Claudio Reyna calmly placed the ball on the artificial turf where the penalty spot was and readied himself for a chance to score a goal. After a brief interruption from an opponent, Reyna confidently strided up to the ball and blasted it past the goalkeeper, drawing applause from the New York fans who ringed the venue.
No, this didn’t take place at Giants Stadium. This took place at Nike Field in Chinatown at a charity game. The opponent who interrupted Reyna’s kick was a joking Thierry Henry, who drew a yellow card that made many of the fans in attendance laugh.
Red Bulls fans weren’t laughing at all. Not at the news that Reyna, the same player who has played in just six of the team’s 13 matches this year, was able to play in a soccer game despite being too injured to join his team on its current West Coast swing, or play in any of the team’s past five matches.
For many Red Bulls fans, it was the ultimate insult and the last straw.
That Reyna played in the event, which was played to help raise funds for Reyna’s and NBA star Steve Nash’s charitable foundations, wasn’t that big an offense. Playing in that half-speed match can’t compare in any way with the physical demands of playing in an MLS match. The problem was the symbolism of his participation, and the perception that he cared more about playing in a celebrity pick-up game than being with the team that actually pays him is what turned it into a crime in the eyes of Red Bulls fans. The fact that injured Red Bulls forward Juan Pablo Angel attended but didn’t play in the match only made Reyna’s participation look that much worse.
Do I think it was a crime? Playing in the game itself wasn’t that bad. Where Reyna failed miserably is in communicating with the public about the charity event beforehand. Instead of failing to talk about the possibility of playing (he decline interview requests last week), Reyna should have been out front talking about the charity event and about his potential participation in the match. It would have given Red Bulls coach Juan Carlos Osorio a chance to state whether or not he thought Reyna playing in the match was risky or even acceptable. The news might have been met with snickers and objections, but not nearly the reaction elicited when Red Bulls fans had to find out after the fact that Reyna played the entire charity game.
That isn’t what happened though. Not only did Reyna not spread the word beforehand about his potential participation in the match, the Red Bulls had hardly any involvement in the charity event and sources tell me that the club scrambled to get involved in some capacity the day before the match.
Reyna discussed his participation after the match and pointed out that he was close to coming back to action with the Red Bulls, and that his participation in Wednesday’s match could only help his progress, but that explanation rang hollow coming after the event rather than before it.
What happens next? It is safe to say that if Reyna doesn’t play for the Red Bulls very soon there will be even more questions raised about him playing in Wednesday’s charity game and even more venom from Red Bulls fans who will have every right to feel slighted.