 caps, to be exact).

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Reyna played for Bruce Arena at the University of Virginia, where he won the Hermann Trophy as the best player in college soccer. He left for Europe following the 1994 World Cup, embarking on a 14-year career in Germany (Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg), Scotland (Rangers), England (Sunderland and Manchester City), and the U.S. (New York Red Bulls).

Now closer to home with NYCFC, where he’s helped build the East’s No. 1 seed in these MLS Cup Playoffs, Reyna is constructing a giant of American soccer. We spoke with Reyna about the status of youth soccer, scouting the globe, his NYCFC heading into the playoffs, and a United States U-17 World Cup roster which includes his son Giovanni (Borussia Dortmund) as well as several NYCFC players.

NYCFC has also used its resources to build 50 public soccer pitches around the metropolitan area. The club is on track to have 30 finished by the end of this calendar year, which is where we started a wonderful conversation with the living USMNT legend.

ProSoccerTalk: Considering the many facets involved with a project like this, bureaucracy, red tape, community challenges, how heavy of a lift was this and how rewarding is it to see it moving toward completion?

(Photo by Anthony J. Causi)

Claudio Reyna: “It certainly is a heavy lift but it’s not just NYCFC. It was a partnership with adidas, Etihad, the Mayor’s Fund, and U.S. Soccer Foundation. They certainly helped in getting this off the ground, on time and on budget. We still have more until we complete the 50. We wouldn’t be able to do it without the team effort but it was a lot of heavy lifting and coordinating of people’s schedules. It’s very rewarding and satisfying when you see the pitches bringing communities together and having kids playing unstructured, fun soccer, all kinds of ages coming together. To have that space and creativity to have fun and play soccer.”

PST: How important is it that young players are competing in free-flowing games, trying new things, and techniques? And how can you help maximize their use?

Reyna: “Within the community they know the pitches are there, and word will continue to spread. But it’s important to leave a legacy and give something that really does so much to a community. It’s not about developing soccer players — it certainly helps the sport grow and get visibility — but in urban areas there is limited park space and just in general it’s difficult to get out and play and exercise. It’s attractive, these blue pitches. It’s all these players, their stadium.

It’s a magical place for them to go and they’ll never forget that. It’s that spark for kids. It brings people together like it does at all levels.

“That’s what we’re most proud of, all the partners are. You continue to change lives, and we’re certain that’s going to happen. It’s one of the best projects that we’ve had, and it’s something you can see with your eyes the impact that it’s making.”

PST: Looking at soccer here on the whole, there have been magnificent strides in the past 10-15 years. What’s your status report of the youth game here in our country at this point?

Reyna: It’s good but we’re not anywhere near the best leagues and soccer nations in the world. In terms of investment and facilities, level of coaching, and level of players coming through the academies is much better than in years past, but every club is at a different place and different environment. You have to understand your market and your areas.

“We are fortunate that we have a rich talent pool of players, but we have to take them in and teach them about life first, that’s a big thing for us in character traits, make sure they are respectful to the team and wearing the jerseys. At our academy we’re focused on pushing players and when it gets too easy, we move them up. When we feel a player is ready for the first team, we push them up.

“Despite winning the last two U-19 national championships, we’re always focused on the long-term development of players. We won last year with very young teams, so that speaks to what we believe in. We have four Homegrown Players, and there will be more in the future. There’s that inspirational pathway, a really good pipeline where they see the first team.

My path was a bit unclear for me. I didn’t dream of playing professional soccer at 10, 11 because there’s no league. But now a kid goes to our stadium, to our academy, he sees a local kid make it, and knows he can be the next one.”

PST: What are the biggest challenges for your academy in bringing in young players for the first time?

Reyna: “We have many players that come with a very good background, and we’ve made a lot of efforts in partnering with local clubs. We start bringing the players in at 10, 11 years old. Before that they have a different development and understanding.

“We have to bring down some habits because the kids who come to us are the best players on their other teams and they get away with more than they will when they come to another level. We focus on breaking habits. We believe in a collective game where everyone needs to play and be comfortable on the ball.

“The first year we may have to shift players around because what you find is when the best players come to us, most were center forwards, center midfielders, central defenders. You have to say, okay, this player’s good but his long-term potential is a right back.

