For the longest time, American soccer was like a tree falling in an empty forest. A secret history etched in dark corners by men whose achievements, no matter how seismic, felt doomed to obscurity. Hosting the 1994 World Cup changed that, birthing a professional league and multiplying the number of skilled American-born players capable of playing abroad.
To celebrate the United States Soccer Federation's centennial, we selected this list of the 11 Most Influential American Players of the past 100 years. These are not necessarily the "best" Americans to take the field. Advances in sports science and the onset of professionalism mean that even a Brek Shea would trump the giants of the 1920s to '80s. But they are the men who have stepped up to propel US Soccer along its exponential growth curve to its position today: America's Sport of the Future. As it has been since 1972.
Also read: 11 most influential U.S. women's players
Frank Borghi: Part-Time Hero
Goalkeeper Borghi earned only nine caps, enjoying just one shutout. But in football, timing is everything, and the St. Louis native became a legend at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. The United States team was a ramshackle bunch that qualified as a 500-1 long shot for the Brazilian World Cup by beating and then tying Cuba despite losing its seven previous games by the combined score of 45-2. Some on the squad were not even citizens. All of them entered the tournament expecting to be cannon fodder. The 1-0 victory they proceeded to secure against tournament favorite England remains one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport to this day -- as unimaginable as if an English football team had trumped its NFL All-Pro counterparts on the gridiron.
The game had two heroes. Haitian-born striker Joe Gaetjens, a part-time dishwasher, scored a wonder goal against the run of play, flying in with his head to deflect home a cross dispatched by American captain/gym teacher Walter Bahr in the 37th minute. Then 25-year-old goalkeeper Borghi, a former minor league catcher turned undertaker, proceeded to repel everything the English threw at his goal, which was besieged for the remaining 53 minutes of play.
One English newspaper compared the enormity of the loss to that suffered at Dunkirk. Another ran black borders on every page as a sign of national mourning. American coach Bill Jeffrey became perhaps the first wide-eyed prophet to misguidedly predict the imminent explosion of the game as he proclaimed, "This is all we need to make the game go in the States!" It would prove to be just the first of many false starts for U.S. soccer. Only one journalist, Dent McSkimming of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, saw the game live, and The New York Times, at first believing the reported victory to be a hoax when it came through on the wire, buried the story, managing to misname both the goal-scoring hero and the vanquished opponents in its headline: “Souza’s Goal Beats British Eleven 1-0.”
In today’s media-driven world, the team members would have become instant icons, and the requisite Disney version of their against-all-odds victory would hit movie screens around the same time Gaetjens and Borghi popped up on the front of a Wheaties box. But this was 1950 and soccer in America was a marginal activity popular only among immigrant minorities and their communities. The team arrived home without fanfare, as anonymously as it had left. Borghi was left to become best known by Gerard Butler's dodgy impersonation of him. (Roger Bennett)
Landon Donovan: The Hero Who Stayed Home
Where does one even begin when discussing Donovan's impact in this country? At the international level, Donovan's goals helped propel the U.S. into the knockout stages of two World Cups, and he remains the team's all-time leading scorer. In MLS, his teams have claimed five MLS Cups and two Supporters' Shields. His classy passing, speed and excellent close control have made him arguably the best player the country has ever produced.
"When I first got Landon at 18 years old, as soon as we got him in, you just realized just how good of a player he was," said San Jose Earthquakes manager Frank Yallop, who managed Donovan in San Jose and in Los Angeles. "You see a lot of kids with promise, but this was different."
Off the field, his impact has been immense, as he has been one of the standard-bearers for MLS for more than a decade now. Some would argue that Donovan's impact would have been greater if he had spent more of his career overseas. But who knows where that particular fork in the road might have carried him and the sport in this country? What is certain is that the path he chose had an impact, one that will resonate long after his playing career ends.
