The Interview: Claudio Reyna
The Austin FC Sporting Director and Former USMNT Star on the USMNT's World Cup Qualifying Performance, the New MLS Season and His Son Gio
It was impossible not to feel awful for Gio Reyna on Sunday as he came off the field injured in his first start for Dortmund in more than five months. His father, Claudio, and the Reyna family no doubt felt the same way. I had a really good interview with Claudio a few days before that and thought we should go ahead and publish the interview, because there’s a lot of great stuff in it. But keep in mind that we spoke before Gio’s new injury as you read it below. (Update: On Monday, Dortmund said Gio’s injury was not as serious as first feared, and he should be able to return to training in the next two weeks.)
Here’s the headliner audio clip from our conversation:
The entirety of the written interview below is reserved for paid subscribers. As always, you can still get the entire free audio versions of my podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you like to go for your pods.
Our guest now is Claudio Reyna. He's the sporting director for Austin FC, a former World Cup star for the U.S. men's national team and had a standout club career, including time at Rangers, Man City, Wolfsburg, Leverkusen and the New York Red Bulls. Claudio, it's great to see you. Thanks for coming on the show.
Hey Grant. Thanks for having me.
Yeah, good to catch up. And there's a lot of things to talk about, including Austin FC in just a bit here. But to start with, I want you to put on your hat as a former U.S. men's national team captain. How do you feel about where the U.S. is right now in World Cup qualifying and the performances of the team?
Yeah, I think having been through qualifying and knowing the challenges that exist, and I don't particularly mean going to the away games in Central America and the Caribbean, but just the lack of time that you have together, and really putting a team on the field quickly, trying to get them synched up, it's challenging. Right up until every game there's some guys who pick up something or are not 100%.
And the decisions to put the best 11 for each game are tough. And you have now the three-game windows, which is different to what we experienced. So certainly in a good place, not a great place, because we'd all wish we were in Canada's position, I guess, or having picked up I think a few more points on the road would've been good. The team, certainly you see the quality, the potential is massive. It's the most talented team that we've had in a long time. Of course, there's some youth mixed into the group, which you can't accelerate experience.
You need to have it, you need to go through it, and there're learning absolutely on the fly, but there are games that we need to pick up points and win, and we have a certainly challenging last three games, but there's no doubt that the group, despite its age, is capable of getting results against Mexico, against Panama and Costa Rica. So they have to believe in just this. I'm not into what our style of play is or how we're going to do on set-pieces. We seem to do best when we just need to keep it simple and win as a group and be collective.
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And that's the most important right now. Regardless of who plays, I think there's enough quality in the team to get a result in all the games and get us to our ultimate goal in Qatar. So it's exciting to see, I think, we're here and sort of these situations that big countries go through, and we're going through it as well. There's big countries in Europe that have big games to get to the World Cup. And this was never easy, though. Going back to what I originally was talking about, qualifying is challenging, and so we're almost there, but of course there's a lot of work to get us over the line.
I was looking at who the U.S. has played under Gregg Berhalter, and due to COVID in particular, but also sort of the way the international calendar is set up with competitions. Under Berhalter, the U.S. really hasn't had a chance to play any global heavyweight teams, even in friendlies. How different of a challenge will that be when this U.S. team starts to play some of the big-name teams in the world? And what are you curious to see?
Well, we're going to see how we match up against the top teams in the world. And whether that's South America or Europe, there's just a different overall tactical [set-up] and athleticism in these teams and experience. And a lot of these groups of teams have been together. And as I mentioned before, they're all going through qualifying. They actually have been together more than we have as a national team given the CONMEBOL and the European Nations League, and just them being able to travel and get more games.
And so we certainly need to improve and step up to it. But I think the positive for sure is that we have so many players that are playing at really high levels in Europe, that I think there's less of a fear to play against these teams. And maybe that youthfulness will help and not be overawed by some of the teams that we'll play, but you need to face them. I think they provide and give you different looks and get you certainly uncomfortable in certain areas, whether it's transitional game, they're much more punishing, really, the better teams will punish you.
They will give you fewer chances. So you have to take them, you have to finish them. And on the other side of it, as I said before, if you make a mistake, these top nations kill you. And so we certainly need it. We need to get those games. And I know, I'm sure the national team would love to play them, but given the calendar challenges that we have in scheduling games, it's easier said than done. But hopefully, over the summer, after getting these games taken care of, we'll be able to play some of those teams because we need to, for sure, we have to see other opponents.
I don't know how many of our listeners are aware of how far back you go with Gregg Berhalter. Could you explain your history with Gregg?
