G.O.A.T. debates can become heated arguments, complete with eye-rolling, obscure statistics, and strained friendships. In soccer, these debates are even more difficult, because statistics don’t really tell the full story in such a dynamic sport. 

And when it comes to US soccer players, the eras are so different. The sport did not receive as much attention or funding in the 90s compared to now. Players back then struggled to make it to Europe, as the reputation of American players had not yet been established. This often impeded players from making their mark on the biggest stage.

These early players did lay the groundwork for those who came later. But it’s impossible to quantify this impact. It took many players to achieve some level of success before American players were taken seriously enough around the world to get legit chances. 

All that’s to say, this is a very subjective list. 

Un-scientific Methodology

To bring some order to the chaos, we’ll use the following factors to determine the best US soccer player ever. While the criteria is based on solid categories, how well each player scores and how much importance each category is given per player differs wildly (for instance, how much of a trail-blazer someone is totally depends on their era). 

Plus, most of the advanced stats used today did not exist in the past, so we won’t use them at all. We’re only going on simple goals, assists, eye-test, and completely subjective judgements. Hence the un-scientific methodology below. 

  • Trail-blazing
  • National team career
  • Club team career
  • Iconic moments
  • Longevity
  • Attacking player bias (it’s harder to score goals than to stop them… even though I was a GK I can admit this)

Top five

On to the top five. There’s probably an argument to be made for a few players to be this high up the list, but here you go. 

5. Claudio Reyna

While he wasn’t the first US player in Europe, he was the first US player who established himself at a top level, with stints in Germany, Scotland, and England (in the Premier League). He was also the first US player to captain a European side – a huge sign of respect for an American player. Basically, he was our first legit field player export to Europe. A definite trailblazer.

A creative midfielder who could adapt to a number of other roles, Reyna was known for his technical ability, vision, intelligence, tactical flexibility, quickness, and occasional brilliant goals. At the time, it was hard to believe the US could produce a player who could so seamlessly fit into the European mold of a complete central midfielder. A truly gifted and natural soccer player.

While he had plenty of great moments throughout his career, the one that stands out the most for the national team is his performance against Mexico in the 2002 World Cup.

With a place in the quarterfinal at stake, coach Bruce Arena pulled off a tactical surprise by deploying Reyna at right midfield instead of his usual central creative role. This threw off the Mexican gameplan (they made a double substitution in the first half, a very rare sight), and Reyna’s creativity on the right flank set up the first, and decisive, goal of the match. 

If not for some injuries as he reached the peak of his career, he would likely be higher up this list. 

4. Tim Howard

Moving on to a slightly controversial pick, and the only goalkeeper in the top five. Strong arguments could be made for either Brad Friedel or Kasey Keller, both of whom had great success with the national team, as well as long European careers. It’s hard leaving either out, but Howard just edges it. 

Additional controversy comes because goalkeeper has traditionally been the strongest position for the US. But only one gets in, and it is Tim Howard.

Why Tim? Unbelievable longevity (over 700 appearances), a very solid and consistent European career with a mid-level team (Everton), a great National Team career (121 caps), a stint at the very top of the European game (Manchester United), and a few iconic moments. He was a trailblazer as the first US starter at one of the top three or four biggest clubs of the game (Manchester United).

Best known for his supreme athleticism (he was an all-state basketball player in high school), his size, technical ability, reflexes, and mental focus also made him an unbelievable goalkeeper. He really didn’t have any weaknesses, made very few mistakes, brought a calmness to his teams, and his consistency and longevity is a testament to his mental strength. Especially as he overcame Tourette’s Syndrome (more on that here). 

His iconic moment in a national team jersey? The performance against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup. He made a World Cup record 15 saves, single-handedly keeping us in the game, in a 2-1 overtime loss to a heavily favored Belgian team. 

If not for a mistake on the Champions League stage early in his Manchester United career, which led to a loss of confidence and form, who knows if he could have held down that job long-term. If he had, he would undoubtedly be number one on this list. It’s tough at the top as a goalkeeper. Either way, what an incredible career.

3. Christian Pulisic

The only current player and one with the potential to reach number one on this list by the time it’s all said and done. 

An incredibly talented player who made his professional debut at the age of 18 for Borussia Dortmund, the second biggest club in Germany, Pulisic represented a new age of American players. His quick ascension through the Dortmund ranks as a teenager, and his early success, gave US soccer hope that we could produce potentially world class players. We had never seen someone so young produce so quickly at such a high level (a trailblazer in that sense).

Boasting explosive quickness and speed, close dribbling ability, an eye for goal, and intelligent movement beyond his years (I remember watching him in a preseason game against Liverpool and couldn’t help but notice how intelligent and decisive his movement was), Pulisic has produced at the highest levels of the game. He has won the Champions League with Chelsea as a key rotation player and has put together his most productive season as a professional this year with Italian giants AC Milan. He is an elite player who has yet to reach his peak.

The only things keeping him from breaking the top two on this list are his longevity (not his fault) and his lack of an iconic national team moment. He has had some good moments in games against Mexico (his man in the mirror celebration is one to remember), but nothing yet that matches the other players in the top five. 

