AMSTERDAM – With U.S. Soccer now running the tally for an all-time national team Best XI to cap centennial celebrations, we've chosen to get in the spirit with a pair of themed pick-11s of our own. In this edition, the squad "called-up" is designed specifically for a single do-or-die game situation.
As such, this team will be unlike many of the celebratory selections that drop throughout every year. No, this one actually has to come together as unit fit for a hypothetical “biggest match you can dream up.” Since the players span across time, let's just take everyone as if they were at the top of their quality, with no nasty injury concerns to worry over.
However, picking guys who made their names before I was able to watch it happen to some extent is not my cup of hot chocolate with Rumple Minze, so unfortunately there is only scant representation before the 80s. It's no sign of disrespect; every coach wants to know exactly what he's got in the locker.
As such, it should come as no surprise that seven starters and two subs on this team come from the World Cup 2002 roster that fell one proper handball call away from an extra-time fight with Germany for a place in the semis.
GK: Brad Friedel
Always in command? Check. Anticipation like a fox, but both high and low? Check. Flair for the big stop? Check. Frankly, downright scary? Checkaroo. Two for two in World Cup penalty stops? Yeah, I think we're done here.
RB: Tony Sanneh
There were other good choices, but Sanneh's top-shelf athleticism, two-way flank motor and set piece defending gets him the nod. With 77 career Bundesliga games, Champions League experience and his 2002 displays as evidence, he knows the big stage.
CB: Eddie Pope
If you look up the phrase "smooth criminal" in the US soccer dictionary, there is a photo of Steady Eddie. In addition to his silky skills at the back, Pope continues our stockpiling of set piece weapons.
CB: Alexi Lalas
Guitar playing or not, Big Red can sure play the bad cop counterpart to Pope. His time in Italy honed both the positioning and (ahem) advanced non-fouling techniques required to handle this huge hypothetical match.
LB: Paul Caligiuri
Fans often remember the "Shot Heard 'Round The World" that put the US in the 1990 World Cup, but Caligiuri was a lot more than that. In a very real way, our soccer bubble has been breathlessly waiting on a stalwart left back ever since he retired from the Nats in 1997.
CM: Michael Bradley
Some may file this under the bias of short-term memory, but I don't care. All I know is the Bald Eagle will be patrolling the middle of the park in his general's stars. Likely the most consistent US player over the current World Cup cycle, Bradley will calmly keep time, put up roadblocks with a grimace and jump into attack when needed.
CM: Claudio Reyna
Bradley needs a high soccer IQ in his partner, with technical skills to match. Who else would we rather have overseeing the midfield? And on this team, Reyna's abilities can be fully appreciated because we aren't solely relying on him to take the attack keys. There are only a couple of no-brainers in the lineup; when you combine his soccer brain, high-level experience, touch and fight, Reyna is one.
CM: John O'Brien
While Reyna earned some deserved glory with an all-team mention after World Cup 2002, O'Brien was arguably even better. While that tournament show remains one to taunt USMNT fans forever, we don't think about silly injuries here. All we think of is his timeless Ajax cool, the rare excellence of his vision, the impeccable sense of timing and the precision passes. Ask Clint Mathis about those.
RW: Landon Donovan
Here's a no-brainer. Donovan is not only the engine that could, he's the engine that went on to never really stop. Even on his February sabbatical to Cambodia, the Galaxy star was seen leading a rush of strangers in a jungle clearing. He can play several places, but just think back to all of the outstanding top-level plays and games when he ran from the right (the Brian McBride goal against Portugal in 2002, the Everton stints, etc.). Only 52 players in soccer history have scored more World Cup goals than Donovan, a number likely to shrink significantly next summer.
LW: Clint Dempsey
Speaking of scoring in World Cups, Deuce will be looking for his third straight big dance with a goal in Brazil. Since the 2010 edition in South Africa, Dempsey has struck 65 times in 166 games for the USMNT and his two Premier League employers, as well as the Sounders. Aside from that, he will battle like it's his last game ever and (to quote Bruce Arena) "try s----" that jars defenses out of their preferred patterns.
F: Brian McBride
As with goalkeeper, there are a handful of fine choices that would work, but we could not resist the timeless classic. If "Bake" is one of your nicknames, an EPL club named their pub after you and you play on with a busted face, you start. An old school target man with the integrity of a knight, McBride makes others better around him by example.
For the bench: Brad Guzan has the best career penalty-stopping record for an American and great distribution, Frankie Hejduk covers both wingback spots as only he can, Oguchi Onyewu an extra air marshal for lead protection, Thomas Dooley offers control at two spine positions, Walter Bahr knows how to close out a big win, Ricky Davis is the tornado that retrieves the ball and moves it forward, DaMarcus Beasley offers frightening fresh legs, and Eric Wynalda provides the sniper.