Posted December 19, 2013

Our Picks: U.S. men’s national team All-Time Best XI

Avi Creditor, Brian Straus, Landon Donovan, U.S. men's national team, U.S. Soccer
Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna

Brian McBride and Claudio Reyna are two potential members of U.S. Soccer’s All-Time Best XI, which will be released Friday. (Yonhap, Jin Sung-chul/AP)

Let the debate and conversation commence.

In wrapping up its centennial year, U.S. Soccer will be releasing its all-time Best XI for the men’s national team on Friday. Surely some deserving and worthy candidates will be left out of the team, as voters (select former players, coaches, administrators and media) go through the history books and try to determine which U.S. standouts, both past and present, deserve to make the cut.

U.S. Soccer’s criteria for voters entailed: Being a starter or key contributor to overall success on the field, especially in World Cups; having longevity, and judging overall performance and talent on the field with the USMNT; overall impact on the legacy of the USMNT program.

So with that in mind, here are SI.com’s Avi Creditor and Brian Straus’ picks from U.S. Soccer’s list of eligible players for their All-Time USMNT Best XI teams and some brief thoughts on the selections:

BRIAN’S PICKS

GOALKEEPER

For nearly a quarter century, the U.S. has been able to rely on a world-class goalkeeper. How many other nations have enjoyed that luxury? You can’t go wrong with Tony Meola, Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel or Tim Howard.

But since there can be only one, I’ll pick Keller. He made four World Cup squads, started in two, and is the national team’s all-time leader in caps (for a goalie), wins and shutouts.

DEFENDERS

It’s pretty easy to narrow the back four down to seven or eight candidates, but tough to make the final call. Steve Cherundolo is the selection at right back. He started at the ’06 and ’10 World Cups and is a rock solid defender who can contribute to the attack. His value certainly was illustrated after his injury during the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup final.

In the middle, Eddie Pope is an easy choice – he could be both physically domineering and graceful and even had a bit of a nose for goal. Alongside him we’ll go with Marcelo Balboa, who offered range and durability and, once in a while, a spectacular bicycle kick.

It’s tempting to go with the inspiring Frankie Hejduk at left back, but he’s edged out by 2010 World Cup captain Carlos Bocanegra, who almost always could be counted on to make a play. Bocanegra spent plenty of time in the middle as well and earns points for his versatility.

Hejduk is joined on the bench by Alexi Lalas, Jeff Agoos, Thomas Dooley and Paul Caligiuri.

MIDFIELDERS

The U.S. has played in a 4-4-2 for much of the modern era, so my midfield will have four players.

Claudio Reyna is the perfect metronome. The 2002 World Cup all-star and three-time World Cup veteran will link the defenders with the attack and establish the rhythm. Behind Reyna, there’s no better choice to blunt opposition forays and move the ball to the right teammate than Michael Bradley. He’s still far from finished at 26 but already should be considered the best defensive midfielder in national team history.

On the right, there’s Landon Donovan, counterattacker extraordinaire and the leading scorer in U.S. history. The left side is a tougher call. Cobi Jones remains the all-time caps leader and gave everything when he was on the field, but he’s edged out by Tab Ramos, who may have been the single most skillful player to ever wear a U.S. shirt.

Bradley and Bocanegra will be trusted to adapt if Ramos drifts inside.

In reserve, the all-time team will have Jones, John Harkes, Earnie Stewart and DaMarcus Beasley.

FORWARDS

Brian McBride is the program’s preeminent target forward. He had 30 goals in 96 internationals and almost as many black eyes. Fearless and clinical, he’ll lead the line. It’s a tough call for the second spot, but Clint Dempsey is the choice. He’s just a bit more dynamic than Eric Wynalda and is scoring at a slightly faster rate.

Wynalda is the first choice off the bench. Alongside him sits Joe Gaetjens. He may have played for the U.S. only three times, but what an impact he made.

Landon Donovan

Landon Donovan’s iconic goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup is just one of the reasons for his inclusion on our U.S. All-Time Best XI team. (Elise Amendola/AP)

AVI’S PICKS

GOALKEEPER

Man, there are some tough choices to make here. Keller, Meola, Friedel and Howard are all defensible selections. All were parts of multiple World Cups and all are/were athletic, difference-making leaders between the posts during their time as starters. Keller (for the time being) has the all-time lead in wins (53, one more than Howard) and clean sheets (47), and he also had The Brazil Game, which will be on U.S. highlight reels forever. Simply put, there isn’t a wrong answer among the four obvious final candidates.

DEFENDERS

It’s tough to omit the likes of Bocanegra, Cherundolo, Agoos, Dooley and Lalas, but the foursome chosen represents a strong selection on a few different levels. U.S. Soccer would be nowhere without Caligiuri’s program-changing goal against Trinidad & Tobago in 1989, and while that’s what he’s most known for, he also played in two World Cups and amassed 110 caps. Pope and Balboa each made three World Cup teams and edge out the competition at center back for their ability to dominate over a long time span. At right back, Hejduk narrowly edges out the under-appreciated Cherundolo, who may yet compete in his fourth World Cup if he can return to form and fitness in the coming months.

MIDFIELDERS

This was the most clear-cut grouping in my opinion, though cases can be made for John Harkes and especially the uber-talented Tab Ramos. Clint Dempsey is certainly on the brink as well, but it’s incredibly tough to have this Best XI and not include the all-time leading scorer (Donovan), all-time leading cap-winner (Jones), top U.S. performer ever in a World Cup (Reyna, 2002) and player who may very well become the best of the bunch when all is said and done (Bradley).