“The perfect example is Joe Scally on the U-17 World Cup team. He came to us from a club in Long Island as an athletic box-to-box midfielder. He was very strong, but we saw him as an outside back. The lesson that we now we share that with our players, don’t get upset if you move to a position, but Joe Scally understood, never complained, he played wherever he was told to do, and now he’s a right back now, 16 years old going to the World Cup after being in our academy for two and a half years.

“Players who buy in like that, and Joe, Justin Haak, and James (Sands), they tend to have more success. In New York we continue to work with local clubs like NYSC and Met Oval and a lot of smaller clubs around the NY area have helped us produce players who come with a good foundation and good base.”

PST: I wanted to ask you about the U-17 World Cup. Obviously your son being on the team has to make it an incredibly emotional thing, but to have have three academy players in the fold, too, man… that must be a sensational feeling.

Giovanni Reyna with Borussia Dortmund first team head coach Lucien Favre(Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images)

Reyna: And a coach, too (NYCFC academy coach Matt Pilkington is an assistant on the squad). It’s very special. My son, obviously, it’s a very proud moment for him to be able to compete in a World Cup. But for me, I’ve known these kids since they were 10 years old. When I see them run out, it’s kinda like “Whoa,” I remember them hanging out at 11, 12, 13. It’s really great to see.

“Then again it’s a credit to what we do here. We prepare players for the next level. That’s what an academy is. You’re not there to win academy games. You’re there to prepare them for the next level. These guys are mature. They are winners. They have a winning mentality that has translated to this team. I’m definitely get down, and go back and forth because of the playoffs, it’s super exciting for me. Very emotional as well. I love them like they’re my own kids.

PST: And one of them is.

Reyna: (laughs) One of them is.

PST: I wanted to ask you about the first team. I’m thinking of Alexandru Mitrita of Romania (who came from Universitatea Craiova) and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi of Libya (Austria Wien), and how you’ve found players from everywhere. Obviously there are thousands of hours of video on massive leagues, but how do you judge whether players from “smaller” places can get the job done for NYCFC in MLS?

Reyna: “I believe there are players everywhere in this world. Anyone who doesn’t understand this, they’re behind. The first thing is, really, how bad do they want to come here. Why do you want to come here? The players we’re recruiting, why New York? Why MLS? Why now in your career? You get a straight answer and a feeling, because from then on you can always go back to that.

“I’m very open about how we work and how we play and the expectation of a very high standard of professionalism. Ultimately for them, it’s important to say if you do really well, there’s another step for you. Like Jack Harrison. You’ve gotta be honest about the league, the competition, the travel, different conditions and climate. You’ve gotta give them the picture. Prior to that you see the player play. It’s the eyes, ears, and then the data after that.

“The data is there to support the decision, not drive the decision. These are human beings with emotions. Alexandru is the perfect example. At the beginning of the year he was alone waiting for his fiancee — now his wife — to come, and I knew besides other things and adaptation, that’s why he wasn’t yet where he was going to be (on the field). Not everyone sees that, the fans don’t see that. Then you see him with his wife, and his family, and he’s got a big smile on his face, and data’s not picking that up.

“You have to look at all these things, so we make a big effort to make sure we help them settle in. A player who feels welcome, will give 100 percent back. If a player doesn’t work out, I look at ourselves first. Too often, clubs and coaches and supporters blame the player. It’s my responsibility to say what could we have done better. They are human beings first. I will never turn my back on a certain league. There’s a very good generation coming through, look at the U-21s this summer. Our squad, the players fight, they wanna be here, and now the players are playing as hard as they can for the jersey.”

PST: You look at NYCFC’s place in the stats this season, and it follows suit with what you’re saying that the club is at or near the top of the league in a lot of the desire stats.

Reyna: “The coaching staff deserves a lot of credit. Stats are important. I asked a colleague to compare them to years past, and it gives you so much information. The difference between when I played and players today is they like this, they want to see it, and we didn’t have it growing up. It’s another way to learn. They want to see how goals are scored, how they are given up, whether they are in transition or whatever. Set pieces for us was something we wanted to see how we could get better. The stats gave us a clearer picture of what we’re doing well. After every game we get a review of what we did, and I look at everything because a stat can show you something you might not have seen with your eyes during the game.”

Chicharito seizes chance to be center of the Galaxy

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Carson, Calif. — Javier Hernandez has been to the top of the soccer world. He spent the last 10 years in Europe’s top leagues, winning trophies and representing some of the biggest clubs.

Yet from Manchester United to Sevilla, the Mexican striker better known as Chicharito often struggled to get consistent playing time.

