Claudio Reyna: Culture of Arrogance in American Soccer

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

In his past life, Claudio Reyna was a firsthand witness and protagonist within US Soccer. Reyna was a member of the 2002 Men’s National Team that reached the World Cup quarterfinals and Youth Technical Coordinator for four years before becoming New York City FC‘s Sporting Director in 2014. Reyna spoke with reporters for the first time since the US failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and for nearly twenty minutes, discussed a culture of arrogance and ambition that has stalled the sport’s progress in this country.

“It was an embarrassing week for all of us connected to soccer in this country,” Reyna said. “I don’t think it’s a disaster, I think it’s a wake-up call. We’ve really learned that there’s a reality check to where we’re at in this country. Mistakes are part of the learning process and hopefully the many mistakes we’ve made that led up to this disappointment are looked at, reviewed and we have conversations to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Reyna has been reluctant to the point of being shy to speak openly about anything while in his capacity with NYCFC. He acknowledged this in his conversation held after the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the New York City Soccer Initiative in East Harlem Tuesday. Reyna pointed out that there are ‘behaviors’ displayed by people within American soccer in both the distant past and in recent days following the team’s loss in Trinidad & Tobago.

“I don’t think we have the behaviors in how we treat the sport in this country. There’s a lack of humility, there’s a lack of modesty with how we approach the sport here. You go to Germany, Spain and I’ve had the privilege of living abroad for 13 years and traveling the world all the time from people on how to be a better sporting director, how to be a better coach, how do academy coaches work and the one thing you see is that there’s much more humility in the work. You go to speak to a U14, U15 coach at FC Barcelona and they want to learn more from you than you from them. If you go to the local clubs anywhere in the country and the U14, U15 coach, youth technical director and they have all the answers. They tend to be arrogant, they don’t want to listen, they don’t realize what they’re doing isn’t right.”

A pervasive ‘blame culture’ is also to blame, Reyna said. While the discussion after the American failure has looked to pin the blame on a coach, director or president, Reyna said it was everyone’s fault. The problem, according to him, is not ‘U.S. Soccer but soccer in the US.’ He acknowledge systemic issues such as pay-to-play exists that are difficult to eradicate but he believed that the issues are more behavioral than structural.

“What I tend to find is that there is an incredible amount of arrogance in how we want to further this sport. With that, in my opinion, we’re going to stay the way we are. I think from a national team level, we’re no different than we were ten years ago, twenty years ago. We’re a good team, we can beat some of the top nations in the world and a team that should compete and dominate in CONCACAF but for whatever reason we don’t.”

The next step, Reyna said, was getting people who wanted to make change together to discuss how to improve soccer in the country. Partly, that involves assembling people who believe that soccer is a collective sport. In his capacity with NYCFC, he said he’s sought to set an example for US Soccer starting with the appointment of Patrick Vieira as head coach.

“Everyday we push each other and we’re honest with players and ourselves with what we need to get better. We’re focused on the football side just on getting better. A small impact like things we did today,” he said while pointing at the field at the elementary school, “make the sport grow in New York. We can only make the difference we can make as well. I’m focused on the club and what we can do and making sure our academy coaches get better and work with Patrick and learn from him and his staff and push themselves and make sure they push our players.”

Reyna said the clearest way his embrace of humility can be seen with NYCFC is with the academy where players are playing in older age groups and are occasionally losing. He said he’s told parents that this experience will be good for their development as opposed to playing with different teams who he said stock their teams with players as old as possible so they can win.

“We have an entire U17 team playing up because it’s tough for them. We have 14-15 year-olds playing against 17,18 year-olds, 15-16 year-olds playing with the first team to make it difficult. That’s what we can do and make sure that the players have the right habits every day but at the same time, we move all elite players up and they earn it. They earn it through the way they train, the way they behave and they earn it through their performances.”

To that effect, James Sands is the first byproduct of this approach. Sands played 90 minutes in the US U17 Men’s National Team‘s victory over Paraguay yesterday at the World Cup and has played every minute for the Americans who are now into the Quarterfinals. Sands made his debut with NYCFC earlier in the season after signing as a homegrown player.

“He’s been growing from a boy to a man in the last year and it’s great to see. He’s on a very good team and he played an important role in qualification. We play him as a holding midfielder but we also see him as a center back so it’s good to see him play there. He’s having a very good tournament with a talented group and hopefully they can continue to make a run. He’s got a bright future because he’s very humble, he listens, he works hard, he can play a few positions and most importantly has a lot of quality as a player.”

Reyna did not comment on whether he would endorse US Soccer President Sunil Gulati ahead of the upcoming election. He said too much attention is paid toward power and politics within the sport and on the individual struggle for control.

“I think there’s too much on focus on who’s in control which to me is crazy. I read all these things about who should be the next president and all this stuff. I think we need to be focused on progress and not control. There’s too much focus on who’s got the power and who controls the sport and that’s not going to help us. They’re not going to make the difference. If we’re waiting for one person to make the difference, we’re just kidding ourselves.”