WORLD CUP '94: 19 DAYS AND COUNTING : Future Is Now : At 20, U.S. Midfielder Reyna Isn't Looking Beyond July


Headlines on magazine covers don't even bother to hedge, flatly calling him the future of American soccer.

Teammates say he has the opportunity to become the best U.S. player--ever. Even his taciturn coach--at least when it comes to praise--offers a muted opinion on the topic of his potential greatness.

Sometimes he wonders if his name has grown longer. Is he Claudio Reyna, futureofAmericansoccer?

That's the difference between the United States and other countries. If Reyna were playing in Argentina or Brazil, he would have lost his last name by now. He would be known simply as Claudio.

For Reyna, a dazzling playmaking midfielder, it seems everyone wants to talk about the past and the future, not the present. But it is the 20-year-old's impeccable credentials that have observers making that leap.

He led Virginia to three consecutive NCAA titles, departing after his junior year. Reyna twice won college soccer's highest individual honor, the Hermann Trophy. He had 21 goals and 22 assists in three seasons with the Cavaliers.

At Barcelona in 1992, he was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic soccer team, playing every minute and getting two assists in three games.

"The kid has more skill in his pinky than I have in my entire body," teammate Alexi Lalas said. "It's very, very depressing. But at least he's on my team." U.S. Coach Bora Milutinovic says: "He's mature, mature for his age."

The American coaches have been cautious when it comes to Reyna, the team's youngest player. There is no need to weigh him down with grandiose predictions about his future or to create an egotistical presence in a locker room sprinkled with veterans.

"People make a big deal about his young age, but a lot of people make a big deal about old age, too," assistant coach Timo Liekoski said. "How you fit into the program is what matters."

In any event, Reyna would prefer not to dwell on the topic of his potential greatness. The World Cup competition starting June 17 is about as far into the future as he wants to venture for now.

"It gets old when people always say the future of the sport," Reyna said. "It's kind of annoying. It doesn't bother me, but it's annoying when people say the future and I'm here now in the present and doing well. I wish people would get off that subject. Hopefully, I'll do well in the future, but now is very important to me."

Reyna grew up in New Jersey, the son of Miguel Reyna, who used to play in the Argentine first division before coming to the United States in the late 1960s. Miguel was Claudio's first coach, from his first tentative steps with a soccer ball when he was 2 until he started playing for national age-group teams as a teen-ager.

Unlike most American kids, Reyna dreamed of playing in the World Cup. But even he didn't anticipate being ready for 1994.

"I wasn't sure if the World Cup was something I could reach now," Reyna said. "Now that I have a chance, I was fortunate. Three years ago, people were doing articles and wondering if I could be on the '94 team, whether it would be too early for me. Now that I'm here, I'm trying to follow people's guesses and predictions."

The unveiling of Reyna was achieved with deliberate precision. He joined the national team in January and served a brief apprenticeship on the bench, receiving limited playing time. His first game was against Norway in January, when he assisted on a last-minute goal by Cobi Jones.

Soon, it became apparent that Reyna was appropriately humble and the time had come to see what he could do from the opening moments. His first start came on April 20 against Moldova at Davidson College's Richardson Field, where Reyna had helped Virginia win two of its three titles.

Reyna responded with his trademark flair and scored his first goal, showing that he could apply his creative playmaking to the international game.

Assistant coach Steve Sampson said Reyna "explodes into space at the same time he collects the ball." All of the American coaches were in agreement that the team possessed a different look with Reyna in the lineup as the key link from the midfield to the front line.

Said Milutinovic: "The impression is that he is not fast, but the first (five meters) he runs with no effort."

Reyna said the time on the bench--nine games as a reserve--helped him before his international debut.

"Every phase, I've gotten better just because of the experience I'm getting," he said. "Playing each game helps. I'm learning more and more playing at this level. Even when watching from the bench, I learn how to play quicker and think quicker. I'm learning a lot--sometimes I don't realize it. It's definitely a stage where I'm learning in strides."

In the U.S. team's most recent appearance in Southern California, a 1-0 victory over Armenia, the combination of Reyna and midfielder Hugo Perez started to connect, particularly in the second half after a sluggish beginning.

The two are innovative midfielders, relying more on their creative instincts.

"We get along well on the field," Reyna said. "We have to play well off each other. I'm there to combine with him. We have to find each other and we're the main part of attack, so we have to get things going through us and the forwards and the other midfielders."

As a youngster during soccer's first boom in the United States, Reyna attended several of the Cosmos' games. He is realistic enough to realize that even if the World Cup succeeds far beyond everyone's wildest expectations, his future lies in Europe.

An avid fan of the New Jersey Devils, he thinks that soccer should take a page out of the NHL's book.

"Soccer should aim for being the fifth- or sixth-most popular sport and not shoot for the top," he said. "Baseball, basketball, football . . . those sports will always be there. I think soccer can learn from hockey in the United States, how it's gotten more popular in the last few years.

"This is like soccer's second wind. There's a wave of excitement and a lot of talent, a lot of guys coming up."

He didn't include himself in that group. Once again, Reyna was thinking about himself in terms of present tense, not future or past.

Player Profile

* Name: Claudio Reyna. * Birthdate: July 20, 1973. * Birthplace: Livingston, N.J. * Height: 5 feet 10. * Weight: 160 pounds. * Position: Midfielder. * Club: National team. * National team debut: Jan. 15, 1994. * Debut opponent: Norway. * Caps (international games): 16. * Goals: Two. * Little-known fact: At Virginia, he once rescued a white Labrador puppy from an animal shelter and took him home. Snoopy became Reyna's workout partner. "He jogged with me every day," Reyna said. * Honors: Led Virginia to three consecutive NCAA titles in 1991-93. Won Hermann Trophy, the award given to college soccer's best player. Played for 1991 Pan American gold-medal team. Three-time first-team National Soccer Coaches Assn. of America (NSCAA) All-American.

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