FourFourTwo's top 25 players in U.S. men's soccer history: 5-1
5. Tab Ramos
The only 1990s pioneer with a direct link to the NASL would have been the U.S.' first real soccer star, if such a thing had existed back then. Ramos was the national team's primary creative force for nearly a decade, playing a central role as the Yanks, in 1989, qualified for their first World Cup in four decades and in 1994 advanced to the knockout stage. He spent five years in Spain, was the first player MLS signed to a contract -- a move designed to bring other U.S. stars home from Europe -- and spent seven years with his hometown MetroStars before retiring in 2002.
The Uruguayan-born midfielder, who moved to New Jersey when he was 11 and played for years alongside John Harkes, was a known quantity while in his mid-teens. The New York Cosmos selected him out of high school in the 1984 NASL draft, and he trained for three months with the club just before the league folded. Eventually he headed to North Carolina State, where he was a three-time All-American. He went from the 1988 Olympics to regular duty with the national team, won 81 caps in 13 years, started every U.S. game at the 1990 and 1994 World Cups and made two appearances in 1998.
He was among the more successful Yanks in Europe. He joined Spanish second-division side Figueras in 1990 and moved to Real Betis in 1992, helping them to the Segunda Division title and promotion to La Liga in 1994. MLS signed him up in January 1995 and loaned him to UANL Tigres; he enjoyed a fine first year with the MetroStars, then struggled with injuries, including two ACL tears, over his final six seasons. He's been coach of the U.S. under-20 national team since 2011.
-- Scott French (@ScottJFrench)
4. Clint Dempsey
A kid from Nacogdoches, Texas, developed into one of the best attacking players in U.S. history with a style of play famously described by former U.S. men's national team coach Bruce Arena as: “He tries [stuff].”
Dempsey first quietly and then quite loudly pronounced himself as one of the best ever to put on a U.S. jersey. Dempsey has scored 49 goals in 124 caps, just eight shy of Landon Donovan’s mark in 33 fewer caps. He has played a featured role in three World Cups, scoring in the tournament in 2006, 2010 and 2014 – the first American ever to score in three World Cups.
Dempsey broke out in 2006, scoring four goals that year, including one against Ghana at the World Cup, and won U.S. Player of the Year. He won the Bronze Ball at the Confederations Cup in 2009, scoring in three straight games, including in the final against Brazil. Dempsey’s form continued to rise in the ensuing years, both for club and country. From 2011-13, Dempsey scored 17 goals for the U.S. In 2015, with some speculating about his continued role with the U.S., he added nine more.
On the club side, Dempsey proved himself both domestically and abroad. Dempsey started his career with the New England Revolution in MLS before going to England and putting together perhaps the most impressive career by a U.S. field player abroad. Dempsey scored 29 goals for Fulham across the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, becoming the first American to score more than 10 goals in the Premier League and then surpassing Brian McBride as the most prolific American goalscorer in EPL history with 57. Dempsey’s form also helped Fulham to a UEFA Europa League runner-up finish in 2009-10.
He transferred to Tottenham Hotspur before moving back to MLS, where he has starred for the Seattle Sounders, scoring 31 goals in 75 games.
-- Paul Tenorio (@PaulTenorio)
3. Claudio Reyna
Claudio Reyna left the University of Virginia before the 1994 season to join Bayer Leverkusen, a club coming off a third-place finish in the German first division. When Reyna landed in Germany, he was already a three-time national champion, two-time collegiate player of the year, and had made the squad for a World Cup. His high school team never lost a game with him in uniform. By the time Reyna signed his first professional deal, only health could keep him from becoming a U.S. icon.
Turns out, even that couldn’t stop him. Between stops in Germany (Leverkusen and Wolfsburg), Scotland (Rangers, when they were good), England (Sunderland and Manchester City) and an MLS cameo (Red Bulls), Reyna almost never had an injury-free campaign, but that didn’t stop him from earning move after move to bigger, more competitive places. In 1999-2000, one his healthiest seasons, Reyna played 42 times for Rangers, helping the Glasgow giants to a league-cup double.
For his national team, Reyna was named to the final squads for the 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cups, joining Kasey Keller as the first Americans to make four squads when Bruce Arena, his coach at Virginia, chose him for Germany `06. Though he was injured for the U.S.’ tournament on home soil, Reyna was a starter in midfield in each of the next finals, making the all-tournament team in 2002. When he retired after the 2006 competition, Reyna had amassed 111 caps and eight international goals.