Whether his path was blocked by Wayne Rooney‘s brilliance or a manager’s lack of confidence in him, Hernandez rarely got to show his full talent. When he wasn’t fighting injuries, he often served as a key backup instead of a centerpiece.

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That’s the main reason the 31-year-old Hernandez agreed to return to North America with the LA Galaxy, who introduced their latest superstar acquisition Thursday.

Chicharito is the center of the Galaxy now, and he is thrilled.

“I just want to play,” Hernandez said in his distinctively rapid bilingual delivery. “This league and this team, it’s giving me that opportunity (to show) that I’m one of the best players around the world. That’s why they want me to be here, to try to improve this league and this team. … It’s a win-win-win-win. I know I’ll be on the pitch most of the time if I keep working hard for the club. I’m going to be doing what I loved since I was in the belly of my mother.”

With Chicharito playing in only nine games so far this season for Sevilla, the timing was finally perfect for this long-rumored combination of player and club.

While the Galaxy made major improvements and reached the playoffs last season behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s franchise-record 30 goals, they desperately needed another topflight striker at the center of coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s attack when Ibrahimovic chose to return to Europe. Unlike most Major League Soccer clubs, the Galaxy have the money to go get elite talents, even in the January transfer window.

Hernandez is well aware of the five-time MLS champions’ history of landing world-class players, reeling off his own list of favorites: “Robbie Keane. Steven Gerrard. Giovani Dos Santos. Jonathan Dos Santos. Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Landon Donovan. David Beckham, that’s the most iconic one, obviously. And then my name is over those. I’m just so blessed and so humble that I can be a part of all this.”

The speedy, shifty Chicharito likely fits Barros Schlelotto’s style even better than the hulking Zlatan, and the Argentine coach worked aggressively behind the scenes to land Hernandez.

While Chicharito’s European career got off to a strong start at Manchester United under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson, he repeatedly struggled elsewhere when managers clearly didn’t believe in his abilities.

[ MORE: Premier League Club Power Rankings ]

“More than anybody, Guillermo was involved in making it happen,” said Galaxy general manager Dennis Te Kloese, who has known Chicharito since the player’s childhood. “In the end, it had to do with Javier’s interest in being a part of this organization because he’s going to be in a team and with a coach who has a lot of trust in him.”

That clearly wasn’t always the case in Hernandez’s European career. After four years in Manchester, Chicharito spent one season at Real Madrid and two more at Bayer Leverkusen, followed by two seasons back in the Premiership at West Ham. He scored goals at every stop, but never landed a permanent, consistent role matching his importance to the Mexican national team.

“I think what makes a lot of the world-class players even better is (how) they get used to their circumstances,” Chicharito said. “That’s something that I think I can bring. I want to show them that I’ve never been a selfish player – even though strikers are going to be in front of everyone, and I’m probably going to take the shot. I’m completely motivated.”

The top goal-scorer in the history of the Mexican national team already knows Los Angeles from many trips representing El Tri, which is invariably treated as the home team at the Rose Bowl by California’s massive Mexican-American population. Chicharito was greeted at the airport by hundreds of noisy fans when he arrived with his young family Wednesday night.

“I’ve been playing in this country since I was 16 years old,” Chicharito said. “I’ve won a lot of games here, and I’ve been treated with a lot of value and respect. I want that, and it’s coming from the best club in the USA. They came to get me, and that speaks of what they think of me.”

While the MLS is an undeniable step back in overall exposure and competition, Hernandez knows he will deal with even more scrutiny on his home continent from the fans and Spanish-language media based in Los Angeles.

That extra scrutiny has already started: When Chicharito’s YouTube reality show released an episode Wednesday in which Hernandez told his father that moving to the Galaxy was “like the beginning of my retirement,” fans and critics immediately seized on the term often used to denigrate MLS.

Chicharito explained himself with a smile before he held aloft his Galaxy jersey and formally began his next chapter.

“In my country, we love and we are, like, obsessed with drama and excess,” Hernandez said, clarifying that he only meant he had finished the European portion of his career.

“They don’t really listen to what I said at the beginning of the retirement (comment). This retirement could last 10 years. That word is strong for them when I mention (retirement), but it’s just the beginning of that. Hopefully this beginning is going to last so long.”

Simeone has no plans to leave Atletico Madrid despite setbacks

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It might seem insane, the idea that anyone other than Diego Simeone would manage Atletico Madrid any time soon.