"Playing in MLS showed that a great player like Landon could stay here and thrive," Yallop said. "Then you take him from our league and he's done well [in England]. Landon has been the guy that, over the years, when people think of U.S. soccer, they think of Landon Donovan." (Jeff Carlisle)
Ricky Davis: Ahead of His Time
The lone American player deemed to have been blessed with sufficient talent to line up alongside Pele, Beckenbauer and Chinaglia with the star-soaked New York Cosmos, this Denver-born midfielder shared a club locker room with some of the greatest players in the world. Goalkeeper Shep Messing once claimed he was the first American who was coveted for his ball skills.
Davis' legend was victim of poor timing. His skills peaked just as the NASL began its decline. At the international level, he played in qualifiers for the 1982, 1986 and 1990 World Cups, captaining a motley crew of immigrants from Eastern Europe and South America who struggled to succeed on their $25 per diem. The squad was so haphazard that coaches would field this primarily defensive player at striker in the hope their one true talent could steal a goal. Davis' national team experience was akin to that of the Bad News Bears. An able professional on a national team that rarely trained, first connected in the locker room on the day of a game, was instructed to keep the loss respectable and was forbidden from swapping jerseys with the opposition as the federation had only one set. (RB)
John Harkes: The Cocky Pioneer
A gutsy midfielder who played in the 1990 and 1994 World Cups and became one of the stars of the D.C. United team that clinched MLS championships in three of the league's first four seasons, Harkes is best known for becoming the first American to make the leap to England's top flight when Sheffield Wednesday signed him as a squad player in 1990. He giddily informed the U.S. media that he had received "a two-and-a-half year contract for $185,000, use of a two-bedroom house and a leased BMW convertible." The mulleted Jersey boy proceeded to make an instant impression.
His first goal was from Drone Strike distance and was greeted by cheeky tabloid headlines "Harkes The Herald Angel Sings!" The drive was selected as Goal of the Year, gaining Harkes fame in England, yet he remained unknown in his own country. The New York Times’ profile mockingly called him "An American with a Jolly Good Toe."
The 1994 World Cup changed that. Harkes became so well known he was even selected as one of People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful.
Harkes arrived in England as an eager-to-please Boy Scout but quickly morphed into the role of a hardened English Premier League professional, returning to the U.S. locker room with a thick English accent and a new "English soccer" haircut. Hailed within U.S. Soccer as "Captain for Life," his sensational and controversial dropping by coach Steve Sampson for "technical and leadership reasons" two months before the 1998 World Cup was the precursor to a disastrous campaign. It was a black eye that came close to overshadowing the seismic contribution Harkes made to American soccer in a transitional time in which it woke up America. To enjoy Harkes in a more innocent era, savor this. (RB)
Kyle Rote Jr.: American Superstar
The North American Soccer League is remembered -- with considerable justification -- as a retirement league for European players. All the more reason for Rote to stand out. He was the only U.S.-born player to lead the league in scoring, doing so in 1973 to give the NASL a badly needed domestic star. Not bad for a player who didn’t start playing the sport full time until his collegiate years.
"Rote was a good athlete, strong in the air, competitive, tough, fast," said Bob Rigby, who, as a goalkeeper with the Philadelphia Atoms, edged out Rote's Dallas Tornado side for the 1973 NASL title. "And he was a quick learner."
But Rote gave the sport something even more important -- credibility -- and the irony was that it had nothing to do with what he did on the field. The 1970s featured a made-for-TV competition called "Superstars," in which athletes from different sports competed against each other in various events for the unofficial title of the world's greatest athlete. Among the competitors were baseball's Pete Rose, football's Franco Harris and basketball star John Havlicek. Rote won the competition three times in four years. Granted, soccer still had a long way to go in terms of overall acceptance, but Rote did his part.
"Kyle’s success showed that soccer players were good athletes," said Rigby, who competed in the 1976 version of the competition and finished fourth. "And he was an ambassador, always was. He was polished. He was sincere. From any standpoint, it was a win-win.
