Captain America lays down his shield
© FIFA.com

There were tears in Claudio Reyna’s eyes. His lips were dry and cracked from exhaustion and dehydration. A red, white and blue flag draped over his shoulders, USA’s captain saluted the crowd.

It was 17 June 2002 and the American captain had played his heart out, orchestrating a 2-0 victory over Mexico in Jeonju for a place in the FIFA World Cup™ quarter-finals. It was rarefied air for the Americans, a win over their oldest rivals on the world’s biggest stage, and a personal summit for a man who had transformed the game in his native country.

Reyna’s emergence on scene signaled US soccer's rise from obscurity and entrance into the international spotlight. It was no coincidence, either. A calm midfielder who knew when to slow the game down and when to deliver a knifing diagonal ball forward, Reyna brought the American game a new level of subtlety and panache. And the rest of the world stood up to take notice. 

He was born in the soccer hotbed of New Jersey, the East Coast state that also produced the likes of John Harkes, Tab Ramos and Tony Meola. Reyna’s father emigrated to the USA from Argentina five years before his son was born, and he dutifully passed on a passion for the world’s game. 

Young Claudio possessed a natural talent, too, leading his secondary school team to a record of 65 wins and zero losses during his four years there. He spent his next three at the University of Virginia, a top program where he won three straight national championships under coach Bruce Arena.

It was clear that Reyna represented the future of a US national team still trying to find itself, a side that in 1990 had just returned from a 40-year stretch without reaching a FIFA World Cup. The pressure was on for coach Bora Milutinovic to fast-track Reyna, barely 21, into the squad that would host the competition in 1994. Unfortunately, he missed out through injury and had to watch as the likes of Ramos, Harkes and Alexi Lalas creditably reached the Round of 16.

That same year, Reyna began his globetrotting club career abroad, signing with Bayer Leverkusen in Germany. While Americans had indeed played overseas before, Reyna kicked open a door which had, in truth, only been open a crack. He eventually moved to Wolfsburg, where he became the first American to captain a European club. He later enjoyed stints at Rangers, Sunderland and Manchester City, where he also donned the armband and was fittingly tagged by fans with the lasting moniker ‘Captain America.'

“There were players that went over to Europe before him, but I think what Claudio did was raise the bar for what an American player is and should be,” said former USA team-mate Jeff Agoos.

Reyna wore the armband proudly at international level too, and was the face of a USA team that fast became a power equal to Mexico in the CONCACAF Zone, and one to be feared beyond the confines of the New World as well. Never a steady marksman, he hit the net only eight times for the Stars and Stripes in his 112 caps, but he played in three FIFA World Cups (1998, 2002 and 2006). Reyna’s heroics at Korea/Japan 2002 – where he was reunited with his former university coach Arena – saw him become the first American player ever named in the FIFA Team of the Tournament at a FIFA World Cup.

He returned to his beloved New Jersey after retiring from international football in 2007, lining up for Major League Soccer’s Red Bulls in what turned out to be an injury-littered stretch.

When Reyna finally hung up his boots, five years ago to this Tuesday, he did so as an American icon, a conduit connecting the nostalgic early days of football in the country’s immigrant communities to the bright future represented by the likes of Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey.

"Being involved in this whole process has been amazing," were the understated parting words of Reyna, a shy and quiet man who always liked to let his feet do the talking.