With skill matched by only Tab Ramos or John O’Brien, Reyna would make this list’s top 10 on play alone; still, there was another defining aspect to his game. After inheriting the armband from Thomas Dooley in 1998, Reyna served 10 years as the national team’s captain, earning the moniker Captain America for his service.
We’ve ranked him third, but from high school to college, club to country, Reyna has a claim to being the most accomplished player in U.S. history. That he ranks highest out of the list’s talented midfield speaks to the impact he had on U.S. soccer.
-- Richard Farley (@richardfarley)
2. Brad Friedel
In a country known for its world-class goalkeeping, Friedel rose to legendary status after his performance in the 2002 World Cup. He was nicknamed “The Human Wall” for his play during the tournament in Japan and South Korea, which included two penalty-kick saves, as the U.S. advanced to the quarterfinals and eventually fell to runners-up Germany, 1-0.
Friedel battled for the starting job with Tony Meola and then Kasey Keller throughout his time with the U.S., which included three World Cups, but he won the job after making just one appearance at the 1998 World Cup and registered shutouts in more than a quarter of his appearances in the red, white and blue. Friedel also played in two Olympics, including the U.S.’ semifinal run in 2000, and was part of the 1999 Confederations Cup team that blanked Germany and finished in third place.
Friedel is considered a trailblazer for American soccer on the club level, where he became one of the first to cross the Atlantic and carve out a highly respected career. He made a record 310 consecutive appearances in the English Premier League with Blackburn Rovers, Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur. He was also the 1997 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year with the Columbus Crew before joining Liverpool in 1997-98. Friedel also won a Turkish Cup with Galatasaray in 1996 and a League Cup with Blackburn in 2002.
He retired after the 2015 season at the age of 44 with more than 650 club appearances to his name and the fourth-most caps for a U.S. goalkeeper. Friedel now coaches the U.S. under-19 national team.
-- Paul Tenorio (@PaulTenorio)
1. Landon Donovan
The greatest player ever to pull on a U.S. jersey was all reputation at first, the subject of murmurs that something special was going on in Bradenton, Fla., where U.S. Soccer staged its residency ahead of the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Championship. Donovan, a fleet, heady forward from Southern California, was scoring a ton of goals for the young Yanks, had been scooped up at 16 by Bayer Leverkusen, and then, suddenly, was all the rage in New Zealand, leading the Americans to the semifinals and winning the Golden Ball as MVP.
He was the future, and the future arrived quickly. Donovan had uncommon skill and intelligence, a sense of the field far beyond the American standard, and a preternatural confidence that spurred him to take delicious chances and make something of them. He helped the U.S. to the semifinals at the 2000 Olympics, when he was 18, and was a star for the national team by 2002, the first of his three World Cups, playing a critical role as the U.S. reached the quarterfinals. FIFA honored him as the best young player in the tournament.
Donovan slumped with the team in 2006, then had his greatest performance in South Africa four years later, scoring a stoppage-time goal to beat Algeria and send the Yanks to the Round of 16 with the Group C title. His international tenure ended with Jurgen Klinsmann's controversial decision to omit him from the 2014 World Cup roster.
He's No. 2 on the all-time U.S. caps list, with 157 appearances, and is No. 1 for goals (57) and assists (58, 36 more than the second-best total). He won seven Honda Player of the Year and four U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year awards.
Donovan's time with Leverkusen did not go well, and he played sparingly in Europe, most convincingly in two late loan spells at Everton, where he was a fan favorite. He played nearly exclusively in MLS from 2001 until his retirement after the 2014 season, first on loan to the San Jose Earthquakes, whom he led to two MLS Cup titles while establishing himself as the league's premier American talent. He moved to the LA Galaxy in 2005 and spent a fabulously productive decade with his hometown club, winning four more league championships and the 2009 MVP award. He retired last year with MLS records for goals (144, in 344 games), assists (136), game-winning goals (41), game-winning assists (41, shared), multi-goal games (32), playoff goals (25) and playoff assists (14). He was a seven-time Best XI selection, and his six MLS Cup titles are a league record.
Donovan's accomplishments tower over American soccer, but more extraordinary was the panache, the style, the grace with which he played, the pristine skill and sudden bursts of speed to beat defenders, the ability to open space and create for teammates, the precision with the finish, and the ability to see things others can't and turn them into something special.
-- Scott French (@ScottJFrench)