"We went from nine teams in '73 to [more than 20] teams in a few years. A lot of that was Kyle." (JC)
Adelino 'Billy' Gonsalves: The Babe Ruth of Soccer
Gonsalves might not be a household name, but there is something to be said for players who carried the game's torch in some of its darkest moments. On that basis, Gonsalves is worthy of mention. Gonsalves began his professional career in the late 1920s and carried on playing for an incredible 25 years, earning the moniker "the Babe Ruth of American Soccer." Ironically, Gonsalves' reputation was more as a playmaker than scorer, often setting the table for the likes of Bert Patenaude and Alex McNab. But wherever he went, titles followed. He won eight U.S. Open Cups, including a remarkable six in a row with three different teams. He also claimed four American Soccer League championships across two incarnations, and he represented the U.S. at the 1930 and 1934 World Cups.
So why isn't Gonsalves better known? In a word, timing. The "Soccer War" in which the ASL and the U.S. Soccer Federation wrestled for control of the sport would have a cannibalizing effect, and, when the Great Depression hit in 1929, the game barely survived. Yet his contributions in this difficult period are considerable.
"Gonsalves was certainly at the forefront of that era as a player," said Jack Huckel, the former director of museum and archives at the National Soccer Hall of Fame. "He was imposing physically; a big, strong man with great skill. And in a one-off competition like the Open Cup, where it’s so easy to go out even against inferior opponents, to win eight times is mind-boggling." (JC)
Paul Caligiuri: The Shot Heard Round the World
Rarely has one goal had such an impact on the soccer fortunes of a nation, but such was the case with Caligiuri's blast against Trinidad & Tobago in a 1989 World Cup qualifier. The U.S. won the match 1-0 to qualify for the 1990 World Cup, although the goal's impact resonates well beyond that particular tournament. Qualification helped quell complaints over the U.S. being awarded the 1994 World Cup, and the momentum that tournament generated on and off the field proved critical to the sport's development.
"What that goal started was it got soccer onto the everyday sports page," Huckel said. "That '90 World Cup allowed us to start to tell the story to people who weren't soccer fans, as well as providing an opportunity to reconnect a bunch of soccer people who played as kids."
Caligiuri was also one of the game's trailblazers in terms of playing in Europe, signing for German powerhouse Hamburg in 1987 before going on to play for several German sides, including Hansa Rostock in the old East Germany. His contributions for the 1990 and 1994 World Cup teams was significant, as well.
"Obviously, the goal against T&T everybody remembers," said Bob Gansler, who coached the U.S. national team at that 1990 World Cup. "But he was as good a player as we had in 1990 and 1994. And given how he played at Meppen and Rostock and all of that, none of that happens if he wasn't an awfully good player. He was influential without a doubt." (JC)
Bert Patenaude: The Original Sniper
Long before the dawn of television, agents or even choreographed goal celebrations, the World Cup was established with a simple goal: to unify the various international strains of a sport that had grown rapidly but haphazardly since its emergence in England in the late 1800s.
The United States squad arrived as a seeded favorite thanks to the semiprofessional American Soccer League that had prospered since its creation in 1921 because of British, German and Scandinavian immigrants up and down the East Coast. Loaded with a core of British pros from such powerhouse teams as the Detroit Holley Carburetor, Fall River Marksmen and the Providence Clamdiggers, the Americans were known affectionately as "The Shot Putters" on account of their stocky physiques. The team made it as far as the final four, with New Jersey-born striker Patenaude notching the tournament's first hat trick in the opening round and establishing an American World Cup scoring record that stood until broken by Donovan in 2010.