And if the 49-year-old Argentine manager comes available, the market for his services is going to be active.

Simeone was answering questions about his future following Atleti’s stunning 2-1 loss to third-tier Cultural Leonessa in the Copa del Rey’s Round of 32 on Thursday.

“I have the desire to work like every day since I arrived,” Simeone said, via Marca. “The penalties or the extra time in the Champions League didn’t change me, nor will going out in this round. I have an important squad and results will come soon.”

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Simeone has led Atleti to a La Liga crown, two Europa League titles, and a pair of Champions League finals.

He’s a three-time La Liga coach of the year, and Atleti has finished Top Three in all of his seasons at the club except 2011/12. He was hired in December of that year and won Europa.

The third-place run is at risk this season, and not because Simeone hasn’t been able to marshal his back line (Come on, obviously). The club has struggled to find goals without Antoine Griezmann, though massive signing Joao Felix has shown signs. After Alvaro Morata’s 10 goals, only Angel Correa (5) and Felix (4) have more than two.

Hence all the Edinson Cavani talk. And the Alexandre Lacazette talk.

If Simeone were to be looking for a job, it would be interesting to see how many jobs would almost instantly become available.

PL Club Power Rankings: Week 24

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What are we supposed to do when the form table says there are about four teams playing well across the Premier League, and one conceded two stoppage-time goals to draw their last match?

It’s nutty, dear reader.

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Liverpool is a team of destiny and Man City unbeaten in seven across all competitions. After that, there’s a lot of long exhalations and ponderous glances at the form table.

Things might get nutty in our first power rankings since Week 22.

Green: New season-high ranking
Red: New season-low

[ MORE: PL Club Power Rankings archive ]

20. Norwich City — The Canaries have this awful penchant for getting no points when they should get one, and one when they should get three. The former happened against Spurs, and now they simply have to sweep Newcastle by winning at St. James’ Park in two weeks.
Last week: 20
Season high: 10
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 2-1 at Spurs
Up next: 10 a.m. Feb. 1 at Newcastle United

19. West Ham United — All David Moyes does is win, he says, though he hasn’t done it since pounding moribund Bournemouth. No Felipe Anderson for a month is brutal.
Last week: 16
Season high: 5
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 4-1 at Leicester City
Up next: 2:45 p.m. ET Wednesday v. Liverpool; 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 v. Brighton
18. Brighton and Hove Albion — Losing to Bournemouth after drawing at home to Villa leaves the Seagulls just two points above the drop zone.
Last week: 12
Season high: 6
Season low: 18
Last match: Lost 3-1 at Bournemouth
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 at West Ham

