FIFA World Cup: The US Men's National Team's 10 Most Impactful Players of All Time
Lists are a popular trend in sports.
Whether meaningful or meaningless, lists are good. They force fans to think, to choose sides. Either you agree with the list and the order or you don't.
Lists aren't about being right. They're about creating a topic for conversation.
So here's the topic: Which U.S. players have had the biggest impact on American soccer?
Maybe it came through one big game, a great run of form, or through career achievements, but by whatever means, these players have left an indelible impression on America's soccer psyche.
This is a list of 10, so it is by no means complete...that's why a U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame was created. Soccer is a team sport, and American soccer is what it is today because of the efforts of a large group, not 10 individuals.
What follows are 10 athletes whose contributions to American soccer are a step above most.
A couple of caveats: The list is based on the "Rebirth of American Soccer," which began in 1990, when the U.S. Soccer got organized in a big way, sponsoring players, setting up a plan for the '94 World Cup, and setting long-term goals (say for 2010).
It is a list based on the accomplishments of players as of today. This list will change between now and the end of the World Cup, not to mention by the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. It's more of an assessment of where the U.S. stood right before the 2010 World Cup.
Already players like Oguchi Onyewu (by playing for free at AC Milan next year) are making a huge impact. Even though he's barely missed the cut this time, he may find his way on the list in the near future.
Other honorable mentions include: Frankie Hejduk, Freddy Adu (for the hype), Paul Caligiuri, Michael Bradley, Bob Bradley, Carlos Bocanegra, Tab Ramos, Preki, Alexi Lalas, Marcelo Balboa, Earnie Stewart, and Cobi Jones. Clearly, there are too many names to list them all here.
Finally, the players were rated in how their accomplishments reflect the MNT. Club successes were considered, but only on how it affected the reputation of the player in relation to being an American or the national team.
If a player is a top-10 all-time scorer for in the New Zealand Premier League but only had one cap for the national team, his accomplishments have few repercussions for America or its team and the player was less likely to have an overall national impact.
The players are in order of their success; the greater the impact, the lower the number.
10. Bruce Arena
Even though Bruce Arena didn't make a name for himself playing soccer, he did earn a cap in 1973 as a second-half substitute in a 2-0 losing effort against Israel.
But it was through coaching that Arena made a lasting impression.
After a disastrous 1998 World Cup campaign, the U.S. appointed Arena head coach. The core of the team was in shambles as the international careers of a number of major contributors were all but over, including Marcelo Balboa, Alexi Lalas, Preki, John Harkes, Eric Wynalda, Tab Ramos, and Thomas Dooley.
He started by bringing a completely new personality to the team. Part of it came from the youth he infused to the roster by including youngsters like Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, all the while cultivating the careers of Brian McBride and Clint Mathis.
But it wasn't just inherent ability Arena admired. He recognized the importance of technical ability and intelligent play.
His defenders eschewed the recklessness of their predecessors in favor of organization and group defense (a trait that can still be found in the current team). And he understood the importance of a strong central midfield that was anchored by Claudio Reyna.
A major aspect of his team's success came from their ability to strike quickly and effectively on the counter attack.
His efforts paid off. Arena became the most successful USMNT coach (only recently surpassed by Bob Bradley), his team made its most successful World Cup run since the 1930s, making it all the way to the quarterfinals, and the U.S. team held its highest world ranking ever (fourth) under his charge.
These accomplishments attest to the impact Arena had on American soccer. But his leadership and his teams do so much more for American soccer.
They showed the world that the early glimpses of American talent and neglect weren't flukes.
He stabilized a soccer federation that could have easily collapsed under the failures of 1998, and his preferred style of play—where his players were expected to rely on their technical ability and team play rather than athleticism and individual efforts alone—changed the entire course of American soccer.
Unfortunately, Arena could not sustain that level of success. The world became accustomed to his default tactics—strong defense/quick counter—and his contract was not renewed after a disappointing 2006 World Cup.
Still, his successor, Bob Bradley, exhibits many of Arena's traits (he was his assistant after all), and there's a good chance his fingerprints will always remain on the U.S. soccer program.
9. Kasey Keller
If you ask a Brazilian which goalkeeper impressed him the most in international play, there's a good chance American Kasey Keller's name might be the first out of his lips.
His 1-0 shutout against Brazil in the 1998 Gold Cup would be more than enough of a reason to include him in this list, but Keller has had a long career of accomplishments.
He is one of two players to play in four World Cups, and he was the first American goalkeeper to be a starter in both the English Premier League and the German Bundesliga.
Keller was the goalkeeper that started the tradition of excellent American netminders. He did so by proving himself all over Europe, including with Totteham, Fulham, and Borussia Monchengladbach, among other clubs.
