The six Lombardi Trophies residing at Heinz Field had a visitor Tuesday, as the English Premier League trophy — complete with security detail — made the rounds from the field to the Steelers locker room in preparation for the International Champions Cup coming to Pittsburgh later this month.
Sky blue and white ribbons adorned the trophy, the colors of reigning champion Manchester City, which will take on AC Milan July 27 at Heinz Field as part of the stateside tournament for some of Europe’s top club teams.
Former Manchester City and U.S. national team player Claudio Reyna accompanied the trophy.
Reyna played for City from 2003-07 and the U.S. from 1994-2006. He played in the 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cups, serving as captain in his final two and leading the U.S. to the quarterfinals in 2002.
His job Tuesday was to give fans a preview of what they can expect if they come to Heinz Field to see his former team later this month.
“The teams are preparing for their seasons so there’s a competitive aspect to these games,” Reyna said. “The players want to win, they’re fighting for starting spots. It’s not just a walk-in-the-park type of game. You’re going to see a really high-level, high-tempo type of game.”
A Manchester City representative confirmed that all of the club’s players who aren’t still in the World Cup will make the trip to Pittsburgh. That means stars such as Ivory Coast midfielder Yaya Toure, England goalkeeper Joe Hart, Bosnia-Herzegovina striker Edin Dzeko and several other players who saw significant minutes at the World Cup will be on the field.
“I think there’s nothing like seeing high-level soccer live,” Reyna said. “When the fans turn out and watch Manchester City, the current Premier League champions, and AC Milan, a traditional powerhouse from Italy, you’re going to see world-class players, players [who] played in the World Cup. I think there’s an appreciation when you see it live, how difficult of a sport it is.”
Organizers have already sold approximately 30,000 tickets for the game at Heinz Field, and are optimistic that strong sales will continue in light of the World Cup’s popularity.
For Reyna, seeing the surge of American interest in soccer the past month also has been gratifying.
When he turned pro in 1994, there was no professional soccer league in the United States (Major League Soccer would play its inaugural season in 1996) so he had to go play in Europe, where he faced plenty of negative stereotypes about American soccer.
Those days are long gone as Reyna, now director of football operations for future MLS team New York City FC, often fields interest from top European teams about young American players.
“[The U.S.] Under-17 team has seven players that are at big European clubs,” he said. “I think the days of not respecting us or taking us seriously are long gone.
“You could see in this World Cup, the positive reactions to the U.S. team’s performance around the world was something that I think was refreshing.”
Reyna also was very positive about the U.S. performance at this World Cup, specifically getting out of the so-called “Group of Death” with Germany, Portugal and Ghana. He acknowledged that there’s still a gap between the U.S. and elite teams still playing in the World Cup semifinals. Specifically, the technical ball skills of elite American players needs to improve.
Reyna, though, thinks the future is bright for MLS, the U.S. national team and American soccer culture as a whole.
“As Americans, we like being the best and that’s what I think has helped the U.S. team,” he said. “We believe that we can continue to grow, so I think really the most important thing is a continued investment in the development of players. Better coaches, better environments for kids to develop and making sure that the pathways for players from when they’re 7 to when they’re pro is very clear, and just get the best possible support to become better players. I think we’re going in that direction. … Certainly everything is in line to continue this growth.”
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.