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