Miguel Reyna drove a Batmobile. His sons, Claudio and Marcelo would wait patiently after school for the red 73’ Buick Electra to pull into the drive because, when those sweet fins shifted into park, it was football time.
Long days on construction sites didn’t stop Miguel from taking Claudio and Marcelo to Meisel Park for a kickabout. Kickabouts are the Buenos Aires version of “catch”, but instead of an oiled baseball mitt you bring out a pair of Copa Mundials and a soccer ball. Miguel Reyna knew that becoming a great footballer is something which happens outside of scheduled practice. You had to hone your skills on your own.
Miguel Reyna is Buenos Aires. As a boy he played football in the streets of Lomas de Zamora. Miguel had the build of Ron Swanson and a wicked shot. As a striker he made it through Independiente’s youth system, but never advanced past the reserve team. He had a brief stint with Los Andes before deciding that a move to the United States might offer his family greater opportunities.
Miguel didn’t forget Buenos Aires, though. He brought it with him. Not packed in a duffle bag, but wrapped in passion, a passion for football. Once settled in New Jersey, Miguel began to share this passion with his sons Claudio and Marcelo. He didn’t force football on his boys, but rather let his own enthusiasm for the game plant the seeds. The boys had other interests—Claudio even dabbled in basketball until high school. But Miguel’s son would always return to football. He’d always return to Buenos Aires.
Those nights at Meisel Park were unstructured but always had an element of improving Claudio’s dribbling, passing and ball control. Miguel’s nightly sessions gave the boys techniques to emulate. They could observe their father’s shooting and crossing techniques up close, providing them with a template to copy when practising their ball striking against some hapless New Jersey wall.
This individual development wasn’t limited to Meisel Park or even under Miguel’s supervision. Claudio and Marcelo would take each other on in the back yard using Pecan trees and folding chairs for goals. Battles would take to the basement during the coldest weather. Any pair of household objects could become a goal. Any patch of grass could turn into a World Cup stadium. The streets of Lomas de Zamora were reborn in New Jersey.
But in Buenos Aires the game is lived not only by playing but also by watching. Before SKY Sports packages or illegal streams Claudio would go watch Miguel play for a local side made up of Argentine and Portuguese expats. Later, the Reynas would witness Buenos Aires’ favourite son, Diego, lead Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986. This is how a city thousands of miles away captures the imagination of a boy who would become the best footballer the US has ever produced.
When Claudio turned six years old, Miguel became his formal coach. He played at Farcher’s Grove, which was not like the manicured putting greens of today’s American suburbs. It was a dirt welt in the middle of New Jersey.
When the pocked lunar surface of the field sent unsuspecting bounces young Claudio’s way, he was forced to improvise, to keep his feet nimble and relaxed at all times. The simplest pass could clip a divot, turning a well placed ball into a wild stallion that only the softest of touches could tame. First touch was paramount with Miguel and he ensured all aspects of practice included the ball.
As the team grew older, Miguel began to convey the values of keeping the ball as a team. Players were encouraged to string passes together, to slow down, to not hurry. They played small-sided games to increase the number of touches and decisions on the ball each child had to make. As a youth coach Miguel Reyna was ahead of his time.
When practice ended, Miguel demanded the boys take care of their boots—brushing off the mud and polishing the leather. They learned to respect the ball, too. No one in the Reyna home left their ball at the field. You put your name on it. You treasured it. Miguel grew up at a time when boots and soccer balls were hard to come by, so the Reyna boys knew not to take their football gear for granted.
But Buenos Aires isn’t all technique and no iron. And while Claudio didn’t slide tackle often, or crush many shins, he demonstrated bravery in a different way. He was unwavering in his desire to receive the ball in tight spaces and under pressure. Old videos put Claudio’s skills on show: croquetas, nutmegs, feints—all with the head up. Claudio’s head was always up. He surveys the area, solves a tactical formula and predicts the future, spraying passes to teammates before they arrive.
Claudio possessed that special trait nearly all American players are missing. In Buenos Aires it’s known as “la pausa”. The patience, the composure to let a passage of play unfold and make the correct choice.
Miguel’s boy also had swagger. By high school Claudio had the strut, the earrings and a thick Jersey accent. Another thread of Buenos Aires was sewn into his football: self-belief.
Miguel watched as Claudio would go on to have a career that neither of them could have imagined. But Claudio was never a full fantasista in the mould of a Pablo Aimar or Ariel Ortega.
Outside of his time at Wolfsburg, Claudio didn’t get many chances as a pure number ten, not even for the United States. With the national team, he shifted between playing outside and central midfielder. With Rangers he spent time as an attacking fullback.
When he returned to New Jersey with the Red Bulls, he would have one final chance at the number ten role.
Age and injuries would end the last adventure all too soon but every now and then Claudio would give the Red Bull Arena crowds a moment—maybe a dummy, or a drag back with the sole of the foot that would leave another MLS defender baffled. Even at the end of Claudio’s career, Miguel’s influence was apparent.
And now, more than ever, it’s true: football in the United States needs more Claudio Reynas. Football in the United States needs more Buenos Aires.
By Jason Rothman. Header image credit goes fully to Phil91.