Claudio Reyna

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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.”

Borussia Dortmund announces long-anticipated add of U.S. teen Reyna

Giovanni Reyna
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One of the next big hopes for Americans Abroad, Giovanni Reyna is now formally a member of Borussia Dortmund.

Reyna, the 16-year-old son of USMNT legend Claudio, was an attacking midfield prospect for New York City FC and has worn the red, white, and blue of his country at the U-17 level.

[ MORE: Saints add Adams, Ings ]

Claudio Reyna is the sporting director at NYCFC, a centurion with the USMNT who won the Scottish top flight as a player with Rangers and also played for Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, Sunderland, Manchester City, and the New York Red Bulls.

Reyna helped the U.S. qualify for the U-17 World Cup and has since been called up to the U-23 team for camp ahead of Olympic qualifying. A November birthday, reports of his destination being BVB emerged late last summer.

The Bundesliga site released a bio on Giovanni comparing his style to that of David Trezeguet. Sounds good to us.

New York City FC signs Mitrita as Designated Player (video)

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It’s time to familiarize yourself with Alexandru Mitrita, the 23-year-old Romanian attacker set to help fill the void left by David Villa.

New York City FC announced the reported $9 million purchase of Mitrita from Romanian Liga I club Universitatea Craiova.

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He has 12 goals and four assists in 16 matches while captaining the Craiovan club this season. Prior to that, he spent two seasons at Pescara in Serie A and Serie B, scoring two goals with six assists.

Mitrita is capped five times by Romania with a single assist. Here’s NYCFC sporting director and USMNT legend Claudio Reyna, via NYCFC.com:

“He comes to New York during a stage in his career where he’s extremely motivated to make the next step after recently breaking into the Romanian national team. He possesses an innate desire to win and is focused on becoming an important player for our Club as we challenge for the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup.

“He was an important player at his previous club and very well-liked by an amazing and loyal fan base. Our fans will immediately notice the personality he carries on the field and they’ll really enjoy watching him play for NYCFC.”

He’s built like Sebastian Giovinco. If he can produce anywhere near the Italian’s level, the signing will be a win for NYCFC.

NYCFC signs second Homegrown Player in history

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Four years, two Homegrowns.

That’s the decent track record for New York City FC, which has spotted a second youngster from amongst its ranks in 15-year-old Joe Scally.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Scally joins United States youth international James Sands as Homegrown Players from NYCFC. Here’s USMNT legend and NYCFC technical director Claudio Reyna:

“Joe has been one of the top performers in the Academy for the past few seasons and represented US Soccer at U-15 and U-17 level.”

“He has all of the attributes we look for in a right-back: he’s strong in defense and can support in attack to help create chances from wide areas.”

Sands was signed last summer, and played 23 minutes for NYCFC against Colorado in his lone senior appearance.

When Claudio Reyna talks, you should listen

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Claudio Reyna is one of the most important figures in American soccer and when he talks you listen. Simple.

You can’t help but devote your attention to the Hall of Famer who speaks so eloquently and intelligently about the current state of the game in the USA.

Now, more than ever, it is worth soaking in his every word.

Speaking exclusively to Pro Soccer Talk from Rockefeller Plaza as he took part in New York City FC’s 24-hour game to raise money for charity and get NYC hyped for their 2018 home opener against LA Galaxy this weekend, Reyna was up front and brutally honest about the future of not only MLS but the U.S. national team.

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The current Sporting Director for NYCFC played 112 times for the USMNT. He was named in the team of the tournament at the 2002 World Cup as the USA reached the last eight. He knows how to get things done and has been leading NYCFC off the field since Day One.

With NYCFC pushing for a third consecutive playoff appearance under Patrick Vieira and Reyna in just their fourth season as a club, all is well in the Bronx.

It’s the current state of the U.S. national team after they failed to reach the 2018 World Cup (their first missed World Cup since 1986) that really gets former USMNT skipper Reyna going.

“As a former player and having a lot of close ties with the U.S. national team, it is disappointing and frustrating not to be going to the World Cup but at the same time I do feel hopeful that it has woken us up and that we must improve in many different areas,” Reyna said. “Whether it is behavior, whether it is the way we put teams together, the way we prepare teams and just really improve on what has been, in my opinion, a steady slide over the last few years.”

Following the World Cup qualification nightmare, Reyna hit out at a “culture of arrogance” within U.S. Soccer and his no-nonsense attitude impressed many.

