We're back with another best US national team XI as we celebrate the US' soccer centennial. This time, we select the team made of the players with the most pure talent.
Some have had more impact on the USMNT than others, but all entered the scene with skills that hinted at great things to come and none has gone without moments of international glory.
The Everton fixture has always been a prototypical athlete for a goalkeeper, and that is nothing to sneeze at. But Howard’s reputation was one of a predatory shot stopper from the time he was a 23-year-old pup shining with the MetroStars and standing fourth (at best) on the US depth chart. That kid broke in with nearly every tool in the belt to be a net ninja.
This can certainly be argued. Rest assured, though, one does not last 11 seasons in the Bundesliga and repeatedly lead underdogs fighting into European competition without skills. Cherundolo may not wow you with them often, but his name has been made with stalwart consistency in areas such as possession touches and defensive footwork. He also hits a particularly nasty free kick, but is never given that job on any of his teams.
If one of your most famous actions from a fantastic 128-cap national team career in defense is a bicycle kick that misses the net, you can play. Balboa also won an MLS Goal of the Year with one in 2000, but let's move past “chilenas.” Unlike a good number of US defenders throughout history and long before it became tactical policy, the former Colorado Rapids star was quite comfortable playing the ball out of the back.
There was always more than meets the eye to 'Los, and we say this referring to a guy who'd won MLS Defender of the Year twice by age 24. Sure, he fared pretty well in 116 EPL matches – but did you think he could excel covering in central midfield in that league? Or start at left back in France's Ligue 1 past age 30? Bocanegra is also one of the very best set piece targets in USMNT history.
Here's a theory for why this guy isn't talked about more in the discussions about all-time US greats: folks don't want to be reminded we haven't had a regular impact player at left back since he left. Of the many auditions, experiments and genuine development tries, it's true that some guys could get up and down the wing to essentially tilt the field on their side. Some could harass their wing marks to no end. A few could effectively jump into attack. Well, Caligiuri did all that well enough to land a Hamburg deal when few Americans played overseas.
Captain America is occasionally marked down a bit because he was never the supreme level talent that could play-make the opposing net full in big numbers. No, Reyna sat back to dictate the game's rhythm with precise technicality, a soccer IQ off the charts and the measure of flair he deemed safely appropriate. His attacking specialty was the pass that unleashed others to ring up stats, which is sometimes the trickiest play of all.
Speaking of tricks under control, there are a number of media members and fans in the US realm that will swear Ramos is still the most talented player we've ever had. Using all the various touches at proper weight, the current US Under-20 boss could possess, dangle and cross. He also needed almost no warning or prep to fire off an accurate goalward shot. It's such a shame he took that World Cup elbow to the face just after helping Real Betis move up to La Liga.
Despite a club career that can only be labeled as a letdown to now, the "child star" has almost always been able to display his prodigious talent while donning red, white and blue at any age level. The reason everyone got so excited in the first place was Adu's great and playful ease with the ball. Bob Bradley occasionally got the best of the playmaker, including as key supporting contributor in both 2010 World Cup qualifying and the 2011 Gold Cup final run.
What is there to say? We could have switched his name with the phrase "It goes without saying" and you all would know who, and you all would know why. Donovan has been coolly motoring the team forward with dribbles, playmaking passes and fine finishes since he arrived on the USMNT scene about 57 goals and 57 assists ago. What's more, he's done it quite consistently and from every position in attack.
Though he played before the YouTube era, Wegerle is still a legend at Queens Park Rangers, where he was the club's first £1 million transfer 24 years ago. The forward finished third in England's top flight with 18 goals in 1990-91, with one voted Goal of the Season. Displaying exactly why he made this list, the QPR ace wiggled his way through, around and past five Leeds defenders before freezing another three to fire past the keeper from 22 yards. Talent.
The Sunderland striker is akin to a five-tool outfielder in baseball. Still only 24, "Hammerin' Jozy" could one day find himself in a chase for Donovan's career strike total. That is because his blend of athleticism, skill variety and now tactical awareness is one until now unseen in a US forward. His goals come from every direction, in every manner and he's also among the team's best crossers.