March 18, 2007
Claudio Reyna: Home At Last

After nearly 13 years abroad, Claudio Reyna comes full circle back to New Jersey.

By Mike Woitalla, Soccer America Magazine

Claudio Reyna played his youth ball in a New Jersey environment that bridged eras of American soccer and an array of cultures.

The center of the activity was a German-American social club in the town of Union called Farcher's Grove, which had a bar, a catering hall, a picnic grove and a lighted soccer field.

In the 1980s, when Reyna played his youth soccer at Farcher's Grove, 27 teams shared the field for weekday practices. That often meant four squads at once.

Under the best conditions, Reyna figures the field had about a hundred blades of grass. When the sprinklers went on, he and his teammates would joke, ''They're watering the dirt again.''

The cramped conditions forced players to learn ball control in small spaces, and the bumpy field made trapping a challenge.

''Once you got on a nice grass field,'' Reyna said, ''trapping seemed easy. Farcher's Grove was by far the worst field I ever played on, and I played more games on it than any other field. But it really helped me my develop skills.''

On weekends, games at Farcher's Grove started at 8 a.m. with youth matches and the men were still playing at 10 p.m.

''There was constant soccer,'' says Reyna. ''I have a lot of memories hanging out at Farcher's Grove. We'd spend hours before and after our games there. When there was a break between games, we'd get out on the field and mess around, play some more, while our families were inside eating.

''It was kind of everyone's club. I think everyone from the middle of the state and upward played at Farcher's at some point in their careers.''

That included players like Tony Meola, Tab Ramos and John Harkes, who hailed from Kearny, about 20 minutes up the road from Union. The trio began long national team careers in the late 1980s, while Reyna was still on the U-17 national team. Meola's parents hailed from Italy, Ramos' from Uruguay, and Harkes' from Scotland.

''It was a great scene at Farcher's Grove -- like we had at the Kearny Scots-American club,'' says Harkes. ''Players who played in those places were pretty fortunate. It was a total soccer environment, with players of all ages and a lot of diversity. Kids would watch their father's games and play pickup games.

''We kind of bridged the gap between the immigrant-based soccer our parents played with the new era, when soccer became mainstream.''

Before Reyna's time, the home club, SC Elizabeth, won its second U.S. Open Cup at Farcher's Grove, a 1-0 win over the San Pedro (Calif.) Yugoslavs in 1972. A year earlier, after it won its first Open Cup, SC Elizabeth hosted a CONACAF Champions Cup game against Cruz Azul. An official from the Mexican club walked to the middle of the field, then asked his hosts, ''Where's the stadium?'' The return leg was scheduled at Azteca.

SC Elizabeth played in the German-American League, later renamed the Cosmopolitan League, which began requiring its clubs to field and fund youth teams.

From that came Reyna's Union County team, an offshoot of the Newark Sport Club. The team's main rivals were the Union Lancers, who were SC Elizabeth's youth teams. Manny Schellscheidt, who played on SC Elizabeth's Open Cup-winning teams, coached the Lancers, McGuire Cup winners in 1987 and 1988. Among Schellschieidt's deputies with the Lancers was Bob Bradley, who is now the U.S. national team coach.

Bradley played high school ball in the 1970s at West Essex High School in North Caldwell, N.J., and often ventured to Farcher's Grove long before he coached and scouted talent there.

''There were so many places in North Jersey and New York to find soccer and to run into people who would have a good influence,'' said Bradley, who with Schellscheidt coached Reyna on the Region I team. ''They were men who were part of the melting pot of the ethnic clubs. And Farcher's Grove was one of the places. I went there with Essex United. I went there to find games. Everybody got there at one point or another.''

ETHNIC SOCCER'S LEGACY. The youth soccer boom had started by the time Reyna was playing.

''In the 1980s, there was more and more youth soccer,'' says Bradley. ''It was very much the legacy of those ethnic clubs.''

Children whose parents weren't immigrants began embracing the sport, but the New Jersey scene during Reyna's time was an amalgam of ethnicities.

''There were kids playing who came from non-immigrant families,'' says Reyna, who was born in Livingston, N.J., in 1973 to parents who had emigrated from Argentina, ''but the percentage was much less than now. There were Italians, Greeks, Ecuadorians, Uruguayans ù you name it. Those were the mainly type of kids who played soccer. The coaches were from all over, Germany, Britain ù and my dad coached our team.''

