Ranking USA's 10 Greatest Central Defenders of All Time
Central defense is probably the most difficult position on the pitch to fill properly. As a result, the men who prove capable of playing central defense properly tend to do so for a long time.
So it is with the history of American soccer, where many of the names you will see listed in the next ten slides will be familiar to you. You will probably know these names because they are players who wore the stars and stripes for years on end.
The proper accord given to central defenders extends even to the way history records the position they play.
When you look up other field players, they get called things like "winger," "midfielder" and "forward." Little effort is made to say which side of the pitch they played on or whether they attacked or held in the midfield.
When you look up center-backs, though, you find that they are uniformly called just "defenders." Anyone brave enough to be the last line of defense before the goalkeeper probably deserves such a simple title.
Here are the 10 greatest central defenders in the history of United States soccer.
10. Oguchi Onyewu
Oguchi Onyewu is one of many veteran American soccer players who finds himself now in that transitional phase between the present and the past in United States soccer history.
Onyewu is not yet deemed "alumni" per a site like US Soccer Players, but his failure to make even the 30-man preliminary World Cup squad this year signaled an end of sorts.
So disappointed by Jurgen Klinsmann's choice to move on from him was Onyewu that he penned a first-person reflection for Sports Illustrated.
"I was gutted," wrote Onyewu. "The exact moment that you realize that it won’t come into fruition is kind of like thousands of tons just dropped on you and you don’t know how to react...I kind of found myself in a bad place for a little bit, but you pick your head up, you move on and you move forward."
Forward for Onyewu will now be seeking another contract from English championship side Sheffield Wednesday or elsewhere.
After 69 United States caps, Onyewu will have to be satisfied with an impressive international career and 10th place on this list.
9. Mike Burns
In terms of American soccer success stories, it does not get much more American than Mike Burns.
Burns grew up in Marlborough, Massachusetts, and was named the state's high school player of the year in 1987.
He earned 75 caps for the United States and made two World Cup teams (1994, 1998).
Burns was the first player in U.S. Soccer history to represent the United States at every level of FIFA-sanctioned tournaments: Under-16 World Cup (Canada 1987), Under-20 World Cup (Saudi Arabia 1989), Olympic Games (Barcelona 1992) and World Cup (United States 1994, France 1998).
Having played most of his MLS career with the Revolution, Burns is now the club's general manager.
8. Desmond Armstrong
Desmond Armstrong "had 81 caps for the senior national team, including appearances in the 1988 Summer Olympics and all three of the United States games in the 1990 FIFA World Cup," per Liam O'Connell of the Sporting Kansas City web site.
Armstrong was also inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2012.
A legend at the University of Maryland, Armstrong "was named to the All-ACC Second Team in 1983 and 1985 and was a First Team member in 1984. He recorded two goals and seven assists as a senior and finished his career in College Park with 24 goals and 18 assists in 78 games," per the University's web site.
Armstrong's University of Maryland bio also includes the note that he was the first American signed to play professionally in Brazil. He joined Santos FC, a club made famous around the world by Pele.
7. Thomas Dooley
Julian Green's German heritage, and his choice to eschew it to declare internationally for the United States, has been one of the big stories of this World Cup season.
Especially since Jurgen Klinsmann selected Green for the team over players like Landon Donovan.
Long before Green was even born, though, the United States was constantly looking for world-class players to wear the American kit. That they may have been born somewhere else did not much matter.
"The German-born Dooley acquired U.S. citizenship in 1992, and debuted for the national team in the spring of that year," notes John Bolster of MLSSoccer.com.
Dooley "played every minute of the 1994 World Cup, anchoring the spine of the U.S. team with his dogged ball-winning and organizational skills." He went on to captain the 1998 U.S. World Cup team and ultimately earned 81 U.S. caps.
6. Alexi Lalas
Of all the things you can say about Alexi Lalas, this one rings truest: He is awfully hard to miss.
As a player, Lalas ran around the pitch as though his hair was on fire. And with that shock of red hair on his head, sometimes it seemed like it really was.
