Claudio Reyna had one chance to play in the Copa America and what a memory it was for the New York City FC Sporting Director.
Fresh off playing for the United States national team at the 1994 FIFA World Cup, a young Reyna was on Steve Sampson’s side that competed in the 1995 Copa America in Uruguay.
“I grew up watching that tournament and being a fan of Copa America. It was really exciting getting a chance to play in one,” Reyna said. “It’ s a special memory. Just to see those teams up close in South America was, at the time, my first experience at that. It was not only a great tournament to play in, but a learning experience for me at my age.”
The United States and Mexico were invited teams into a stacked tournament that featured host Uruguay, Argentina as its defending champion, a Colombia team that was a favorite to win the World Cup the year prior and of course the world champions in Brazil.
The United States was far from a favorite, even to advance out of the group. But Reyna and his teammates were determined to shock the world. They did just that by reaching the semifinals after winning their group and beating Mexico on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals.
“We’re going back to a time where we didn’t have the respect and credibility that we developed and the national team has today,” Reyna said. “We had to fight a lot of obstacles and earn everything we got. It was a great achievement by a group of guys who were together for many years.”
The United States opened the tournament with a 2-1 win over Chile with Eric Wynalda striking for a first-half brace. A 1-0 loss to Bolivia on a goal scored by former D.C. United star Marco Etcheverry followed, which set up a critical final match of the group stage against Argentina.
“They made many changes to their starting XI. I think they only kept two players from the first two games, maybe three at the most,” Reyna said. “They changed an entire team to rest so it was a bit of a lack of respect to us and I think that fired up the team more when we saw the lineup.”
Reyna said the United States “sucker punched” Argentina, with Frank Klopas and Alexi Lalas scoring a pair of goals in an 11-minute span in the first half. Wynalda put the finishing touches on a stunning 3-0 win in the 58th minute.
“It was really big,” Reyna said of the win. “It was different times. News carried much slower than it does today. It definitely didn’t captivate the global soccer audience like it would today. To beat Argentina was a big shock for sure, one of the great results in US Soccer history not just for the scoreline, but because it was in a competitive tournament, which takes any result like that to another level.”
On goal differential, the United States finished atop the group. Argentina was second, but bowed out in the quarterfinals to Brazil on penalties.
“I remember all the negative press Argentina received more than the positive press we received, certainly down in South America,” Reyna said.
The United States met Mexico in the quarterfinals one year removed from a win in a pre-World Cup friendly. After neither team scored in regulation, the United States advanced on penalties thanks to some Brad Friedel heroics during the shootout.
“It was another result that didn’t just put us through by beating our rivals, but it started a run of many years where we sort of had the upper hand on Mexico,” Reyna said. “That result was one of the key factors in getting us to believe as a national team that we can compete regularly with Mexico.”
Next up was another knockout round matchup with mighty Brazil and again the United States would fall, 1-0.
“Unfortunately we just didn’t have enough. It was a good game, they had that know how and extra experience to get a result,” Reyna said. “I think the team, in general, was a bit fatigued with it being our fifth game in the tournament. I remember the team not being as sharp as we needed to be to have a chance to beat Brazil, who were obviously the best team in the world.”
Some 21 years later, Reyna remains a fan of Copa America. He said he’s watched every game of the Centenario tournament, minus one because he attended a Beyoncé concert at Citi Field.
“To have a major tournament here in the US is great for the sport. I’m excited, it’s amazing,” Reyna said. “I’m one of those who is hoping this continues and becomes a regular every four years.”
Reyna was in attendance at Soldier Field when the United States met Costa Rica in a critical Group A match on Tuesday.
While he was wearing his emotion on his sleeve for a United States victory, Reyna was also rooting for a good performance by NYCFC fullback Ronald Matarrita.
PHOTOS: Ronald Matarrita at Copa America
“Of course I wanted the US to win and it was an important game for the team to get back on track and they are with a very positive result,” Reyna said. “To see Mata play as well, he’s still young in his national team career, to be honest I was very proud to see him play as well as he did. On such a big occasion, he was one of the best performers, he was up and down the left side. It worked out probably as good as I could want it to with the US winning and our NYCFC player on Costa Rica played well.”
Matarrita was arguably the Ticos best player in the match, getting the better of DeAndre Yedlin with bombing runs and quality crosses up the left flank.
“There’s no doubt that on the international level he will have a long, bright future with Costa Rica,” Reyna said. “It was great to see he was in good form and it’s a credit to the coaching staff here for preparing him well.”