Two years ago, retirement beckoned Claudio Reyna, one of the most accomplished player in U.S. soccer history. Only 34, an elite athlete at the end of his playing days, he faced difficult decisions most people don't even consider until they're decades older. Reyna didn't worry.
He enjoyed a stellar career that took him around the globe to four World Cups, the last two as the U.S. National Team's captain. So when he announced his retirement after 15 years as a professional, he took time to think through his transition. "I wanted to take a deep breath and not really rush into anything," Reyna says. "You hear the stories about athletes who retire, and they can't live without the game, and they don't know what to do when they're done. I was very fortunate to have had a long and exciting career. When I stopped playing, I was really happy and looking forward to the next chapter of my life. I was thinking ahead. I was ready."
Nicknamed "Captain America," the son of an Argentinean father and Portuguese-descent mother established himself as a pro soccer player in Europe in the 1990s, when very few Americans were deemed good enough to travel abroad to play the world's most popular sport. He starred for teams in Germany, Scotland, and England. He also captained the U.S. squad to its best-ever performance in the 2002 World Cup, where his underdog team stunned the world by reaching the tournament quarterfinals.
Reyna never scored many goals—he netted eight in 112 matches for the U.S. National Team—but his vision and understanding of the game were exceptional. As a midfielder, he controlled the pace of play, knowing when to hold the ball and when to attack the goal. "Claudio is going to be remembered as one of the greats and one of the pioneers," says Bruce Arena, Reyna's longtime coach with the U.S. National Team.
That methodical approach, that sense of the bigger picture, helped Reyna decide what to do after the effects of cumulative injuries cut his career short while playing for Major League Soccer's New York Red Bulls.
Reyna wanted to stay involved with the sport that gave him so many opportunities, so he dedicated himself to working with youngsters. His nonprofit Claudio Reyna Foundation runs free soccer academies for underprivileged youths in the New York/New Jersey area, where he grew up. More than 200 boys and girls ages 8–12 are involved in the afterschool program, which combines sports, academics, and a sense of community.
With soccer still regarded as a suburban pastime in this country, the foundation aims to popularize the sport in inner-city areas. Children receive tutoring and homework help at their local schools before suiting up for soccer practice. "We hope to plant a seed with soccer in these communities," Reyna says. "But the main point is to give these kids a safe place where they can go get schoolwork done and get some exercise playing soccer."
His foundation also organizes a popular celebrity soccer match every summer in New York featuring international soccer and pro basketball stars—Steve Nash of the NBA's Phoenix Suns is a partner. He's also involved with the New York Soccer Club, a nonprofit youth soccer organization in Westchester County, New York, and coaches his 10-year-old son Jack's team.
Mateo Ginocchi, a fifth grader from working-class Elizabeth, N.J., participates in the academy twice a week at a Newark school. Of mixed Spanish and Italian descent, Mateo dreams about playing in a World Cup someday for either his mother's native Spain or the United States. His mother, Cecilia Gomez, is impressed with the soccer program's dual focus on school and sport. Reyna, she says, is a terrific role model for the children.
"Claudio's very down to earth," she says. "He's very involved and takes the time to play with the kids. He speaks to them as if they were all superstars."
In April, Reyna added another role to his soccer roster. The U.S. Soccer Federation revealed he would be its youth technical director, overseeing the development of youth players and coaches nationwide. Thanks to his playing experiences at home and abroad, "I've just been able to get a real experience that has allowed me to view where our game is and assess it throughout the country," Reyna said at the press conference announcing his appointment. "I will be essentially trying to put together a plan and a structure to help better the soccer environment in our country."
With the World Cup looming, Reyna's looking forward to the action in South Africa. He may fly to there to catch some games, but says it's more likely he'll watch the games on television with family and friends. He rates Brazil and Spain as the teams to beat, though he believes his beloved Argentina has a good chance, too.
He still recalls being a five-year-old witnessing his relatives weeping with joy when Argentina won the World Cup in 1978. "Argentina and the U.S. are the two teams that I always pull for," he says. "Unless they're playing each other, I root for both."
The U.S. has injuries to several key players, so the team's fortunes are "up in the air," Reyna says. Still, the team has drawn relatively easy first-round group competition: England will be tough to beat, but the United States should get past Algeria and Slovenia. "Fans have to understand that getting out of the group will be a great achievement and," he adds optimistically, "after that, we'll see."
Looking ahead, Reyna envisions himself coaching higher-level athletes—perhaps even one day leading a U.S. team to a World Cup. He's in no rush, though. "At some point," he says. "I'll get my opportunity."