17. Bournemouth — The Cherries faithful needed that. Now it needs health… and Jacob Bruun Larsen?
Last week: 18
Season high: 6
Season low: 18
Last match: Won 3-1 v. Brighton
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 v. Aston Villa
16. Burnley — They’re doing it again. They’re unkillable.
Last week: 17
Season high: 5
Season low: 17
Last match: Won 2-0 at Manchester United
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Feb. 2 v. Arsenal
15. Watford — Going out of the FA Cup is probably a good thing.
Last week: 13
Season high: 13
Season low: 20
Last match: Lost 2-1 at Aston Villa
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Saturday v. Everton
14. Aston Villa — A big win meets a big swing: Will Mbwana Samatta adjust seamlessly to the Premier League and give Jack Grealish some aid in attack?
Last week: 19
Season high: 6
Season low: 19
Last match: Won 2-1 v. Watford
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 at Bournemouth
13. Crystal Palace — Winless in five, though four were draws. Need health in a bad way after getting controlled by Saints at Selhurst Park.
Last week: 14
Season high: 5
Season low: 18
Last match: Lost 2-0 v. Southampton
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 v. Sheffield United
12. Newcastle United — Getting a half-decade’s worth of good fortune in one season, and adding Nabil Bentaleb (for sure) and Valentino Lazaro (pending Friday medical) on loan-to-buy deals fill big holes. Watch the highlights from the match below and pretend you didn’t know the final score; Stunning turnabout.
Last week: 15
Season high: 11
Season low: 20
Last match: Drew 2-2 at Everton
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 v. Norwich City
11. Manchester United — Ole Gunnar Solskjaer saw “very many positives” in a poor display versus Liverpool, then repeated his “biggest club in the world” trope after bumbling versus Burnley. He’s in an impossible spot without Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford and not a terrible boss, but he’s certainly not the right man for the job right now. Light into them!
Last week: 3
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Lost 2-0 v. Burnley
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Feb. 1 v. Wolves
10. Everton — The back line (and keeper) provided a point at West Ham, then gave away two versus Newcastle in what was otherwise a complete performance from Carlo Ancelotti‘s men. Otherwise.
Last week: 10
Season high: 5
Season low: 19
Last match: Drew 2-2 v. Newcastle United
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 at Watford
9. Liverpool — Just kidding… wanted to see if you were still reading.
Last week: 1
Season high: 1
Season low: 3
Last match: Won 2-1 at Wolves
Up next: 2:45 p.m. ET Wednesday at West Ham
9. Tottenham Hotspur — Family is good. A striker would be better.https://soccer.nbcsports.com/2020/01/21/sheffield-united-man-city-premier-league-aguero-de-bruyne-video/
Last week: 7
Season high: 2
Season low: 16
Last match: Lost 1-0 v. Liverpool
Up next: 11:30 a.m. ET Feb. 2 v. Man City
8. Arsenal — Nicolas Pepe hasn’t been so good the past couple of weeks, but how about this for a number? His 62 successful dribbles are 39 more than anyone else on the team despite playing only 1,345 minutes. Unique.
Last week: 11
Season high: 4
Season low: 13
Last match: Drew 2-2 at Chelsea
Up next: 9 a.m. ET Feb. 2 at Burnley
7. Southampton — James Ward-Prowse is getting England talk, and he deserves it. Saints are flying.
Last week: 9
Season high: 7
Season low: 20
Last match: Won 2-0 at Palace
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 at Liverpool
6. Sheffield United — Again, how remarkable is it that the newly-promoted Blades are letdown from only getting a point from Man City and Arsenal?
Last week: 6
Season high: 5
Season low: 17
Last match: Lost 1-0 v. Man City
Up next: 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 at Crystal Palace
5. Chelsea — Judging from the Mixed Zone, Chelsea isn’t too worried about its disappointing draw with Arsenal. Will they be happy with a point at the King Power Stadium in two weeks?
Last week: 4
Season high: 2
Season low: 12
Last match: Drew 2-2 v. Arsenal
Up next: 7:30 a.m. ET Feb. 1 at Leicester City
4. Wolves — What if Diogo Jota finished that late chance versus Liverpool? You’d have to think it would’ve been richly deserved for their second half. Willy Boly‘s return is better than any result, though, as he rejoined the bench after a long absence.
Last week: 8
Season high: 3
Season low: 17
Last match:Lost 2-1 v. Liverpool
Up next: 12:30 p.m. ET Feb. 1 at Man Utd
3. Leicester City — Jamie Vardy’s injury is a concern, but the Foxes’ four-star showing versus West Ham was a refreshing result.
Last week: 5
Season high: 2
Season low: 10
Last match: Won 4-1 v. West Ham
Up next: 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday v. Chelsea
2. Manchester City — How long will Sergio Aguero stay in Manchester? All of the goal records are asking after his super sub showing. He’s one behind Vardy in the Golden Boot race.
Last week: 2
Season high: 1
Season low: 6
Last match: Won 1-0 at Sheffield United
Up next: 11:30 a.m. ET Feb. 2 at Spurs
1. Liverpool — Just magnificent, this guy. The commitment and fitness he’s provoked from his men are simply stunning.
Last week: 1
Season high: 1
Season low: 3
Last match: Won 2-1 at Wolves
Up next: 2:45 p.m. ET Wednesday at West Ham; 10 a.m. ET Feb. 1 v. Saints

2 Robbies podcast: Robbie Earle and Derek Rae talk Liverpool, Man Utd

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Robbie Earle is joined by Derek Rae to discuss the current state of Manchester United after their defeat to Burnley at Old Trafford (0:55), 10-man Arsenal fighting back to draw with Chelsea (11:55) and Liverpool’s historic run to start the season that just won’t seem to end (21:15).

Plus, Robbie and Derek share their thoughts on Sergio Aguero’s greatness at Manchester City (29:35), Tottenham under Jose Mourinho so far (35:05) and how things are shaping up at bottom in the fight for Premier League survival (37:35). Finally, Derek shares his Underappreciated Performers of the Premier League Season (41:55).

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

And you can follow them on Twitter @The2RobbiesNBC here.

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]