Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Kindness is cruel

I was there when Claudio Reyna retired. People might think - wait, he's not retiring until later today - but I'm talking about his first retirement. I was in Hamburg, Germany in 2006 when Reyna announced he was retiring from international competition. I looked around as Reyna told the room his decision and realized something.

Few people really cared. In the post-mortem of the U.S. effort and ultimately, failure, at the World Cup, there was scant attention paid to the midfielder who had captained the team for so long. There was a palpable, yet unspoken sense of, "What took you so long?"

Thing is, Reyna's international career had an ignominious end due largely in part to Bruce Arena. If he didn't declare Reyna "captain for life", he certainly handed him that post on a de facto level.

Arena was at the press conference where Reyna announced his international retirement, and at one point chided the press for not focusing more on that story. It seemed a dodge to try to deflect attention from the unsuccessful tournament participation.

I was annoyed with Arena at that point. I thought Reyna shouldn't have been saddled with the demands of saving Arena from poor decisions the coach had made. One of those decisions was clearly hanging on to the idea that Reyna was capable of being the lynchpin of the U.S. team. Reyna in 2006 was probably best suited to be a late-game sub, honestly. Yet Arena pushed him out there, hoping for a throwback miracle from his aging midfielder. Reyna didn't deserve to be exposed as too old and slow at the World Cup.

I felt the same irritation at Greg Ryan when he pulled Hope Solo for Briana Scurry in the Women's World Cup in 2007. I had a sinking feeling that game would be a blot on Scurry's sterling career.

I can understand coaches feeling desperate. Yet to tarnish a veteran player's accomplishments by not recognizing their limitations and setting them up to fail seems a cruel reward for years of dedicated service.

Thing is, a true player will always want to play. No one with competitive fire wants to put that flame out. That's why it's up to doctors to rule whether an injury is serious, and take a player out of a match. It should be up to coaches to decide objectively when a player can't really contribute. But Arena had no such vision, picking Reyna not only to be his captain in the World Cup, but also to be the fulcrum of New York Red Bull as the club's Designated Player. Reyna remains with no goals ever in any MLS season. Even when the Red Bulls dumped Arena (and bringing in Reyna contributed in no small way to ruining Arena's reputation with the club)the organization was stuck with Reyna's contract.

Coaches who try to be "nice" about when an older player should quit or find a reduced role are doing the ultimate disservice to them. Some coaches seem to see with the rose-colored tinted vision of the past, not the present. Fans who once cheered every movement find themselves resenting every year that a player stays on while younger talent waits.

Anway, since I'm being nostalgic, here's the article I wrote about Reyna's other retirement.

Claudio Reyna deserves better than the final image many now have of him writhing on the field in pain after losing the ball against a hard tackle to concede the first goal to Ghana during the important must-win game for the Americans. Reyna’s World Cup ended at that point, as he was borne away on stretcher.

The fortunes of the U.S. team soon followed, as they ended group play with no games won and only a single point gained from a draw versus Italy.

Perhaps it’s better to think back a little bit when remembering Claudio Reyna’s service to the national team. Only four years ago, he was the steady, yet indomitable force in the midfield for the U.S team, leading the charge against the German defense. That the squad very nearly pulled off the upset was due very much to his efforts.

Afterwards, Reyna draped the American flag over his shoulders and blew kisses to the U.S fans in attendance.

He hinted that the performance might be his curtain call.

Instead, it was merely a dress rehearsal for today, when Reyna officially announced his retirement from international competition. .

“This is it,” Reyna told the assembled press. “It’s my last game. I decided that before the World Cup. It just makes sense to stop now. I think it’s a good time as well, to stop while playing at a good level, so I’m happy with everything. We don’t have a major European championship or something where I felt in two years I could still be playing. So it’s best just to stop now.”

Unfortunately, the setting was not as triumphant as it was back in 2002. Intead of the plucky upstarts they were in South Korea, where they reached the quarterfinals, the Americans arrived in Germany burdened by expectations. They were no longer a surprise to anyone. They also faced one of the most difficult groups in the tournament, taking on the Czech Republic, Italy, and Ghana.