"By the end of the World Cup in the summer of 1994, Lalas was one of the most recognizable soccer players in the world—the product of his play as much as his trademark wild red hair and Rasputin goatee," wrote Jorge Castillo for The Star-Ledger in 2012.
But it would be wildly unfair to suggest that Lalas was only a haircut, a goatee and an image. Though his prime was shorter than some other stars, Lalas earned 96 caps and was on the 1998 World Cup roster.
Lalas "has re-emerged as the prominent face in American soccer coverage in his role of ESPN studio analyst," Castillo continued. Indeed, Lalas' current television work allows him to serve as a bridge between U.S. Soccer's recent history and its promising future.
5. Paul Caligiuri
It feels unfair to reduce a player of Paul Caligiuri's stature to one moment in a stellar career. But sometimes the enormity of the moment makes such reduction inevitable.
"Caligiuri is probably best-known for the 'goal heard around the world,' the shot he took against Trinidad and Tobago that sent the U.S. to the 1990 World Cup for the first time in 40 years," notes Caligiuri's profile on US Soccer Players.
Caligiuri's magazine-cover good looks belied his toughness as a player. He did not earn 110 U.S. caps or play major roles on two World Cup sides for being handsome.
Calling him a "pioneer in the contemporary age of American soccer," as the above profile did, is not overstating things. Caligiuri's play and his media appeal helped pull soccer up from the back sports page in America in the 1990s.
4. Jeff Agoos
Jeff Agoos' place on this list was earned both by his terrific play and his sheer longevity.
Agoos' 134 caps are the most ever earned by a U.S. defender.
"His leadership and perseverance eventually earned him a spot on the U.S. roster for the 2002 FIFA World Cup, where he featured in all three group matches as the U.S. advanced to the tournament quarterfinals," noted U.S. Soccer's web site.
Agoos was elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2009.
3. Carlos Bocanegra
"After 110 caps, 14 goals and a solid-if-unheralded career captaining the United States national team, Carlos Bocanegra is no longer a contributing member of Jurgen Klinsmann’s side," wrote Nicholas Mendola recently for ProSoccerTalk.
Bocanegra was understandably philosophical and downcast about the apparent end of his international career in an interview with Ives Galarcep of Goal:
They stop calling you in and it comes to an end for everybody. That’s how I looked at it. I gave everything for that team and I feel like I can hold my head up high and be proud, and say, "You know what? I don’t have regrets." It was them who told me they’re not bringing me in anymore.
As Galarcep accurately noted, Bocanegra "went from regular starter to being completely out of the picture as Klinsmann transitioned quickly to the next generation of center backs in Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez."
Sounds like Landon Donovan has company in that regard.
2. Eddie Pope
Eddie Pope was never as famous as Alexi Lalas or Paul Caligiuri, but his inclusion on this list is not predicated on his ability to make the camera follow him around.
Per US Soccer Players, Pope "appeared in three different World Cups for the U.S., seeing time in nine different matches overall. His national team career spanned a total of nine years, in which there was never a time when he was not considered to be a first-choice center-back."
Pope was elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2011, having earned 82 caps.
Perhaps Pope's biggest honor came last year, when Pope was named to U.S. Soccer's All-Time Men’s National Team Best XI by "a committee of soccer historians and former players, coaches, media members and administrators at the National Team level," per the U.S. Soccer web site.
1. Marcelo Balboa
Marcelo Balboa received the most votes of any defender for U.S. Soccer's All-Time Men’s National Team Best XI.
Balboa "starred for the U.S. at the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, was part of the 1998 team and made 128 appearances in a 12-year national team career," per ESPN.com.
Quibble if you will that Balboa also played some left-back in his career. All that really means is that Balboa could basically do anything you asked him to do from a defensive standpoint. He could go forward, too.
“It used to be a defender only had to defend,” former U.S. teammate Hugo Perez told U.S. Soccer. “When Marcelo was with us on the ‘94 World Cup team, you didn’t see many defenders like him.”
Paul McLeod of the Los Angeles Times probably said it best back in 1991: "Were it not for the professional sport he chose to play, Marcelo Balboa might be a national hero."