This success along with his international performances garnered him a level of respect and fame that few American players had received up until that time.
Keller displayed a rare combination of reflexes and intelligence that gave any U.S. team a chance in a game (as demonstrated against Brazil). Also, his lengthy career (a national team regular from 1990 to 2007) afforded the team a consistency and comfort necessary to compete and evolve.
Sadly, Keller's skills diminished rapidly toward the end of his international career, and that is why he is not higher on this list.
Still, he's found a semblance of his original form while playing for the MLS' Seattle Sounders as he looks to finish out his career close to where it began, at the University of Portland.
8. Clint Mathis
Before Clint Dempsey, there may not have been a more explosive U.S. player than Clint Mathis.
Mathis was almost a complete unknown going into the 2002 World Cup, but a distinctive Mohawk along with electrifying performances changed things immediately.
Mathis scored in the United States' second game against South Korea. His efforts earned the team a tie and advancement past he group stage.
But it was his overall offensive abilities that separated him from all that came before. Mathis could dribble, pass, and shoot. He was one of the most offensively well-rounded players the United States has seen. Whenever he received the ball in the final third, he was a threat against any opponent.
He had a brashness American fans could admire (even though it arguably ruined his career), and the only thing that slowed his output was multiple knee injuries that he began to suffer starting in 2002.
The injuries caught up with him, and eventually Mathis became a shell of his former self. He adapted to his new role and limitations, but he was never again the offensive force that left an impression on teammates, fans, and opponents alike.
7. Clint Dempsey
Few knew in 2004 that fringe player Clint Dempsey would become arguably the most technically and creatively talented athlete to ever wear the U.S. uniform.
What most saw was a gritty, tough, "I'm going to earn it through effort" individual trying to prove himself to his manager.
But ever since earning a spot with the senior team six long years ago, Dempsey has developed his game with each new challenge.
Wherever Dempsey goes (currently it's Fulham in the English Premier League), he proves his worth. He was responsible for saving the side from relegation in 2007, and this year's decisive goal against Juventus in the Europa League has etched him in the hearts of fans.
His performances during the 2009 Confederations Cup (three goals in five games) established Dempsey as an impressive and stylish finisher. His performance left American fans salivating for more and wondering where his ceiling is.
Dempsey's skills on the ball and his ability to find the net make him one of the most influential players to ever play for the United States, and his biggest opportunity to date hasn't even happened yet.
South Africa will be important for his legacy. He must quell his critics. There are claims that he is moody and selfish, and there has been evidence that he's sacrificed some grittiness and defense in order to be more of an offensive force.
Nevertheless, there's interest from the top clubs in Europe, so this summer means everything to him. Only time will tell if Dempsey moves up on this list or if he is a player fans will talk about for his amazing potential that was never truly fulfilled.
6. Tim Howard
Some may find it surprising that Tim Howard is only sixth on this list considering he's garnered about as many award as an American soccer player can accrue (including the shutout record for his club team as well as earning the title of U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year in 2008).
But it's not the awards that have left an indelible mark on American soccer. It was his ability to earn a starting role on one of the elite clubs in all of the world, the first for any U.S. soccer player.
Yes, there have been other Americans to earn a contract with a cream-of-the-crop soccer franchise in Manchester United, but Howard was the first to deserve a starting position against the steepest competition in all of the world.
He not only did it once; he did it twice after he lost the job. Lesser athletes would have crumbled under the struggles and pressure.
Howard is arguably the most talented goalkeeper to ever play for the United States, and that's saying a tremendous amount once one considers the athletes that have been between the posts for the red, white, and blue. He regularly makes saves no viewers expect a goalie to make.
His athleticism is only rivaled by his intensity, and every time he's involved in a match, an impression isn't just made on the fan—it's pressed upon his teammates and opposition.
At the ripe old age of 31, he's just now in his prime as a goalkeeper, and if his past is any indication of his future, fans can only expect his impact, importance, and legacy to grow during the coming years.
5. Brad Friedel
The only thing that separates Tim Howard from Brad Friedel is time. Friedel's been keeping the ball out of the net for almost 10 years in one of the most competitive leagues.
At 39, it's a remarkable feat only matched by the best keepers in the world. Interestingly, he's been doing it for so long, Friedel sometimes speaks with an English accent even though he's from Ohio.
2002 was the year Friedel etched a place in U.S. soccer history. At the World Cup, Friedel was an integral part of the team's memorable quarterfinal run. His most remarkable accomplishment was saving two penalty kicks during regular play. It's an act that will never be forgotten.
He is also the third most capped goalkeeper for the U.S., and he currently holds the record for most consecutive games played in the English Premier League.
