The 10 greatest players in U.S. men’s national team history, if we define “greatness” properly

U.S. Soccer’s most important summer in recent memory came to a somewhat surprising end as the American men were bounced from the Gold Cup by the MLS All-Star Team Jamaican national team. While the nation’s fans are somewhere between “anger” and “bargaining” in the Five Stages of Grief, it’s the perfect time to strike with some hot 🔥 AmSo™ content.

The Guardian has done an absolutely wonderful and delightfully evil thing. While American soccer emotions are still on full boil and we join together to paddle through a sea of “What if?” blogs and social media posts, The Guardian decided to drop a list that is sure to make you think one of two things:

  1. The current U.S. men’s national team players are weak.
  2. The players on the U.S. men’s national team have always been weak.

God bless ’em. This is the sort of well-placed firebomb that is perfectly designed for the internet.

As much as I love what The Guardian has unleashed, I do have some issues with the actual rankings. Naming Landon Donovan as the greatest player in U.S. men’s national team history is a sure sign that our national priorities are askew.

In an effort to steer the land of the free into the light, I humbly offer my own list of the American elite. The small batch of players who have walked through those amber waves of grain and emerged as legends.

1. Eddie Johnson

Athletes are generally boring. American athletes are trained to be especially boring. American soccer players are exceptional in their ability to be as safe and palatable to the minivan masses as possible. Not Eddie Johnson. The “Grown-Ass Man” was always willing to make — or was incapable of avoiding — public mistakes in the name of honesty. During his too-short career, Johnson couldn’t help but to be himself, regardless of perception. For better or worse, he put his personality on display. Here’s Johnson talking about playing soccer as Eddie Johnson in America.

“Let’s be honest: In America, soccer is not an inner-city sport. The average kid that plays this sport lives in the suburbs and their parents are well off. Sometimes when I come through these challenging situations in my life and dealing with being a professional athlete, [the Seahawks players] are the guys who I click or vibe with more, and they understand me. I have similarities to those guys. Those are the guys that I seek knowledge or information from.”

The personal and professional journey of Eddie Johnson deserves its own series of sprawling essays and 30 For 30 style documentaries because his is a story that American soccer is still unfamiliar with and in many ways is uncomfortable hearing. Fortunately, we have the above MLS Insider segment and one of the best interviews ever conducted with a U.S. player to help us appreciate his place in the landscape.

“I think that the guys who had the same upbringing as I had, we’ve been taught a certain way how to defend ourselves because of the neighborhood we grew up in. And sometimes our emotions on the field get misperceived or our behavior has been misperceived, and it becomes an issue. But in other sports, being a winner and being emotional, it doesn’t get misinterpreted. But in soccer, you have guys like me who come from the inner city, and that’s something that’s new to a suburban sport. People aren’t so sure, or they don’t want to take a chance on a person.”

2. Clint Dempsey

The Dempsey vs. Donovan debate is America’s Lampard vs. Gerrard, in that it has gone on forever, and everyone gets the answer wrong. Nevermind Dempsey’s obvious on-field superiority to Donovan. Ask yourself these tough questions:

  • Can Landon Donovan rap?
  • Is there any chance that Landon Donovan has ever begun an interview by saying “What it do?”
  • Has Landon Donovan ever responded to overzealous calls for his suspension by going on one of the best scoring binges in years?

No. He hasn’t.

Much of what makes Eddie Johnson so important is true of Clint Dempsey as well. He is his own man and arrives to American fans in unfamiliar packaging. There’s no doubt that Dempsey’s “edge” is what has wrongly made him the secondary figure to Donovan.

Is any other american player shouting out Trae Tha Truth on his album release date? Don’t think so. But Dempsey did.

If you still doubt that Johnson and Dempsey are the greatest players in American history, just watch this video of them going to check out a BBQ spot in Cary, N.C.

That video contains, without question, the greatest moment in U.S. Soccer history. When asked what makes good BBQ, Eddie Johnson looked at Clint Dempsey, replied “a yard full of colored people” and they both laughed. I cry every time I see this. 🇺🇸

3. Brian McBride

(Mute this, because the music is awful)

Brian McBride is more symbol than man at this point. The image of his bloody, post-headbutt World Cup face will eventually be on the $20 bill, assuming America someday becomes a footballing nation and changes its national motto to “Blood n’ Gutz.”

National team heroics aside, McBride is also on this list for being the godfather of the Fulhamerica movement. For a few years, Fulham was to American soccer what the the Diplomats were to New York Hip-Hop — a sign that the future was bright locally and our influence would spread globally. Brian McBride was our Cam’Ron.

4. Eddie Pope

I was once in the same room as Eddie Pope, enjoying free shrimp and overlooking Macklemore’s 2013 MLS All-Star concert performance in Kansas City. Though he’s one of my favorite players of all time, I chose not to say hello to him, because even in a civilian space like that, Eddie Pope did not smile once. I knew there was a chance that he’d decide to tackle me by the buffet line and send me through the fancy cheeses as if I were breaking in on his goal.

For inspiring that kind of fear as a defender, Eddie Pope is a Top 5 American in any context. If he ever sees this and is unhappy with his ranking, please tell him that I apologize and will have this edited immediately.

5. DaMarcus Beasley

As I’ve said before, “How many people do you know have captained their national team AND have their own jewelry line? None! The answer is none.”

6. Landon Donovan

Yes, Landon Donovan has scored an obscene amount of goals for both club and country. But that is not his greatest contribution to American soccer. Landon Donovan should be remembered for bringing “fed up” to previously unseen levels in sports. This man was so sick of dealing with the bullshit that’s necessary to maintain a high-level athletic career that he took off to Cambodia for a few months. Cambodia.

With that move, he sacrificed his already shaky standing with Jurgen Klinsmann and got us all to reevaluate the way we framed his career and how we look at our sporting heroes and sport, generally. Getting sports fans to have conversations that change people’s perspective on quality of life and priorities is no easy trick. But Landon did it.

7. Oguchi Onyewu

Pioneer of the American soccer thirst trap. Winner of a fight with Zlatan Ibrahimović. Punker of Jared Borgetti. Nothing else needs to be said.

8. Eric Wynalda

Eric Wynalda is a spectacularly reckless human being. Even if you think he’s insane or doesn’t actually believe half of the things he says on television, you have to respect his willingness to rattle MLS and U.S. Soccer’s cage. American soccer spends too much time up in the protective space of its own ass, and everything about “the establishment” seems to make Wynalda sick. He often doesn’t make much sense, and we laugh at him as much as we do with him, but he’s an absolutely necessary agent of chaos thrown into the American soccer status quo.

9. Alexi Lalas

Similar to Wynalda, Alexi Lalas has carved out a great post-playing career as a professional irritant. He has no issue asking the stewards of the domestic game to explain the hows and whys of their actions, but Lalas greatest strength is dealing with the utter ridiculousness of the segment of soccer fans that are emotionally out of control. Troll wrestling is a martial art, and Twitter is Alexi Lalas’ dojo. He’s mastered the game of making shallow or slow thinkers angry about unimportant things, flipping them on their backs and leading them to realize that their unchecked aggression is best pointed elsewhere. He is a social media black belt. The Bruce Lee of the block button.

10. Tony Meola

2 Aug 1994:  Tony Meola of the New York Jets kicks a field goal during preseason training camp. Mandatory Credit: Simon Bruty  /AllsportGetty Images

2 Aug 1994: Tony Meola of the New York Jets kicks a field goal during preseason training camp. Mandatory Credit: Simon Bruty /Allsport

He tried out for the Jets once. That was dope.

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