If there’s a knock on including Bradley, who has only played in one World Cup so far, it’s that he doesn’t have the vast experience on the grandest stage and that his place is more based on his ability and potential than it is accomplishments, but that is a mere technicality (and plus, the whole point of this is to be subjective, right?). At just 26, Bradley could very well feature in Brazil, Russia and Qatar going forward and has already cemented his place as an all-timer.

FORWARDS

McBride (30 goals) and Wynalda (34) stand out above the rest of the field, in my opinion. Dempsey being listed as a midfielder takes him out of consideration here (if we’re playing by the rules and sticking with a 4-4-2, which I elected to do), and McBride and Wynalda were vital cogs in the beginning of the new-era U.S. men’s national team, each playing in three World Cups and planting the seeds for all attackers that came after them.

Since they’ve finished playing, they’ve both been passed on the goals list by Donovan and Dempsey, and Wynalda may have altered his reputation with his confrontational, outspoken post-playing persona, but both players’ on-field exploits speak for themselves. That’s to say nothing disparaging about Dempsey’s career, which could wind up supplanting both McBride’s and Wynalda’s in the annals of U.S. Soccer when his playing days are over.

15 comments
JuanPeinado
JuanPeinado

Donovan      McBride


Earnie Stewart  (Ramos is massively overrated)   Bradley      Reina      Dempsey (how can anyone leave him off? Ridiculous)


Hejduk         Bocanegra  (Balboa?  Really?)       Pope        Cherundolo


Friedel (because of  what he did at WC 2002, he was out of his mind, including 2 stopped PKs)

dannycummins
dannycummins

Clint Mathis, flawed as he and his career unfortunately were, was a dangerous consideration for any defense he faced. I think U.S. fans rarely see the type of world-class quality, from the guys mentioned here, that Mathis showed at his best.   

JoieMcCaw
JoieMcCaw

can't leave tab off the list, avi.

eliar3
eliar3

Cobi Jones belongs.  Ramos literally took one for the team (Brazil lost some respect from me when Leonardo did that).  Beasley may yet surprise and make a case.  Bradley is not there...yet.  Neither is Deuce (although Brazil14 could certainly place him there).  It is nice to be at a point when a decent player or two is debated, but there are maybe 3-4 guys of this XI who would maybe be included as discussion topics throughout Intl teams (Landon, Reyna, and Keller).  And there's something missing with Dooley - the guy was the anchor who supported many others as the team emerged on the world stage.  No mention of Hugo Perez (80s) or even one of the men who stunned England out of Blue in 1950 is a little shortsighted, but I'm a history major so I appreciate the past, even when the US was just plain awful.

stancollins
stancollins

My choices are pretty close to Strauss except I have Dooley instead of Balboa (thought about Balboa though), and O'Brien where he has Boca.  But I would play it in the 4-2-3-1 we usually use these days, rotating Ramos into the ACM, where he's more comfortable, Donovan to the left, Dempsey to the right, and having Bradley and Reyna as twin holders.

Brant
Brant

I think the fact that our player pool is finally deep enough to have discussions at every position is kinda nice for a change

be3825
be3825

The fact that both of you have Jeff Agoos on your list of "reserves" just about invalidates your input and perspective. He was a dreadful player and the only reason he ever existed as part of the team was b/c of his history w/ Arena going back to his UVA days.

DanielClifton
DanielClifton

I would have to have Tab Ramos in the starting 11 under any circumstances.  At times in the 90's he was clearly the most accomplished US player.  Up top I believe Clint Dempsey is the choice over Eric Wynalda, although that is a tough one; Dempsey isn't exactly a withdrawn forward.  The toughest position to fill I believe is left back.  Putting Carlos Bocanegra in that position I believe is a cop out.  He hasn't played that position enough to warrant being placed at left back on the all 11 team.  I really am not sure who should be put in that position, maybe Paul Caliguiri is the best choice.  Has everyone forgotten David Regis?  I believe at right back Steve Cherundolo is the choice over Frankie Hedjuk, although that is a close choice.  Eddie Pope and Marcelo Balboa in the middle makes total sense to me.  In the midfield beyond Ramos, the other three are pretty easy, Claudio Reyna, Landon Donovan, and Michael Bradley.  For The target forward, Brian McBride, is the only choice.  I believe Kasey Keller is the best choice for goalkeeper over a career.  However, Brad Friedel was at the top of his game for the 2002 World Cup.  Thomas Dooley should be one of the first off the bench.  Alexei Lalas, Cobi Jones, and John Harkes should be reserves.  Who can forget Steve Sampson cutting John Harkes just before the 1998 World Cup, gutting the team at an emotional level.  I have never heard or read any remarks by Harkes about that incredibly unfair (in my opinion) decision.

papisimo98
papisimo98

I'd like to second your opinion concerning this list by noting that Tony "near post" Meola is on BOTH lists. This defies logic.

He was also juiced in from UVA.

Keller(who was starting in England for a good team) was sitting on the USA bench behind Meola. Talk about politics.

Friedal and Howard are way superior to Meola.

stancollins
stancollins

@be3825 But that's how bad our left back situation is.  Your choice is between someone pretty mediocre and someone (such as Boca, for the record I'd have John O'Brien there) out of position.

Ryan19
Ryan19

@papisimo98 I'd put Guzan on my list before Meola.  Tony was barely better than mediocre.