One thing which still frustrates Reyna is division among the USMNT. He believes it is creating a real problem for the program moving forward as they try to rebuild from the devastating disappointment of not making the World Cup in Russia this summer.

“I do think we need to unite. There seems to be a strong division around all of this nonsense around German-American players, MLS players, European players, Mexican players that all play for the United States,” Reyna continued. “I think it is all really nonsense and to be honest disappointing that we’ve become divided on how we view players who put on our national team jersey. I don’t care where they come from when they play for the national team. They have to be ready to perform and play. There are good players in Europe, in MLS, there are no excuses. I am hopeful because we have good talent and good players, but my frustration is where we need to come together and eliminate some of the division which exists from players, coaches, leagues, everything in general, that is where I’m at with the cultural challenges that we have with our behaviors.”

Once again, when Reyna talks, you listen. He makes so much sense.

Given that fact, some are putting him forward for roles with the USMNT to help get them back on track. Asked directly if he is interested in taking on the new GM job with the USMNT after Carlos Cordeiro, the new president of U.S. Soccer, created the role, Reyna reaffirmed his love for NYCFC.

He also wants the new GM, whoever they are, to “get real” with the changes which need to be made.

“I’m fully focused with NYCFC. I love my job,” Reyna said. “It is important that the right person is in charge and hired. It is important that we kind of get real with the changes that happen. A lot of it is often humanistic and people to people changes which need to happen. That is what we need to face. I am hopeful that the disappointment of not qualifying has woken us all up and brought humility to our sport in this country and I think and I feel confident that there will be a reaction from everybody because we are a country that wants to do well and wants to win. Overall, despite the disappointment I believe we are going to come out of it better for it. I’m very hopeful of the young talent and players that are in the system. It is our job as coaches and technical people to make sure we get the most out of them.”

When it comes to developing young talent in the system, it is clearly something Reyna also feels passionately about. His son, Gio, is one of the top prospects U.S. Soccer currently has, while the likes of Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie continue to make waves and, Pulisic aside, push towards being in the senior team regularly.

This is something Reyna feels strongly about. He heads the Claudio Reyna Foundation, a non-profit organization which focused on proving to provide soccer training and mentoring to underprivileged youth in the USA and overseas. He clearly feels passionately about given youngsters a chance to make their way in the game, no matter where they are from or who they know.

In his day-to-day business in the MLS world, Reyna has a new toy to play with: Targeted Allocation Money (TAM).

That mechanism is something which gives each MLS team a sizable chunk of cash each season which is primarily used to bring in players from outside the league (it can also be used to pay current players more) who fall outside of their current salary cap restrictions.

Cue an influx of talented players from South America and Europe who would have previously taken up a Designated Player spot. The main debate going on in American soccer circles right now is that the influx of those players via TAM could have a negative impact on young American and Canadian players breaking through in MLS.

Does Reyna share that view?

“No. My view is that it is very positive to have more good players in our professional league. For the American and Canadian players to play, they have to earn it. They have to earn it Monday through Friday in training and they will get the chances when they do that,” Reyna said. “It is only positive that there is more talent coming to the league from other countries because it is going to make our American players better. They’re going to have to step up and improve and fight and be smarter on the field. I think it is actually really positive. We can’t create an environment where we open doors and make it easy for American players to play. That wouldn’t be the right thing to do. That doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. You have to earn your right to play and that has to be the same for promising young players and, for that matter, any player.”

Reyna believes his players at NYCFC in 2018 are “motivated, hungry and want to succeed” and they’ve brought in stars from reigning Swedish champs Malmo, plus young Paraguayan playmaker Jesus Medina. He praised the work done by Vieira in preseason and believes the “balance” of the squad is right with youngsters, players in their prime and a sprinkling of experience with David Villa once again leading the team.

What is achievable for NYCFC in 2018?

“Our expectation is to be one of the top teams in the league, similar to last year,” Reyna said. “Wherever we land at the end of the year we will see. There is a lot of work and games left to be played obviously. We feel good about the team we have and our experiences last year making us better for this year. We want to integrate our new players and get them up to speed with how we play and get them comfortable in our league. I think we are a team that feels when we step on the field with any team in MLS we can get a result. That is the feeling with the players, the coaching staff and myself as well. We can play with anybody in MLS but we have to work hard. It is a brand new season and what happened last year happened last year.”

Straight talking. Honest. Focused. Reyna’s voice is one of the most important in American soccer right now. We should hear it, and listen intently to it, more often.