Picking the "Top Ten" of anything is a difficult process-whether it be movies, vegetables, tv shows or futbol players. People will inevitably ask, if they have any curiosity, "How did you come to your conclusions? What were the factors involved in making your decision?" In this case, I had to weigh a number of factors in order to come to a conclusion-and some of these factors are obviously more subjective than objective. Having been lucky enough to watch all the players on this list, I can also make my decision based not only on facts and figures, but personal experience.
Nevertheless, I started off by looking at the numbers: how many games did they play and for whom? How many goals or clean sheets and in what leagues? Obviously, 10 goals against premiership opponents is more impressive than 10 goals against the Miami Fusion. Stats don't tell us everything, but taken in context, they do indicate a general picture of the success of a player.
Still, facts can only tell you so much. Looking at the numbers, one might assume that DaMarcus Beasley's experience and semi-success in Europe would place him above Landon Donovan--but weighing all the facts, numbers, and knowing the players as well as I do, the reasonable conclusion is in fact the opposite: clearly Donovan's impact on the national team in qualifying and WC2002 say otherwise despite his failures in European club futbol.
I also weighed each players total effect on the progress of American futbol in general. Did they open doors for future players? For example, did John Harkes' success open the door for future American's in the Premier League? The answer is yes, on some levels he did. Many in England expected him to fail and under-perform. Only American goalies were any good, they said. Had Harkes fell on his face, we may have seen fewer teams take chances on American's in the coming years. We may have never seen a McBride at Fulham. But harkes didn't fail--he excelled. The result was a rude-awakening for English fans who thought Americans could never develop quality field players.
And lastly, I included a once over of each players contribution to the USMNT. Has it been important? Did it lead to more success? Were they major or minor contributors?
Putting all of the above factors together (which can be a bit of a tangled mess), I have made my best educated guess. Still, I realize there will be disagreements and controversy regarding those who were left off and those who didn't deserve to make it at all. But really, that's the whole fun part of the debate, now isn't it?
ONE. Brad Friedel: No other American player has had such a long-lasting impact on top overseas teams than Brad Friedel. For the past decade and more, Friedel has been the consemate performer--the most reliable American player to ever have played the game of futbol. With over 377 games played for teams like Brondby, Galatasaray, Liverpool, Blackburn and now league toppers Aston Villa, Friedel has continued to rank amongst the world's top goal keepers for nearly 10-15 years by anyone who knows anything about goalkeeping. Despite my respect for Kasey Keller, there is little dispute that Friedel is and has been the best American keeper in USMNT history and should have played and started in the 2006 WC had he not retired from national team play.
TWO. Claudio Reyna: With over 243 appearances overseas for Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, Rangers, Sunderland and Manchester City, Reyna regularly performed on the world stage for both club and country. Known as "Captain America" by European fans because of his captaincy of the USMNT, Reyna was a key figure in the United States success in the 2002 WC. He was also named one of the top players by FIFA in the 2006 WC--the only American to ever get such an award. His club managers in Europe called on him whenever he was healthy.
Though complaints are often logged by American's who only recently became familiar with him because of his stint with the Redbulls and the 2006 WC, where an error cost his team a goal, a historical look at Reyna's career shows a player with immense skill, the ability to play multiple positions, and a leader in the midfield for the USMNT. In many ways, along with John Harkes, Reyna paved the way for American field-players now playing in Germany, Scotland and England. It is only too bad that when he finally returned to the US to play for the Redbulls, that injuries again plagued his performance and playing time. Because of this and his 2006 WC error, he is regularly defamed and ignored as one of the best American players to have ever played the game of futbal.
THREE. John Harkes: In 1995, Harkes was the first American to ever be named co-Most Valuable Player at the Copa America tournament in 1995, where the United States upset Argentina 3-0, taking the USMNT to a 4th place finish--a huge shocker and accomplishment for any US national team. Harkes played for 6 years and 164 games in England for Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County, and West Ham but also returned to the US to lead the growth of the MLS despite fair offers from other EPL teams. There may be no other American player who showed as much courage, confidence (almost arrogance) than Harkes for both club and country.
Despite being cut by the USMNT manager Steve Sampson just before the 1998 WC, Harkes had a long and fruitful national team career and was once named "Captain for Life." USMNT historians debate little about the futility and small-minded decision by Sampson to cut Harkes before the 1998 WC, so it would be silly to count that against him as a player--especially considering the disaster the the 1998 USMNT became without his leadership. At some level, I am still surprised by the lack of outrage that still exists toward Sampson to this date for essentially sabotaging the 1998 team's chances for success. Perhaps, someday, Sampson will have to stand up like a man and explain his twisted logic.