Well, we went to high school together. We played on St. Benedict's Prep, and we played club soccer before that in New Jersey for a team called Union County, which sadly doesn't exist anymore. Of the old, well still exists, but it was a Cosmopolitan League that we grew up playing in. It was incredible. It was certainly very diverse, different ethnic backgrounds. And that's when we together were falling in love with the game.
And we shared similar time in Europe as well, and we would always see each other. And Gregg was always someone who as he got older, certainly you could see him becoming a coach on the field and someone that shared his views and opinion. And I think that experience being in Europe for him is what shaped him in eventually becoming a coach.
We are good friends. We've known each other for a long time. And of course we played on the national team together. Shared a lot of experiences on the field, off the field. And he is working so hard to manage, as I said before, challenging situations from window to window and finding the right balance of guys between the players in Europe and the players in MLS and bringing them all together from each game.
And he of course wants nothing more than success for this national team, just as much as anyone, given his history with the national team and him having been part of also a lot of these new players bringing into the national team, which he takes great pride in their development.
Is there any insight, maybe special insight, into Gregg that you might be able to share? Because all of our listeners are basically fans of the U.S. men's national team, and they follow this really closely, but is there anything about how Gregg approaches things or how you're viewing how he's doing this that you think would be good to share?
Well, I think more is just the belief he has in the players. The times we've talked about the quality of the players, the depth of the pool, he really is a fan of these players and believing that they are able to compete against anybody. And so he wants to build up their confidence, and more than anything just set them up for success on the field. And so there's a lot of work he puts into it.
From his experiences as a player, he wants to make sure they understand also the collectiveness of playing for the team, which is so important. But just how much he's excited and proud to be able to see the growth of this game and how these players are playing at such high levels, both domestically and internationally, making his decisions to pick a squad, never mind a starting 11, really difficult.
And so that's something that didn't exist when we were coming through. It was a smaller pool of the sort of top-tier players. Aside from just being the coach, putting that aside, just to see what's happening in our country and him being able to be the coach of this group of players and the stadiums and the support that we have as a national team has grown from our time to today.
But more than anything, just the players, he really wants more than anything for the players to reach their maximum potential, their goals, and to really show the world that this is a new United States national team. I think that's one of his goals. His vision is to continue and to earn that respect from teams and fans around the world about this national team.
So I'm going to ask you to put on your hat as Gio Reyna’s dad for a moment. It's great to see Gio playing again after his five month layoff, how is he doing right now?
He's doing really good. It was tough. The injury that he had was really difficult. It was tricky. It was a high hamstring where there was fluid that kind of impacted his nerve down his leg. So it took a few different specialists to figure out what he had. But he feels great now. He's really happy. He's a kid and he just wants to play.
And now he is able to be back on the field and playing and looking forward to this year, both club and country. He unfortunately had food poisoning in the last game in Berlin and in the middle of the night was texting us and he was throwing up. And so that was unfortunate, but he's feeling good already and back in training. He's going through these early stages, where he is breaking through as a professional and learning so much, so much pressure that he has to deal with and he is handling it so incredible.
So I kind of just sit back and give him advice, support him, always giving him confidence, but he really believes in himself. And he wants to achieve on the club side everything possible. He's at an amazing club. He's got with Marco Rose a really fantastic coach who really trusts him and believes in him. As a club, obviously, that their history with young players is goes without saying.
And so he feels good. He feels strong. He was able to, during the time off sort of regroup and get in some good physical work for his body and strengthen his legs, his core, his upper body, which he really couldn't do because at 17, he was thrown in there and he was playing week to week and he had to recover and play. And he was being asked at such a young age to play for a big club in big games. And there was a lot of recovery and play, recovery and play. And so it was also despite being out for how long he was, he was able to really sort of reset his body and get some good work in. So he’s really excited and has so much to look forward to not only this year, but of course for a long career.
So Gio plays for Dortmund, obviously, and Dortmund drew your old team Rangers in this Europa League round, what's that going to be like for you personally?
Well, of course, first and foremost, family. And so I’ll be rooting for Gio and Borussia Dortmund in this tie, but it absolutely is special. My close relationship with Giovanni van Bronckhorst, who's the head coach of Rangers now, is special. We're very, very close family friends. And so, both amazing clubs. And I just hope by then both stadiums are at full capacity because the atmosphere of both at Signal Iduna and at Ibrox are special, as good as any in Europe.
So I can only imagine if the fans get both sides of it and the players most importantly, it'll be something he’ll never forget. When I was at Rangers, we played against Borussia Dortmund in the UEFA Cup, and we were eliminated on penalty kicks. And I told Gio, Ibrox, the full Ibrox is going to be special, and you're going to love it.