Ultimately, they failed to advance.

Reyna’s legacy, however, cannot be seen in the context of just this one attempt.

As early as 1994, there were whispers abounding that finally there was an American soccer player who could do more than kick and run. Reyna had an ability to control the ball that few in the States could match.

His injury that kept him out of the World Cup in the U.S. weakened the team, especially when Tab Ramos went down in the second round against Brazil. Without Reyna on hand to offer creative playmaking, the American attack wilted. All Brazil needed was a single goal to advance.

Reyna was an essential part of the team that went to win some of the greatest honors it has ever earned. He was instrumental in the Copa America triumph of 1995, when the team defeated Argentina and made the semifinals.

In 1998, a frustrated Reyna coped with a fractious U.S. team. He played every minute of the U.S. matches, but amidst much dissention, the team lost every game.

When coach Bruce Arena came on board soon after, it was a reunion for Reyna, who had played for him in college. Their relationship was not without strains – most notably when Reyna took time off in 2005 when Arena would have preferred that he be available for more matches – but generally, Arena’s involvement seemed to increase Reyna’s commitment.

Aside from his national team honors, Reyna continues to have a thriving professional career abroad. In many ways, it was Reyna who broke the invisible barrier of perception abroad that Americans were useless at the highest club levels. Though he struggled at Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg, he blossomed at Rangers, a Scottish club whose enthusiastic fans readily made him aware of both his contributions and errors.

Capable stints at Sunderland and Manchester City followed.

Though his hardiness was often wondered at, especially in light of his growing list of injuries, Reyna’s skill was unquestioned. This gave all subsequent American hopefuls abroad a measure of credibility.

Certain parts of Reyna’s game often went unappreciated, because they weren’t necessarily the flashy aspects, like scoring goals.

Arena noted, “The great comment I’ve heard about Claudio was from a fellow player, Earnie Stewart, ‘He brings peace to the game.’ He’s established such a comfort level for our players in big games, all along.”

The stability Reyna brought to the midfield was vital whenever the U.S. team needed regrouping.

“We need to settle down sometimes,” Landon Donovan acknowledged. “We have to be a lot smarter, and Claudio helps us do that.”

“He’s been there, in all the big games of the World Cup, our greatest moments,” said Arena, unstinting in his praise.

“A hundred caps, four World Cups, he’s been part of U.S. soccer in good times and bad times. If we look down the road to when we eventually win a World Cup, I think Claudio will still be remembered as one of the greats and one of the pioneers.”

In sum, Reyna’s career and contributions to the American game have been vital and wide-ranging.

Captain America, farewell.

7 comments:

Josh said...

Andrea,

This is the best thing that's been written on the situation since the news of Reyna's retirement broke.

Nice work.

truth said...

Excellent post.

Reyna was so great in the 2002 Cup, even making the All-Star team, so it was such a shame to see him hung out to dry in Germany. I will never forget him giving the ball away against Ghana right in front of us, my mom turning to say, he had to get rid of that ball, four years he would have, this is terrible, why is he out there? And you are to right to analogize this to Greg Ryan and Brianna Scurry. The player takes the blame, but the fault lies with the coaches.

Jonathan Geissler said...

IMO, having watched all three of USA's '06 WC games, I think Reyna was the best player for the US in the Czech game, and one of the most reliable in the Italy game.

... The Ghana game, on the other hand... *Ahem*.............

chad said...

this is an interesting take - i'm not a fan of reyna and this post has made me think...

Andrew said...

Absolute garbage. I was also in Germany for the World Cup in '06. Reyna was the best player for the US against the Czech Republic and Italy. His giveaway against Ghana was terrible, but was not because he was too old or too slow.

Andrew said...

http://web.mlsnet.com/news/mls_news.jsp?ymd=20080716&content_id=173288&vkey=news_mls&fext=.jsp

a much better take on Reyna's retirement

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