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Future Is Now for Reyna

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 15, 1998; Page B6


PARIS, June 14 — Claudio Reyna's time has arrived.

No more talk of him symbolizing the future of American soccer. No more waiting for him to polish his elegant skills. No more excusing youthful mistakes.

Effective immediately, the U.S. national team belongs to the 24-year-old playmaker.

"I do feel a responsibility," he said in final preparations for the U.S. team's World Cup opener Monday against three-time champion Germany here at Parc des Princes. "I do feel pressure and I do feel responsible for how the team does. And I am glad that I do."

The U.S. team's hopes of matching or surpassing its World Cup performance of four years ago — a round-of-16 appearance before losing to eventual champion Brazil — will rely heavily on Reyna's effectiveness charging the attack and passing the ball. Since his promotion to the national squad in 1994, Reyna has shown glimpses of brilliance. But inconsistency, injuries and the coaching staff's failure to find a proper midfield blend have hampered his growth.

Now, with all apparent distractions cleared from his path, Reyna has the opportunity to assert himself on the world stage.

"A good World Cup would convince a lot of people what qualities he truly does have," U.S. Coach Steve Sampson said. "Claudio has been gearing up for this event for a long time. He's explosive, he's confident and I believe he's going to have an outstanding World Cup. People will come away from it thinking Claudio is one of the best players in the world. I believe that."

Reyna is the only U.S. player who can routinely control the ball gracefully, maneuver in tight spaces and serve a clever pass to a teammate free on the flank or on a diagonal run behind the defense. However, Reyna's availability was limited during Sampson's spring training camp and exhibition schedule because of his professional commitment to his German club, Wolfsburg.

The U.S. team is different when Reyna is not on the field. In April, during a surprising 3-0 exhibition victory over World Cup entry Austria in Vienna, Reyna was the hub of the attack, scoring one goal and assisting on both others. But a month later in Washington, he was on the bench with a groin muscle strain during a scoreless tie with Scotland in Washington. Without him, the U.S. team lacked leadership in the middle of the field and created few scoring opportunities.

Reyna, who missed the 1994 World Cup with a hamstring injury, is eager to show sellout crowds and global television audiences what he can do.

"It's the biggest test for any player," said Reyna, who won three NCAA championships at the University of Virginia before leaving after his junior season. "If you play well in the World Cup, it shows you can play at the highest level in the world. That is what is exciting for all of us. For me, it's exciting to play against these great teams."

He'll direct a new U.S. system that emphasizes his role in a 3-6-1 formation. With two defensive midfielders and a sweeper behind him, Reyna has been able to shed much of his defensive responsibility and concentrate on the attack. Sampson's decision to cut veteran John Harkes in April also has benefited Reyna, who often times had to track back and cover Harkes's ground.

Reyna's expanded role has coincided with his rise in Germany. After spending most of his time in the reserves for Bayer Leverkusen, he moved to less-imposing Wolfsburg last season and was an instant hit. Several times he was named the prestigious "man of the match" and he climbed in the German media's ratings of the Bundesliga's midfielders.

"He's incredibly important to the team," Wolfsburg captain Jens Keller told Soccer America magazine. "He's the person who brings everything together."

"In this last year, it's definitely been my biggest growth as a player," Reyna said. "I've learned so much playing week in and week out. It's incredible to play in one of the best leagues in the world, every week to have great competition against great players."

U.S. captain Thomas Dooley, who played his entire career in Germany until joining Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew last year, says Reyna has "a lot of confidence with the ball, he wants the ball and he wants to be our playmaker. He's getting better and better.

"We are looking to Claudio in the World Cup."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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