In the winter, Reyna played indoors. The ethnic clubs had started indoor soccer leagues in armories throughout North Jersey.

''There were a lot of skillful players in the area,'' says Reyna, ''and there were a lot of games, a lot of competitions, outdoor and indoor. We had games with teams in New York City and even Long Island, against a lot of good clubs and good players.''

In 1968, Claudio's father, Miguel, came to the USA from Buenos Aires with two pals because they had a friend with Italian relatives in New Jersey who told them there would be opportunities.

''We arrived in February,'' says Miguel. ''That's summer in Argentina, so we were wearing summer clothes ù and there's snow on the ground. I thought, 'Oh my God!' That shows you how much I knew about America.''

Miguel Reyna found factory work, at a foundry, and hooked up with a Greek-American soccer club. In Argentina, Miguel had started out at Independiente, but when he didn't crack the first team by age 20, he moved to a smaller club, Los Andes. In New Jersey, he discovered he could make $30 a game.

''That wasn't bad money in those days,'' he says.

The Greek-American team hooked him up with a dishwashing job in the evenings, after he had spent the day working at the foundry.

''Sundays were when we didn't have to work ù when we played soccer,'' says Miguel.

When Miguel started playing for an Italian-American club, it hooked him up with a construction job and he worked in construction for 35 years, until retiring last October.

Claudio's parents still live in Springfield, where Claudio grew up, but in a different house ù one that Claudio bought them after he became a millionaire playing in Europe. They're delighted that they'll be able to see Claudio play in person more than a few times a year.

When MLS kicks off, they'll take the 30-minute drive to New York Red Bulls games at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., where Miguel used to take Claudio and his older brother, Marcelo, to New York Cosmos games.

The first one Reyna remembers attending was on June 6, 1979, when the Cosmos hosted defending World Cup champion Argentina in a friendly. Diego Maradona, a late cut before the 1978 World Cup, took the field that day.

''I can't say I remember the specifics of the game, but I'll never forget the atmosphere,'' Reyna says, ''The stadium was full and it rocked. From then on, I dreamed about playing in front of a crowd like that.''

After spending his freshman year at Dayton High School in Springfield, Claudio enrolled at St. Benedict's Prep in Newark in 1988. The school's soccer program had been transformed into a power by Tab Ramos eight years earlier. Also at St. Benedict's with Reyna was his Union County teammate, Gregg Berhalter, another New Jersey product who would represent the USA at the World Cup.

FREE COLLEGE EDUCATION. In 1991, Reyna graduated from St. Benedict's a two-time Parade National High School Player of the Year. He had represented the USA at the 1989 U-17 World Cup, where it beat Brazil, and in any other country he would have been headed straight into a pro career.

But the Cosmos and NASL were long gone. The opportunity to get a free college education mooted any notion of going abroad at age 18.

''My father quit school in his early teens because he had to help support his family,'' says Reyna. ''He wanted his sons to get the education he didn't have a chance at. They were so proud when Marcelo went to Notre Dame. Getting a free college education with a college scholarship was an opportunity I knew I shouldn't pass up.''

Reyna chose the University of Virginia, where the coach was Bruce Arena, because he liked the Cavaliers' style of play and he saw how Meola and Harkes went to Virginia and made a smooth transition to the U.S. national team.

Reyna helped the Cavaliers win three straight national titles ù the last in December of 1993, six months before the USA would host the World Cup.

He then decided to leave college to play full-time with the U.S. national team. He was poised for World Cup playing time, having started in their dress rehearsal on the eve of the tournament, a 1-0 win over Mexico. But a hamstring injury kept him on the bench.

''Don't worry, you're young,'' then U.S. coach Bora Milutinovic told him. ''You will play in future World Cups.''

Reyna would play in three World Cups, and in 2002 captained the USA to the quarterfinals and became the first American selected to a FIFA World Cup All-Star Team.

Now after 13 years of playing top-flight soccer in Germany, Scotland and England, Reyna has returned to New Jersey.

He won't be able to find Farcher's Grove. It's been replaced by a shopping plaza and industrial park. But its legacy lives on.

(This article originally appeared in the March 2007 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)