American soccer has certainly come a long way since the United States was awarded the 1994 World Cup despite not having its own league, and despite certain members of its national team not being under contract with a professional club. Although that World Cup finals smashed FIFA’s attendance records in prior tournaments, soccer still struggled to establish itself as a popular sport for the American public to watch as opposed to just playing it. Fast forward 20 years: the United States are a consistent North American powerhouse, and a number of their players ply their trade for major clubs in Europe.
The actual U.S. team itself has had mixed results in terms of their actual World Cup performances since they hosted in 1994: group stage exits in 1998 and 2006 have been counterbalanced by a historic visit to the quarterfinals in 2002 and a place in the round of 16 in 2010. With the World Cup in Brazil coming up soon, it’s difficult to say where team USA will finish given their tough as nails group with Germany, Portugal and Ghana. However, the 10 men on this list have proven that American soccer is very much on the upswing and capable of producing players that can compete with the very best the sport has to offer.
Some players have found major success while playing in Europe, while others have mostly seen their careers flourish while competing at home in Major League Soccer. However, they have proven that the U.S. are good enough to compete with the best in the world, and have been huge in helping the national team get to where it is now. With younger players such as the German-born Julian Green coming up the ranks, U.S. soccer can only continue to grow. But before looking at the future, let’s look back at the past with these 10 men.
10. Kasey Keller
This native of Olympia, WA never experienced a ton of World Cup success – although he went to four finals, he was the number one keeper for a poor U.S. side in 1998 as well as the team that failed to make the round of 16 in 2006 – but his reputation overseas set new standards for where American goalkeepers could go. Kasey Keller played regularly for Millwall, Leicester City, Rayo Vallecano, Tottenham Hotspur and Borussia Monchengladbach – the first American keeper to be a regular in the English, German and Spanish top flight. With 101 caps to his name, Keller is now a color commentator for the Seattle Sounders – the team he closed out his playing days with.
9. Tim Howard
Although he’s also known for playing through pain, Tim Howard’s achievements as a goalkeeper are even bigger when you consider how he’s fared on an international stage. The New Jersey native got his start between the sticks for Manchester United after moving overseas before becoming a permanent fixture at Everton. With the U.S. national team, he’s racked up 97 caps and was previously the number one keeper for the U.S. at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and is widely expected to do so again this summer at the tournament in Brazil. Although at 35 years of age this may be his last appearance in a World Cup finals, expect Howard to make the most of it.
8. Cobi Jones
Despite early, relatively brief stints with Coventry City in England and Vasco da Gama in Brazil, Cobi Jones would find by far his greatest club success as a member of the Los Angeles Galaxy from 1996 until his retirement in 2007, after which he’d be an assistant coach with the Galaxy for a couple of years. Internationally, he’s the most capped player to ever don the Stars and Stripes, with 164 caps and 15 goals to his name. After appearing for the team at home at the 1994 finals, he’d go to two more World Cups in 1998 and 2002, although he wouldn’t score in either of them.
7. Earnie Stewart
Though there are plenty of internationally-bred U.S. national team players of American descent nowadays – you can simply look at Germany for proof of this – the Dutch-raised midfielder Earnie Stewart was arguably the first to establish himself as a part of team USA. Despite playing most of his club career in his native Netherlands, Stewart ended up gaining 101 caps and 17 goals for the Stars and Stripes, making it to the World Cup in 1994, 1998 and 2002 – being a particularly big part of the latter team that made it to the quarterfinals, and therefore becoming one of only a few American players to play in three World Cups.
6. Eric Wynalda
Arguably one of the best attacking players in U.S. history before Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey came along, Eric Wynalda first established himself by playing in Germany before returning stateside in 1996 to play with the San Jose Clash. The native of Fullerton, California racked up 107 caps and 34 goals, and made it to his third World Cup finals in France in 1998, though he did not score any goals following an insipid effort by the U.S. team that saw them finish dead last among all finalists. Wynalda has since moved on to coaching, as he now coaches the Atlanta Silverbacks of the NASL.
5. Clint Dempsey
He’s the current captain of the U.S. national team, and there aren’t many that would argue against his title. Clint Dempsey experienced recognition beyond his native United States as a member of Fulham, which then led to a somewhat unsuccessful stint at Tottenham Hotspur. However, the Texas native is still one of the most counted on members of the national team as a forward/attacking midfielder, with 36 goals and 103 caps for the national team under his belt. With two goals scored at the World Cup previously, he’ll be expected to try guiding the U.S. out of a difficult Group G.
4. Brian McBride
Brief and unsuccessful stints at Wolfsburg, Preston North End and Everton were how Brian McBride’s career outside of American soccer began, but he eventually found his niche at Fulham, the club he was a regular from 2004 to 2008 after spending a large part of his career with the Columbus Crew in the MLS. A goal machine in his own right, McBride scored 30 out of 96 caps with the U.S. national team, including three goals combined from the 1998 and 2002 World Cups – the latter of which included a goal against Mexico that brought the Stars and Stripes to the quarterfinals.
3. Claudio Reyna
Known as “Captain America” to his supporters in Britain, former U.S. national team captain Claudio Reyna ended up earning 111 caps and eight goals for the Stars and Stripes. After the 1994 World Cup, he would appear in three more in 1998, 2002 and 2006; his performances in the 2002 tournament in South Korea and Japan being good enough for him to get on the Team of the Tournament as its only American representative following their visit to the quarterfinals. Reyna spent his club career mainly in Europe, playing in Germany, Scotland and England – the latter of which saw him enjoy his longest stay with one club as a member of Manchester City.
2. Brad Friedel
To still be playing as a goalkeeper – even just as a backup – at the age of 43 is an accomplishment for anyone, and it’s one that Brad Friedel has achieved thanks to spending years living in England and succeeding. Although he only played one game at France 98 and then the entire tournament four years later in Korea and Japan, his World Cup record is still arguably better than most American goalkeepers even though he retired from international football somewhat early in 2005. However, the Ohio native’s record with Blackburn Rovers, Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur has sealed his reputation as one of the best goalkeepers the U.S. has ever seen.
1. Landon Donovan
His career on an international stage is most certainly winding down as he is now 32 years of age and was shockingly omitted from Jürgen Klinsmann’s 23-man squad for Brazil this summer, but Landon Donovan has very little left to prove as far as his reputation is concerned compared to his American peers. Although the most successful part of his short-lived stints in Europe is arguably his two loan moves to Everton in 2010 and 2012, his success as a member of the San Jose Earthquakes and then Los Angeles Galaxy in the MLS is bested only by his international career: 156 caps and 57 goals – five of which came in the World Cup, and one of which he scored against Mexico in 2002 to bring the U.S. to the quarterfinals.