He was there when he was younger, we went to an Old Firm game about four or five years ago, but it's awesome. It's great. Two amazing clubs with incredible fan bases. And I can't wait for it really. It's really, really special. And one of these little cool stories for us, really, as a family that Gio at Dortmund gets to play against one of my former clubs. And he played against Man City in the Champions League. He subbed on twice in that. And so now to play against Rangers is really special.
I went to cover you at Rangers back in 1999, when you were the first American to play in the Old Firm. And it was one of the wilder trips I've ever had in my career, just to see that first-hand. I covered Boca-River once. This is about the only thing I would compare to it, at least in my experience at club level, that rivalry. But I remember going to the Rangers bar and there was a portrait of you up on the wall that was painted. And there were a bunch of the other players from over time as well. Is that still up there? When you've gone back there, what kind of response do you get?
I don't know if it's still up there. I've only been back twice since, and I think, yeah, the fans are amazing at Rangers, and my Gio did an interview leading up to this game and [Claudio’s wife] Danielle was over there now, is over there now. And he got off the interview with the press in Scotland and he said, "Mom, man, the Rangers fan really loved dad. Huh?" And she said, "Yeah, they did. They really supported dad big time."
When we went back there, he realized the support that I had, but it's an amazing club. And they love players who give everything. It's pretty straightforward there. You give everything for the jersey, they'll give everything back. And it's certainly a special place and it was a great part of our life and of my career for sure.
Now I forget. Is there any connection between you being so close to Giovanni van Bronckhorst and deciding to name Gio, Giovanni?
Yeah. So the story goes, we love the name Giovanni and Gio, for short. And I think when we went through the naming of children, we had some other options as well, but of course you're like, "Wait, there was a guy named that that my wife didn't like, or I didn't like growing up or someone you interacted with." But so then we landed on Gio. We loved the name Gio. And of course on top of it, one of our closest friends and someone who's an awesome guy. We kind of did let him know like, "Hey, we're going to name Gio, Gio, Giovanni." And yeah, so there's sort of a connection to him, our relationship, him being a close friend, and Giovanni van Bronckhorst has known Gio since he was born.
And so to see him grow up a couple of years ago, right when COVID was starting to make its way in January, February of 2020, my wife and the entire Van Bronckhorst family went to visit Gio at a game at Dortmund. They drove from Rotterdam just to support him and see him. Van Bronckhorst's son, Jake, was also named after our Jack, but they didn't want to take Jack. So there's a lot of connections.
We are like family, we visit each other. They've come to New York and to the Hamptons to our house all the time. And after the 2000 Euros, which he played in, there was a Dutch bakery that was showing all the games back in the day of pay-per-view. And I walked in there and he didn't know who I was.
He was straight from Amsterdam and watching every game, and we'd go in there and watch some of the games on pay-per-view. And I told him, "Oh, as soon as they get eliminated, he's coming here." And he didn't believe me. How's the Dutch national team player coming to the Hamptons? And of course, they lost in the semifinals to Italy in penalty kicks, and he was over and I took him in there and he couldn't believe it.
That's how close we are. I went to his wedding, we still find times to visit each other. And there's a chance I get over to the game on the 24th in Glasgow. And we'll see him after the game, but yeah, just really close friends. And we've been in touch as families, and it's just great to see him now also coaching at a former club, one of our former clubs, and really enjoying it as well. It's awesome.
Thanks for sharing that story. That's awesome. That also reminds me how difficult it used to be to watch the Euros. You had to find them on pay-per-view.
I know. It's like, oh my God. And the house we were renting at the time didn't have the ability to rent it. And then we actually told the people we were renting from like, "Can you get whatever it was?" I can't even tell you what it was. But then we were able to rent some of the games, but of course it was like, whatever it costs we're like, "All right, we're going to the beach this day. We're going to rent that game. Not that game." But yes, that's how soccer used to be in this country, pay-per-view for the Euros.
So let's talk Austin FC got a few questions on Austin. There was a great response in Austin to the team last season from the fans, tough times on the fields for much of it. How do you look back at the way the first season played out?
Yeah. It was special from the launch of soccer with Austin FC and professional soccer at MLS was incredible. The support, there's no doubt that this is a soccer community here. And we had the national team play here. The women's national team opened the stadium, and the support we had as a club on and off the field was really special. It's unique for any soccer fan who hasn't been to Austin. It's a bucket list [trip]. You have to come to a game, you have to come to the city, you see the flags, you see the jerseys. Everywhere you see the stickers on the cars and players certainly feel it. We have a beautiful stadium. The Q2 Stadium is as good as any in MLS. Our training facility is first class. We actually have Toronto and Chicago here now training here.
