U.S. Soccer picked great players for its all-time best, but it left off several historical legends worthy of inclusion, writes Phil Schoen.
By Phil Schoen (@PhilSchoen)
As part of its centennial celebrations, the U.S. Soccer Federation conducted a poll to determine the best players who ever suited up for the red, white and blue. The result was a star-studded collection that is worthy of honor—but it falls short of the stated goal.
Brad Friedel was the top vote-getter at the goalkeeping position, with a back line of Steve Cherundolo, Eddie Pope, Marcelo Balboa and Carlos Bocanegra. The midfield consists of Claudio Reyna, Tab Ramos, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, while Brian McBride and Eric Wynalda were the voters' choices at the forward position.
These are all great players who achieved much during their time on the national team. However, the list only covers the final quarter of the federation's century of existence. What of the first 75 years? Rather than celebrating the federation's centenary, it seems to show how shallow the roots really are.
If Italy were selecting an all-time Azzurri, would Facchetti or Maldini be so easily dismissed? Would Beckenbauer still be an automatic for Germany? Even though they played before the days of color television, would Di Stefano and Puskas get more respect from Real Madrid?
Switching sports, in these days of LeBron and Kobe, is there still room for Magic, Bird or Wilt? How valid would an all-time baseball team be if they ignored Ruth and Aaron?
The results suggest that the people in charge of soccer in this country—and especially those who have been given the responsibility to report on it—have no depth of knowledge of the history of soccer in this country. That is understandable when the sport's hall of fame has been shuttered and shunted into an obscure warehouse in North Carolina. The federation is the guardian of its past, and it seems to have abdicated its responsibility.
What's to say Claudio Reyna would have been viewed so favorably if he had to bow out of World Cups because he could not afford the Depression-era financial hit, as Archie Stark had to do in 1930? Would Landon Donovan even be up for consideration as the best player in U.S. history if he spent his prime years in the uniform of the U.S. Navy rather than the national team, as John Souza did?
Soccer's past is dominated by two World Wars and a global depression, while today's stars benefit from vast improvements in transportation and communication. In 2013, the U.S. men played 23 games en route to qualifying for the upcoming World Cup, with every kick viewed on television and instantly analyzed on Twitter. That is the same number of matches the team played in virtual obscurity from the foundation of the Federation in 1913 until 1937. What is commonplace today took nearly a quarter-century to accomplish in the early days of the federation!
The Bora Milutinovic era is the most obvious example of this dichotomy. Six of the 11 players honored on the All-Time Best XI benefited from playing under Bora at one point in their career. In his four years in charge, the U.S. played 96 matches—more games than the U.S. played between the 1950 World Cup and the nation's bicentennial in 1976!
How many forgotten players of the past would be considered worthy if the federation gave them the same opportunity as today's stars? Advancements in modern technology and a different world climate have given today's soccer stars a leg up on players who should be legends.
There is an assumption that by virtue of athletic advancements, today's players would be superior to those from past eras. It is more likely the stars of the past would have been even more successful if they had the benefits of today's modern training. They were successful for a reason.
See, soccer has deep, yet hidden roots in the United States. There was a time in the 1920s and ’30s that soccer challenged baseball and college football as an American pastime. The first soccer-specific stadiums did not arrive with Major League Soccer. Rather they were located near one-time hotbeds of Fall River, Mass., and Bethlehem, Pa.
Who are these forgotten legends?
There's Billy Gonsalves, who was so good that Brazil's Botafogo tried to sign him after the inaugural World Cup in 1930, as did many Italian teams following the 1934 World Cup. It was there that he set up all four of Buff Donelli's goals in a 4-2 win over Mexico. Many experts at the time said Gonsalves was the most talented player they had ever seen, a description that has likely never been used on any other American field player.
In 1930, Gonsalves's front-line mate was fellow New Englander Bert Patenaude, who scored the first hat trick in World Cup history. In fact, Patenaude was the all-time World Cup scoring leader for the U.S. until Donovan finally surpassed him in 2010.
Then there is Archie Stark, who could not afford to take the time away from his new garage to play in the World Cup. Stark was arguably better than all of them, voted as the best American of the first half of the last century. He finally received some deserved acclaim when Lionel Messi surpassed the 70-goal mark he set in just 46 games for Bethlehem Steel back in 1924, a year before he set a U.S. record by scoring four goals in a 6-1 pounding of Canada, an accomplishment that has still not been beaten.
In 1950, John Souza became the first American selected for a World Cup all-star team, and was the only American so honored until Claudio Reyna joined him in 2002. Souza's teammates Harry Keough and Walt Bahr also deserve recognition for their accomplishments with the national team.
There is the American face of soccer during the heydays of the NASL, Rick Davis, who shined on the legendary Cosmos. While it was hard to get the spotlight away from the likes of Beckenbauer, Chinaglia and Bogicevic—it was even harder to lead the U.S. to World Cup glory when there were only 24 tickets to the dance, rather than today's 32. Remember, CONCACAF was limited to only one berth until Spain ’82, and just two until France ’98. Would any of these modern U.S. stars seem as bright without seven straight World Cup appearances to hang their hats on?
This is not to say that yesterday's forgotten heroes are necessarily better than today's stars. However, their performances in their respective eras deserve more respect for an honor that supposedly encompasses the entire history of the federation. If U.S. Soccer's goal with this poll was to honor its history, perhaps it should acknowledge and promote the fact that it has one, a deep one of which American soccer fans should be proud.