Friedel has had such an accomplished career that there were calls for him to come out of retirement and reprise his role as keeper (behind Howard, most likely) for this summer's World Cup...that's how to leave a mark on the American game.
4. Eric Wynalda and John Harkes
Maybe it's cheating to include two players under one number, but how can these two be separated?
Through both good and bad, Wynalda and Harkes were integral to moving U.S. soccer beyond amateur status and onto a professional level, and they were the faces (for reasons beyond their abilities) for most of the '90s.
Wynalda was the typical temperamental forward. He owns the dubious record for being the first American player to be dismissed from a World Cup game.
His attitude was only challenged by his ability to score. At one time, he owned the record as the top goal scorer for the United States.
In 1994, he scored against Switzerland in group play, which alleviated worries as to whether or not the United States would even put the ball in the net while hosting the tournament.
Along with scoring, Wynalda proved the value of supporting the development of players most likely to play for the national team as he was sponsored while training before a domestic league was re-established in the United States.
His successes laid the groundwork for a lasting U.S. National team program.
Harkes did just as much to put America on the soccer map. He was the first American to play in the English Premier League. He played midfield for the team from 1987 until 1998, earning co-MVP honors at the Copa America that year and leading the team in assists during the qualification process for the 1998 World Cup.
His performances earned him the label "Captain for Life" by former U.S. national team coach Steve Sampson, and only an off-field incident with Wynalda and his wife ended his international career to the dismay of U.S. supporters.
In the end, for two players that spent so much time playing for the United States together, it's only fitting that these players be remembered as much for their on-field exploits as for what transpired off of it between them.
3. Brian McBride
How does a forward that never broke the record for most international goals for his country make it into the top three on the list of American players that had the greatest impact?
For one, McBride is the only American to score in more than one World Cup. He also scored goals in two of the most important games in U.S. history, helping to beat Portugal before scoring the winning goal against Mexico in the 2002 World Cup.
Add to that his reputation for being a tough competitor—the most memorable example is his bloodied face against Italy at the 2006 World Cup—and McBride exemplifies the qualities many soccer fans appreciate.
The English fans of Everton and Fulham appreciate McBride almost as much as U.S. fans do. He had lengthy stints with both clubs, and his performances helped to pave the way for future Americans that dreamed of playing in the EPL.
McBride proved to European managers and owners that American players were undervalued—that the right player could be bought at the right place and outperform all expectations.
He scored 30 goals for his country. It may not be the record, but the way he scored, the timing of the goals, and his legacy make him one of the most important athletes to ever play for the United States.
2. Claudio Reyna
There's little that Claudio Reyna didn't accomplish during his playing career.
He was the first American to captain a European team. He's one of only two Americans to play in four World Cups and be named to the World Cup's all-tournament team.
Like McBride, Reyna established himself overseas, and this added to his reputation. Eventually he came to captain the men's national team and was a mainstay until his retirement after the 2006 World Cup.
Reyna overcame one of the most difficult challenges any athlete faces: time.
Early in his career, Reyna was the focal point for creativity and offense, but as he aged he adapted his game to his changing skill set, evolving into a more defensive player.
By the end of Reyna's career, he had overcome numerous injuries, the challenges of an aging player, and the struggles of an American trying to ply his trade overseas, all the while passing the century mark for his country.
He's remembered as one of the most impressive players to wear the U.S. jersey, and at times he was the most talented player on the field for either team, an accomplishment few Americans can claim.
Presently, Reyna hopes to impress upon the youth of this country his experiences and knowledge as a youth technical director.
1. Landon Donovan
There hasn't been a player more integral to the spread of American soccer than Landon Donovan.
Part of the U.S. resurgence after the failures of 1998, Donovan joined the national team in 2000 and was integral to the 2002 U.S. World Cup run.
He scored on his senior team debut, and it started him on the path to become the all-time leading goal scorer for his country.
Firsts are a major part of Donovan's career. He was chosen as part of the original class to join the residency program in Bradenton, Fla. He's also the all-time assists leader for the MNT. He's reached 100 caps and has the most of any active U.S. player.
Most importantly, Donovan overcame his club struggles (his failures in Germany) to silence his detractors and establish himself as a valuable player, not just for his country but for any team in any league.
This accomplishment allows Donovan to be the spokesperson for American soccer—a role he's embraced through commercials, press conferences, and endorsements.
At the same time, Donovan has come to embody the "American" player. He's athletic, fast, technically skilled, and plays toward his strengths. During a game, he's as likely to make a slicing pass as he is to make a decisive run into space.
A number of up-and-coming players come from Donovan's mold, including Stuart Holden, to some extent Benny Feilhaber, and even Michael Bradley.
For years to come, when managers and fans think of the prototypical American, they'll be referencing Landon Donovan.