The team was bounced by Argentina in the semifinals, and when the league fell victim to the Great Depression shortly afterward, its disintegration had dire consequences. Soccer had been solely established as a professional game, and, lacking the safety net of amateur roots at the collegiate level, the sport began its history of decline. Patenaude worked a number of odd jobs. No other painter and wallpaper hanger has scored as many World Cup goals in American history. (RB)
Eric Wynalda: The Not-So-Quiet American
As Huckel so aptly put it, Wynalda "shot from the hip and shot from the lip." Another of the sport's pioneers, Wynalda was the first U.S.-born forward to make an impression overseas. A shifty, dynamic player off the dribble with a heavy shot, Wynalda was the first U.S. native to break into Germany's top flight, with Saarbrucken and later Bochum. Upon his return stateside, Wynalda's impact was immediate, scoring the game winner for the San Jose Clash in the inaugural MLS match against D.C. United. Internationally, Wynalda long held the U.S. career goal-scoring record and scored one of the sweetest free kicks in the team’s history, against Switzerland at the 1994 World Cup.
"Eric was a gifted player, an intuitive player," Gansler said. "The attacking part of the game is the toughest part, and he brought us a lot in terms of attacking potential."
Off the field, Wynalda was – and continues to be – never short of opinions. The trait tended to drive managers and some teammates to distraction, but, whether you agreed with him or not, the reality is that he got people talking about the game, and it has served him well in his post-playing career as a television analyst for Fox Soccer Channel. (JC)
Alexi Lalas: The Clown Prince
Lalas never dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player as a kid. He played the guitar. He loved Van Halen. His sport of choice was ice hockey. But with a ginger goatee bouncing and red hair flowing, he became an American pioneer: the first U.S.-born player to join the 1990s' greatest league: Italy's Serie A.
Ahead of the World Cup, no American would have been able to pick him out of a police lineup. Before the tournament kicked off, he had never even played professional club soccer. But his physical ability and endurance earned him a place on the U.S. team, and, through the course of an ebullient World Cup campaign, Lalas, in the words of Sports Illustrated, became "the rock-and-roll American face of the game." By the time the Michigan native had been elected to the All-Tournament team, he had a sneaker deal, a European agent and offers to play in every major league in the world. After signing for Italian club Padova, Lalas reveled in his guitar-strumming maverick persona. Brandishing the nickname "Buffalo Bill" his hosts bestowed upon him, he proceeded to jam on Italian television and support Hootie & The Blowfish on their European tour.
Those who only know Lalas from his present-day iteration as a television broadcaster should read The New York Times from 1996, when MLS phoned and the defender returned to answer its call. "He's a patriot, a whole-hearted individual, the soul of what America needs most." (RB)
Kasey Keller: The Man Who Beat Brazil
Keller just edges Brad Friedel on this list for the simple reason that he was an established starter in Europe several years ahead of his U.S. national team rival. Keller began his career with second-tier Millwall before taking his game to the English Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga and ultimately, MLS. At the international level, Keller made it onto three World Cup rosters and should have made a fourth in 1994, only to be controversially omitted by then-U.S. manager Bora Milutinovic.
"Keller was dead set on going to Europe to test himself," said Lalas, Keller's former international teammate. "Not only did it, but did it in a way that has proved unprecedented in terms of the places he played and the success that he had."
Keller was a goalkeeper who always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, but he had a knack for the spectacular, as well. Perhaps his finest hour was the 1998 Gold Cup semifinal against Brazil, when he produced a string of saves to preserve a 1-0 win that led superstar Romario to claim, "That's the best performance by a goalkeeper I have ever seen."
"I knew that, with him back there, he was going to save my ass because I also knew there was a point where I was going to make a mistake," Lalas added. "It sounds funny, but to have the confidence that, if you do make a mistake -- and as a defender you inevitably will -- that you have somebody back there that will bail you out, there's huge value in that."
Off the field, Keller was a thoughtful and insightful commenter on the game, an attribute he has parleyed into a television career. All told, his consistently high level of play through different leagues makes him worthy of inclusion here. (JC)
Roger Bennett is a columnist for ESPN FC and, with Michael Davies, is one of Grantland's "Men In Blazers." Follow him on Twitter @rogbennett.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNFC. Follow him on Twitter @jeffreycarlisle.