From those aspects of just the soccer arriving, it did in Austin. There's no doubt about it. And our team, yeah, we had a difficult time. We had nine of our first 10 games on the road. We suffered four season-ending injuries within the first basically three, four games of the season, we had four guys out. And so we were constantly chasing and catching up. There were a lot of positives. I do feel teams knew that we were a tough team to play against, but we just lacked a little bit of depth through those injuries.
And now we've rebuilt the squad a little bit, added some strength in defense and holding midfield with Jhojan Valencia from Deportivo Cali. And there's a good group here. There's no doubt about it, but it was certainly at the same time a lot of learning, a learning experience in terms of all this staff and all these players coming together for the first time, in a new city, with COVID, where we couldn't really get together and do anything.
It was very strange to kind of go through that and have to keep our distance at the training facility, off the field. And so now that's pretty much behind us now and being able to really start fresh this year. And we feel really good about the group. We've made a few additions, but we really believe in a lot of the guys we had here. And we had many players who didn't play many minutes the year before. So they're further up to speed in terms of just where they're at physically. And like anything, a lot of new players that come to MLS, it takes time to adapt. We feel good. We've had a good preseason, mostly based here in Austin, we were going to go to Florida, but we had to cancel it due to COVID.
We play Atlas on Wednesday, which is the Mexican champions, as you know, so that's going to be a really good test for us where we're going to get minutes for everyone in the squad, but it's great. I mean, it's really special to be the only major professional sports team in the city. The amount of local support from media and our fans is amazing. Certainly the players are motivated going into this season, and we're really looking forward to it.
We think, quietly down here that we're going to have a good year, and we need a good start to the season. We're going to have a more balanced schedule with being able to play games throughout the year. And if you go on the road, obviously we come back and make up for any challenges that you have on the road. Just looking forward to it, we have great owners and we have everything in place here really to build something special. So this is an exciting, exciting year ahead for us, for sure.
When you look ahead to the season, there are so many teams in this league now there's like 28 teams, which is just kind of a crazy number. I think only Argentina maybe has had that many in their top flight. What is success in your mind for this team this season?
I mean, obviously everybody says to win a trophy, but as you said, they don't come around. You need so much, you need luck. You need so much to fall in place, but we certainly want to make the playoffs as a start. And that means you have a consistently good year. We do want to play well. We're not going to shy away from that. We want to play good soccer. We want to entertain. We want to score goals. As a group, we want to come together and share in these successes as well. So that's internally what we're talking about. And then the Western Conference is certainly challenging, but getting to the playoffs, make a run, make a run in Open Cup and really take this next step, and really whatever that is.
But internally, I think it's sometimes difficult to sort of loudly talk about winning a trophy and all that. But internally we have a strong belief in the group. We want to make our home, Q2 Stadium, really, really difficult, make sure we dominate teams and get many points here at home as much as possible. But really entertaining, playing good soccer, continuing to connect with the community. But certainly winning is very, very important. We can't shy away from that as a group, as a culture, we have to almost be obsessed with it. And that's something we've talked about. You’ve got to really, really, as a group together, come and do everything possible to win games.
But we do want to play good soccer, and you could see lots of glimpses of it last year when we played that we played an attractive brand, but at the same time our issues were sometimes in transition, some of our buildup play we gave away goals too easily. We often gave up the first goal. So then with that, when you lack confidence, you have to come back in games and we weren't able to do that as much. So making sure we learned from all that last year and really, really as a group playing collective good soccer and, like I said, getting into the playoffs is sort of the minimum that we want to establish.
Just to wrap up here, probably the most prominent or one of the most prominent people associated with Austin FC is investor Matthew McConaughey, who's kind of Mr. Austin all over this city. What are your interactions like with him?
Yeah. Our Minister of Culture, he's very involved in the team. He's been around, but he is also, as you could imagine, really busy. And hopefully we'll get to see him. We had some personal COVID situations that he was being careful in keeping his distance on top of being very, very busy, as you could imagine, but he absolutely is a big supporter, calls, texts, checks in with me and the team and how we're doing.
He came here last year in the beginning of preseason and talked to the group, but very connected with the team, very supportive of the players and everyone at the club. And it means something to him. He's from Central Texas and an Austinite, and he's proud of everything that's happening here. And he continues to be a huge believer in the club and soccer in Austin.
He's great. He's extremely intelligent and articulate. When I'm around, I certainly seem to be listening more than talking and just want to take in everything he says, but he's inspirational and motivational in what he comes across saying, and like I said before, he is 100% behind the club. And it's awesome to have someone like him on our side and a big fan of the club.
Claudio Reyna is the sporting director for Austin FC. Good luck in the new season. Thanks for coming on the show.
Thank you, Grant. Hope to see you down in Austin.