25 Greatest - 2020 - Wiebe column feat Donovan

Picking the 25 Greatest players in MLS history | Andrew Wiebe

I believe in soccer transparency. I think National Soccer Hall of Fame ballots ought to be public, and so I make it so. Same for the voting during MLS awards season – you can see my picks here and Best XI here. Ditto for the 25 Greatest presented by AT&T, which will determine and honor the 25 best players in MLS history as part of the league's 25th season celebrations.

Why the need for secrecy? What’s the point? Who does it serve? This is soccer, not national security, for goodness sake. If you can’t defend your picks or would rather not have to answer for them, good or bad, I think it’s fair to wonder whether you should get a vote at all. That might sound harsh, but I think it’d improve the process and the results.

Alas, I can’t make anybody do anything they don’t want to do, so I’ll be the change I want to see in the world. My 25 Greatest ballot, which is certainly not perfect nor free of regrets, follows, as do what I consider the biggest snubs, the names I agonized over. Truly, 25 players for 25 years is not enough, and I fully expect some abuse. Disagreement comes with the territory.

As for my grading rubric, I valued MLS performance and trophy haul over everything else. Longevity mattered to me. The off-the-field stuff? Less important, but not disregarded. I did not consider contributions post-playing career – if I had, the managerial contributions of Peter Vermes and Greg Vanney, among others, would make them no-doubters – but I will admit to going old-school heavy, with one exception. It’s hard to predict the future. I know what happened in the past. I’m sure the 50 Greatest list will clean things up considerably.

Everyone is listed in alphabetical order, so don’t read into that.

Goalkeepers

  • Kevin Hartman
  • Nick Rimando
  • Zach Thornton

This list starts with Nick Rimando, though he never got the Best XI or Goalkeeper of the Year plaudits that so many others on this the nominee list boast. He just owns every important goalkeeping record. He only played in 20 of 25 seasons. Ho hum, legend. Kevin Hartman is my No. 2. I understand that these are MLS-lifer ‘keepers, and not quite as “sexy” as maybe a Tim Howard or Brad Friedel, but this list is for the greatest players in MLS history. The real soul searching came down to Zach Thornton vs. this field...

Snubs: Joe Cannon, Stefan Frei, Tim Howard, Tony Meola, Pat Onstad, Donovan Ricketts

... and I took Thornton, but in doing so feel incredibly torn. The Big Cat was a rock for the Fire’s early dynasty and then came back to pace the league with Chivas USA. But was his peak better and his career more consistent than, say, Joe Cannon or Pat Onstad? Does Stefan Frei deserve the nod, in large part because his legacy will only grow? How can we forget Tony Meola, the only goalkeeper to ever win MVP and a household name? Tim Howard’s peak might be higher than any ‘keeper in league history, but did he do enough for long enough?

In case you can’t tell, I had a lot of trouble with this one, and I’m still not sure I made the right choice.

Defenders

  • Jeff Agoos
  • Robin Fraser
  • Omar Gonzalez
  • Frankie Hejduk
  • Chad Marshall
  • Eddie Pope

The first four were easy and automatic. Pope, Marshall, Fraser, Agoos and zero doubts about it. I felt pretty good about Gonzalez, too, anchor of possibly the most potent dynasty in league history and all. The debate on this line came down to...

Snubs: Marcelo Balboa, Carlos Bocanegra, Jimmy Conrad, Alexi Lalas, Jamison Olave, Peter Vermes

...Frankie Hejduk vs. Jimmy Conrad. Not going to lie, outside of the omission of a certain handsome Englishman, this feels like my biggest mistake in hindsight. I love Hejduk. He was a wonderful, iconic player who won a ton in this league for multiple teams. Thing is, he played more than 2,000 minutes just three times. Conrad was far more consistent in MLS and his ceiling might have been higher. He was the league’s best central defender from 2004-2008. I hope other voters push him into the top 25, otherwise I’m going to keep feeling awful about this one. I’m sorry, Conradinho.

EDIT: Shout out to Ben Baer, who shamed me for my Michael Parkhurst omission. He is, for once, right.

Midfielders

  • Osvaldo Alonso
  • Chris Armas
  • Kyle Beckerman
  • Dwayne De Rosario
  • Marco Etcheverry
  • Cobi Jones
  • Shalrie Joseph
  • Preki
  • Steve Ralston
  • Carlos Valderrama

I’ve got four defensive midfielders and six attack-minded midfielders. That felt like the right mix. All these guys are beyond deserving. As an MLS fan, you read their names and their accomplishments probably jump to mind. Those are the perks of being formative stars in this league. Of the four d-mids, the first I’d drop is Ozzie, and I’d replace him with...

Snubs: DaMarcus Beasley, David Beckham, Michael Bradley, Mauricio Cienfuegos

...David Beckham. The 2006 World Cup followed by Beckham’s arrival is what hooked me on MLS. Perhaps, in this one instance, I should have rejiggered my rubric and made sure the Galaxy star found his way into my 25. I didn’t do that, justifying my decision to omit him by comparing his body of work on the field to the rest of the players on the list. Then I spoke to Peter Vermes on Friday's Extratime and asked him who the greatest player in MLS history is in his mind. He talked about Jaime Moreno, as he always does, but first he mentioned Beckham and the Before Becks and After Becks effect on MLS. In Vermes’ mind, one man kickstarted the trajectory the league now finds itself on. I was swept up in that wave. I should have included that man.

EDIT: Two words ... Diego Valeri. He wouldn't make my 25, but he damn sure deserved a snub mention.

Forwards

Three names not up for debate: Donovan, Moreno and Wondolowski. I started there. Keane got the nod because he was the best forward in MLS on the league’s most dominant team for basically six years running. Truly an MLS all-timer. Giovinco makes it because he was the league’s best player on a historic team for four years and set individual and collective marks in the process. Martinez makes it as my lone future play. He’s got enough to deserve it now, but it’s what I think he’ll do in the future, assuming Atlanta United get their act together, that makes me feel comfortable including him.

Snubs: Jeff Cunningham, Kei Kamara, Carlos Ruiz, Taylor Twellman, Carlos Vela, Bradley Wright-Phillips

In order of my level of guilt for leaving them out...

  1. Bradley Wright-Phillips
  2. Taylor Twellman
  3. Carlos Ruiz
  4. Kei Kamara
  5. Jeff Cunningham
  6. Carlos Vela
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