Hopefully this moment comes soon…

2. Landon Donovan

Many people would put Landon Donovan at number one. This was a tough choice for me, because his US National Team career was unparalleled. But his personal decision to spend most of his club career in the MLS instead of at the very top of the club game in Europe keeps him from the top spot. 

Donovan had it all as an attacker – pace, technical ability, finishing, the final ball, versatility, and fierce competitiveness. He could score great goals and scrappy goals, and was a creative force. His goalscoring record for club and country speaks for itself. He is tied as the all-time goals leader (with number one on this list) and is the all-time assist leader for the men’s national team. His 141 goals in 317 club appearances, an almost 1 for every 2 game pace, is quite a feat for a player who is not primarily a striker or center forward. 

He broke through as the highest profile player on the first U17 national team class to train full-time as a group in the new US youth residency program. This team made the semi-finals of the 1999 U17 world championship, where Donovan was named the player of the tournament. 

This placed a lot of expectation on the youngster when he transferred to Bayer Leverkusen in Germany, but he was unable to lock down a consistent starting spot. They loaned him out to the San Jose Earthquakes of the MLS, where he found a home and produced his best soccer. While he did have intermittent stints back in Europe, he found the comforts of his California roots too hard to leave.

He became the face of US soccer for over a decade, carrying the burden of a country on his back for a long time. You have to assume this took its toll, as he needed a couple of breaks from the game to regain his edge. 

A player full of iconic moments, two big ones stand out. First, his diving header against Mexico in the round of 16 in the 2002 World Cup. This goal capped a great team move and a perfect ball from Eddie Lewis, and locked in the US’s spot against Germany in the next round. With two key players who were barely 20 years old producing a goal of that quality at that level, it created a huge level of optimism for the future of the national team.

The second was his goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup. Although it was a simple tap in, the last second timing and the need to win the game made this a huge goal and a very exciting moment. 

1. Clint Dempsey

Although not quite as accomplished as Donovan with the national team (but pretty close), and lacking the dramatic iconic moments that Donovan produced, Dempsey’s European success brings him to the top of this list. 

As opposed to Donovan who came through the youth national teams and made a move to Europe as a teenager, Dempsey took a less conventional route to the top. From a small town in Texas, he didn’t have lots of big clubs nearby where he could compete in the typical pyramid of US soccer. Instead, he played lots of pickup games and participated in local hispanic adult leagues. 

Eventually he was discovered by the Dallas Texans youth club when his brother was offered a tryout, but had to quit due to financial and family restraints (a definite failure of our pay to play system). Eventually he made his way to a highly regarded Furman University program on a soccer scholarship, where he stood out on a team full of youth national team and future MLS players. Definitely a trailblazer in this regard, as very few modern elite national team field players went the old-school college route, and even fewer (if any) were outside of the traditional youth club system.

He was drafted by New England of the MLS, stood out for a couple seasons, then made his way to Fulham in the Premier League. Many good US players found this transition difficult, but Dempsey stood up to the challenge to become Fulham’s all-time leading Premier League goal scorer. He led them to the final of the Europa league in 2010, and transferred to Tottenham almost $10 million, a record for an American at the time.

What made Dempsey the G.O.A.T.? A combination of athleticism, strength, creativity, supreme technical ability, audacity (see his chip against Juventus in the 2010 Europa League semi-final), and determination. He was a great dribbler and played with a lot of flair too. 

Skip to 4:30 for Dempsey’s unbelievable chip

Perhaps his best attribute was his mentality. He had an unerring belief in his own ability. When playing against him, he had a certain arrogance and attitude that allowed him to play at the highest levels. You could also see his determination in the way he would make hard runs in the box to score the “ugly” goals, which is rare for a player with his creative abilities. /Additionally, he was a team player and you never felt his attitude got in the way of team chemistry or caused him to become complacent. A perfect balance of mental attributes. 

He has a few iconic moments with the National Team. One is his lead up in the Landon Donovan goal against Algeria we already mentioned. Dempsey took that shot that the goalkeeper saved right into Donovan’s path. 

He also led the charge in the US’s iconic 2009 Confederations Cup run that saw the US beat a Spain team in the middle of their prime in the semi-finals (with Dempsey scoring the clinching second goal), as well as score first against a very strong Brazil team in the final (a game which we eventually lost 3-2). This was by far the best performance and result for a US men’s team at an international tournament, and Dempsey made its best XI (along with Tim Howard). 

An unbelievable career and the best we’ve seen so far from a US player (in my humble opinion). Sadly, in our pay to play system, a player like Dempsey is more likely to slip through the cracks than to make it as a professional. Our culture needs to change so we can cast a wider net to include more youth players in our talent pool. Luckily Clint Dempsey found his way through.

Honorable Mention

In no particular order, here are some great US players who just missed out on the top 5 of this list.

  • Brad Friedel
  • Kasey Keller
  • Eric Wynalda
  • Tab Ramos
  • John Harkes
  • Eddie Pope
  • DeMarcus Beasley
  • Brian McBride
  • Michael Bradley

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