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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.”

Preview: Brazil v. Mexico in U-17 World Cup final

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There will be plenty of 2005 U-17 World Cup final shades at Estadio Bezerrão on Sunday.

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On that clear night in Lima, Peru, the likes of Carlos Vela and Giovani dos Santos wrote history for Mexico, as they powered El Tri to its first-ever World Cup title over a favorite Brazilian side, who was composed of Marcelo, Renato Augusto, and Anderson, in a 3-0 win.

14 years and some change later, both youth powerhouses meet again in the same tournament, for the same silverware, and with the same pressure looming over them from entire nations who expect nothing but excellence from their respective teams.

But of course, to the Brazilians, there is a sense of added pressure given the fact that they’re on home soil.

“We’re familiar with Mexico’s quality,” Brazilian forward, Veron, said ahead of the final. We know they are a great team. But we’re Brazil, and we have five stars on our chest. We intend to play our best match and get the result that makes history.”

As it stands, Mexico is the clear-cut underdog, having barely crept into the knockout stages and being composed of players with far less notoriety to its Brazilian counterpart, who boast three players with three goals or more in the tournament.

That said, Mexico pose as a balanced, reliable, and pragmatic team under coach Marco “Chima” Ruiz. Throughout the six games this tournament, El Tri have found the back of the net 14 times and have conceded a mere three goals (two of which came against Italy). With four goals and two assists in only 344 minutes, Los Angeles Galaxy’s Efrain Alvarez has proven to be the team’s most productive player going forward.

Asked who he would rather take between France or Brazil in the final, the Mexican American answered with the same confidence that has made him one of the most exciting players in the tournament.

“It doesn’t matter which of the two it is, we’ll beat them,” he said.

It’s 90 minutes for either team to make history, again. A win for Brazil will raise the number of U-17 stars to four, while Mexico can claim its third with another historic performance. Will Brazil’s high-flying attack crack Mexico’s solid defense? If Alvarez starts, will he rise to the occasion and guide Mexico to another U-17 title?

That has yet to be seen; the second final between two, routine winners awaits the first whistle.

Report: Man City considering Kingsley Coman as Leroy Sane replacement

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Pep Guardiola and Manchester City are considering Bayern Munich’s Kinglsey Coman as a replacement for injured Leroy Sane if he were to leave for the defending German champions over the summer, according to a report from Sky Sports.

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Sane, who is projected to be out until February or March with an ACL injury, was the subject of a $176 million move to Bayern Munich over the summer, but a move never came to fruition, largely due to the aforementioned injury. If negotiations between Sane’s camp and the defending Bundesliga champions pick up again this summer, City have a replacement in mind: 23-year-old Coman.

Coman, who has played in 10 league games for the Bavarian club this season, was managed by Guardiola during his time with the club and flourished during the title-winning 2015-2016 season. In 2017, the Frenchman revealed that the Spaniard’s departure was tough on him, saying, “I found life easier at Bayern Munich under Pep Guardiola.”

As expected, Coman is not the only option City are exploring.

Real Sociedad’s Mikel Oyarzabal, who has a reported $82 million release clause, is also on the Premier League giant’s shortlist. Txiki Begiristain, City’s director of football, has strong ties to La Reala that goes back to his first day in the sport.

At the Etihad, the general feeling from Guardiola’s players is that the German winger is one foot out of England, and is instead focused on a move to Bayern and a return back home. With his contract in the final 12 months this summer, it is expected that the release clause for Sane will not be as lucrative as before. 

In 134 appearances for City, Sane has scored 39 goals, while Coman has scored on 28 different occasions in 139 appearances.

Abidal: Barcelona, Messi negotiating a new deal

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Lionel Messi and his representatives are in talks with Barcelona over a new contract, the defending champion’s sporting director Eric Abidal confirmed  to Mundo Deportivo in an exclusive interview.

“They are already talking,” Abidal, the former Barcelona defender, said. “I do not know if we will have news soon because the decision will depend on the player, but for us as a club I hope it is sorted as soon as possible.”

Messi – a five-time Ballon d’Or winner and Barcelona’s all-time leading goalscorer – joined the club’s well-known academy, La Masia, at the age of 13 and is under contract until 2021 but was recently questioned about his future after Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu revealed that the Argentine can leave Camp Nou on a free transfer due to a clause in his contract.

Asked when he expects an announcement to be made on a new and improved contract, Abidal made it clear he’s unsure but hopes it happens: “It will be known when it is known, but I am positive.”

Throughout seven games in La Liga this season, Messi has scored eight goals and assisted in four occasions. In his latest appearance for the Catalonian side – a 4-1 win over Celta Vigo – the No. 10 scored a first-half hat-trick.

Abidal also confirmed that Barcelona are in talks with breakout teenage starlet Ansu Fati and his camp on a new deal.

“We are also talking to him,” Abidal said. “He is a young player that we have to protect. We have to talk to his family and representatives.”

Earlier this year, the 17-year-old became the youngest player in the league’s history to score and assist in the same game.

EURO qualifying wrap: Germany, Austria, Croatia join Netherlands in qualifying

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Like the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and Croatia qualified for EURO 2020 after wins on Saturday.

[ READ: Netherlands qualify to first EURO since 2012 ]


Germany 4-0 Belarus

With goals from Matthias Ginter, Leon Goretska, and a second-half brace from Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos, Germany routed an uncompetitive Belarus side 4-0 at Borussia-Park. The scoreline, however, should have been more lopsided, as the home side easily won the possession battle and outshot the visitor’s with a total of 31 shots (10 on target). Leaders of Group C, Germany is an early favorite for next summer’s tournament. Not hard to believe that, right? 

Austria 2-1 North Macedonia

Qualifying for Europe’s main tournament is becoming a norm for Austria.

Bayern Munich’s David Alaba scored early while Stefan Lainer added his own three minutes into the second half, as Austria edged North Macedonia 2-1 at Ernst Happel Stadion. Das Team, who stand second in Group G with 19 points after nine games, have now clinched a berth for the EURO on back-to-back occasions.

Croatia 3-1 Slovakia

When all was said and done, Croatia was too much for a 10-man Slovakia, who, initially, broke the deadlock in the 32nd minute.

Bayern Munich’s Ivan Perisic scored the home side’s third and final goal of the match, which punched Croatia’s ticket in next summer’s tournament. Nikola Vlasic and Bruno Petkovic also contributed goals in the second half for Croatia.

Elsewhere

Russia 1-4 Belgium

Azerbaijan 0-2 Wales

Cyprus 1-2 Scotland

Israel 1-2 Poland

Armenia 0-1 Greec