Unfortunately for Harkes, by the 2002 WC, at 35 years of age, he was well past him prime and Arena passed on his services.
FOUR. Brian McBride: With 188 appearances and 47 goals in both the Bundesliga and English League football, Brian McBride has made his statement as a top US striker for over a decade. Voted by Fulham fans multiple times as "Player of Year," and being only the second American to ever serve as a regular captain of an English Premier League team, McBride has made a case for being called one of the best "headers" of the ball of all-time. When David Moyes first brought McBride to England at Preston North End, their were a lot of non-believers--but McBride proved Moyes confidence justified at both PNE and then Everton. This led to interest from a number of EPL teams, including Fulham, where he continues to be a fan favorite even in his absence. Considered a " late bloomer" and slow-footed, but tough as nails, McBride was the lead scorer for Fulham for the 05-06 season; opposing teams came to fear his prowess in the air. With a rumored metal plate in his head from multiple head injuries and skull fractures, McBride was also a hard-nosed leader on the quarter-finalist achieving 2002 USMNT. His toughness and work-rate have been incomparable to any other American striker in history.
Just recently, at almost 37 years of age, Fulham tried desperately to get McBride's services again on loan for the remainder of the 2008-09 season. The Chicago Fire (his current team), as well as McBride's family had other priorities, and the loan was denied. With 30 goals in 96 national team appearances, Brian McBride has to be considered one of the most respected and feared strikers in United States futbol history.
FIVE. Kasey Keller: It almost seems unnatural to place Keller so low on this "best players" list--especially since Keller played for nearly 16 years and 508 games in the top leagues in Europe. Starting in England with Millwall in 1992, Keller went on to play for Leicester City, Rayo Vallecano in Spain, Tottenham, Southampton, Monchengladbach, and Fulham before finally returning to the United States and the MLS Seattle Sounders. At every level, from college (where he was named GK of the Year in 1991), to his captaincy at Monchengladbach, Keller has always been considered one of the top keepers of his generation. It was Friedel and Keller that both secured the common European consensus that American's made good goal keepers (not Sylvester Stallone, as is often rumored).
Remembered with much fondness by many USMNT fans for his incredible clean sheet versus Brazil in 1998, which led to a famous 1-0 victory and Romario's famous statement that he'd never seen a better goalkeeping performance, Keller still played second fiddle to Friedel on the successful 2002 WC team.
Though Keller got more national team starts than Friedel, most futbol analysts and fans would generally agree that Keller was the second best American keeper to ever play in the top leagues in Europe. One might argue that Keller should be considered higher up the ladder in this countdown, as he did play in 3 League Cup finals (one for Tottenham, two for Leicester City); while good arguments might be made that he should be considered above Reyna, Harkes, and McBride, one has to acknowledge that Friedel's career was stronger for longer. While Friedel was and is still considered one of as a top 20 keepers in the world, Keller's best years seem to have left him around 05-06.
SIX. Roy Wegerle: Some people will start this by asking who the heck Roy Wegerle is. Although born in South Africa, Wegerle played college soccer at the University of Florida and gained US citizenship in 1991. A forerunner for future US players in English football, he played for the US 41 times and in the 1994 WC. More importantly, Wegerle played over 181 games at the top of the English football leagues before the Premiership, scoring 53 goals for Chelsea, Luton Town, QPR (where he scored 29 goals in 65 games and became a cult hero), Blackburn and Coventry City before heading back to the US for the start of the MLS. Often under-rated and forgotten, Wegerle had to fight for his appearances in the English League and prove himself every year. If you never got to see him play English league football, you truly missed an experience. Though well past his prime after 1994, he continued to make appearances for the USMNT leading up to the 1998 WC.
SEVEN: Joe-Max Moore: With 104 games played and 29 goals scored in Germany and England, Moore was one of the more reliable United States forwards for over a decade. Capable of also playing the wing position, as well as midfield, Moore played for FC Saarbrucken and Nuremburg where he led his team in scoring for both teams. After his time in Germany, and a stop in the MLS to help build the game back home, Moore eventually ended up playing with top division side Everton 52 times (with 8 goals) over 2 ?? seasons. While Moore's success with the club faded as time past, it was an injury that eventually ended his run with Everton.
