HAMBURG, Germany -- Claudio Reyna deserved better.
The U.S. national team's captain and best player deserved to have the chance to end his career with the latest in a string of stellar World Cup performances but instead was forced to limp off the field having committed a tremendous error.
Reyna didn't deserve that ending, but as we have learned this month, all is fair in love, war and World Cups. Reyna accepted his fate in the U.S. team's 2-1 loss against Ghana, and after trying for 15 minutes to keep playing despite a sprained medial collateral ligament, he left the field for the last time in a national team uniform.
How will he be remembered? That all depends on whom you ask. Ask coaches and players associated with the national team, or members of the foreign media, and all will say the same thing. Reyna brings a level of skill to the field no American before him had. He was the perfect calming force to lead a generation of overzealous youngsters.
Then there is the group of Reyna's critics who have spent the better part of a decade bashing him for everything he wasn't. He wasn't a goal scorer. He wasn't a true playmaker. He didn't defend enough. He wasn't someone who would make the average spectator excited.
In the final analysis, the only thing Reyna was ever guilty of was not being Superman, failing to be some highlight-reel filling, goal-scoring machine. He was supposed to be the United States' best player, yet he didn't dazzle you the way a Zinedine Zidane did or a Ronaldo did or a Ronaldinho did. For some people, it was simply unacceptable that our best player was more Clark Kent than Superman.
That logic was born of critics who see the game on the most elementary of levels. To some, soccer is the perfect through-pass into the penalty area or the highlight-reel goal or the acrobatic save. These elements are part of the game, but they are not the game. To ignore the other aspects of what make a team or player effective is like saying frosting is a cake's only ingredient.
Reyna's game provided every ingredient there was aside from the frosting. He isn't a ball-striker like Portugal's Maniche or England's Steven Gerrard. He isn't going to dribble through defenses like Ronaldinho or Zidane, and he was never going to race by people like a Lionel Messi or Wayne Rooney. What Reyna could do was always find the right pass to make, the right position to be in to stop other attacks, and he could always put himself in position to provide an outlet for a teammate under pressure. Not only could he does these things but Reyna was gifted enough to do these things well against the world's best players.
That still wasn't enough for American fans brought up on sports that had stats to support a player's true value. In soccer, goals and assists are generally the numbers casual fans use to value players, but there are other statistics that can be considered. After the first two matches of this year's World Cup, Reyna was among the tournament's leaders in passes and passes completed, grouped with the likes of Argentina's Juan Riquelme, Brazil's Ronaldinho and Italy's Andrea Pirlo.
Stats that support Reyna's value are nothing new. The Actim Index, a rating used to value players in the English Premier League, rated Reyna as one of the top three players in the EPL through the first two months of last season before he was sidelined with an injury. That rating system takes into account everything from passes made to blocks of passes.
The 2002 World Cup provided the best evidence of Reyna's value as a player. He missed the U.S. team's 3-2 victory against Portugal but returned to play pivotal roles in the team's 1-1 tie with South Korea and its 2-0 win against Mexico and put on a display for the ages in the team's 1-0 loss to Germany. His skillful and efficient performances throughout the tournament earned Reyna a spot on the World Cup All-Star team, a team chosen by the tournament's technical committee, which bases its selections on in-depth technical analysis.
Reyna picked up where he left off in World Cup play this year. In the tournament's first two matches, Reyna was the team's best field player. Against the Czechs, he tried to kick-start the offense by pressing forward and covering more ground than any other American midfielder. Against Italy, Reyna was a steadying influence in the first half, matching Pirlo play for play. In the second half, after Pablo Mastroeni was red-carded, Reyna settled in at defensive midfielder and helped keep Italy's playmakers from attacking through the middle.
"What you often don't realize about Claudio is what he does defensively for your team," said U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan. "In the game against Italy, when he settled in at defensive midfielder, he did so much work at a position that isn't normally his."
"Who do you think has been our best player in the first two games," coach Bruce Arena said when asked about criticism of Reyna. "How could anyone say that Claudio isn't a great player. That's illogical, that statement."
Reyna's critics had a field day after the team's loss to Ghana. First, there was his mistake, which led to Ghana's first goal, then there was DaMarcus Beasley and Clint Dempsey combining for the team's first goal of the tournament just minutes after Reyna departed. The crowd that insists Reyna slows the pace down too much immediately pointed to the goal as its Exhibit A. It didn't matter that Reyna's mistake was one of the few glaring ones of his World Cup, or that Dempsey's goal came from a steal by Beasley and a quick counterattack and not some magical attacking buildup. Reyna's detractors insisted they had their evidence that Reyna holds his young teammates back.
So where does this theory come from? The best guess is it comes from people who watch the United States tear through competition in CONCACAF without Reyna, showing a dynamic offense that has no trouble scoring goals, only to have that same team struggle against better competition, which is when Reyna is usually around. "In CONCACAF, it's a different game," Donovan said. "We're physically better. We're tactically better and we're technically better than those teams so we can force the action and go.
"But against teams like we see in the World Cup, it isn't like that," he said. "Against a team like the Czechs or Italy, they can make two passes and beat eight of your guys and they're going at you. "We have to be a lot smarter against the better teams, and Claudio helps us do that."
At least he used to. Now that Reyna has retired, the United States is going to struggle to find a player who could bring the tactical and technical quality Reyna provided in central midfield. You could say that he wasn't fast enough or a prolific scorer and that he was too injury-prone, but he was still a one-of-a kind player for U.S. soccer. It might take some time, perhaps in the 2010 World Cup, but there will come a point when people realize just what Reyna brought to the U.S. national team. He might not have been Superman, but he was certainly a special player and someone who won't be replaced any time soon.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.