Joe Max-Moore is the 4th leading scorer in USMNT history with 24 goals in 100 games. He was one of the veteran leaders on the 2002 US men's team that made it to the final 8 where a case could have been made that the USMNT outplayed Germany (more shots, more shots on goal, more possession) but still lost.
EIGHT: Thomas Dooley: With 177 games and 20 goals at the highest levels of German futbol, Thomas Dooley is often overlooked as one of the best American players of all-time. Playing for Leverkusen, Schalke and Kaiserslauten from 1988 to 1997, Dooley was born to an American father and a German mother in Germany. A good friend of Lothar Matthaus, Dooley had always thought of himself as a German prior to being recruited by the USSF to play for the USMNT in the early 90s. Having played 81 games for the USMNT, Dooley was a stalwart sweeper, defender, and effective defensive midfielder for both club and country. In 1993, Dooley was picked as the "US Soccer Athlete of the Year" by the USSF. Anyone who was lucky enough to watch Dooley play in both the Bundesliga and for his national side knows how dependable and non-expendable he was.
Dooley was there through the "growing years" in American soccer, adding much needed experience and mentoring to a developing US squad--and even coming to the MLS later on to help bolster the leagues quality. After John Harkes' removal from the 1998 WC squad, Dooley did his best to pick up the captaincy and hold the team together--as well as keep the team semi-competitive through a rash of some of the most embarrassing management decisions in World Cup history by the ego-maniacal and unyielding Steve Sampson.
For a player who hadn't really considered himself an American until being recruited by the USSF, it is a testament to his loyalty to US soccer growth that he now lives in California and is actively involved with American player development at the youth level.
NINE: Landon Donovan: Though much maligned and disinclined to play European futbol in his younger years, a more mature and less spoiled version of LD now seeks the competitive weight of club futbol in Germany. Several times voted the best player in MLS and for country and prodded by friend and mentor David Beckham, Donovan is finally out to prove his worth (to himself) on an international club scale. It is hard to say at this point how things will finally all pan out. Making a mark (or lack there of) against the world's very best on a club level still impedes my placing him higher on this list. The fact is, while LD is a quality player, he hasn't challenged HIMSELF at the top levels enough for me to really know what kind of player he is in his heart and soul. His determination (or lack there of) are still under scrutiny.
With little international club experience playing the very best players in the world on a day-to-day basis, it is hard to find anything redeeming about LD's club career outside of his exceptional play in the less than staggering MLS--but plenty to make the case statistically for his play for country; and for this reason, he is an exception to my rule.
Donovan is the all-time leading goal scorer for the USMNT--and while some will claim that he hasn't performed in the biggest matches, one might forget his goals and performance in the 2002 WC when he was surrounded by veterans and quality US players who could provide the much needed service his counter-attacking speed requires. This wasn't the case in 2006 when an over-the-hill Reyna, a less than healthy John O'brien and a less-then-skilled passer like Pablo Mastroeni, governed the midfield. While LD's hustling peformance against Italy was admirable, his overall play in the other two games in group play were a disappearing act--and he has so much as said so himself. Still, it would be hard to argue that he isn't the best and most feared (and hated) US player currently for the USMNT--just ask Mexico. And when quality national teams do arrive on US soil for friendlies, it is Donovan that each and every opposing manager makes his team aware of. His speed, and counter-attacking prowess are not a secret to other international competitors--and they mark him as such.
TEN. Tab Ramos: Tab was one of the first players to play competitively in Spain and Mexico for both Figueres, Real Betis and Tigres. In fact, he did so for 166 matches scoring 12 goals. Probably best remembered for the horrific skull fracture he suffered from Leonardo during round of 16 match with Brazil in the 1994 WC, one can only wonder what a player of his ability might have done in a different era when American players were more accepted and welcomed by foreign leagues.
Ramos was also a member of the the most successful Copa America squads that in 1995 went 3-0-2 and defeated Argentina, Mexico and Chile on its way to a 4th place finish in the tournament. His skilled and cool midfield play in that tournament, and for many years on the USMNT are also a testament to his overall quality.
Ramos was one the first truly gifted and thoughtful midfield players the United States has ever produced.
Honorable mentions: Hugo Perez, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Eric Wynalda, Preki, Ricky Davis, Earnie Stewart, Marcelo Balboa, Eddie Pope, Paul Caligiuri, John O'Brien, and DaMarcus Beasley.