Whilst the US is certainly not an elite footballing nation up there with the traditionally great European and South American countries, they have been a consistent presence in World Cups since the 90’s and have produced more than a few notable players who have succeeded at the top level around the world. Before the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the US men’s national team had appeared at every tournament since Italia ’90, including hosting the 1994 World Cup and making it out of the group stage three times including an impressive quarter-final run at Japan-South Korea 2002.
Their best finish at a World Cup actually came at the very first instalment of the tournament back in 1930 where they finished third after losing in the semi-finals to Argentina, and they have had much success in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, winning the tournament six times since it began in 1991, including victory in the 2021 final against closest rivals Mexico. The advent of the MLS, and with it increased public interest in the sport through the media and the rise of legalized sports betting, has certainly helped the US become more competitive and consistent, as well as creating a better player development system. In the past two decades in particular, the US has produced some top quality players, so let’s take a look at the best of the bunch.
Alexi Lalas- Lalas was the first modern American footballer to play in Serie A, where he featured in two seasons for Padova before moving back to the US to play in the first MLS season in 1996. A hard working defender, Lalas played every minute of his team’s 1994 home World Cup campaign, earning public adoration for his play and his signature sideburns. Only 17 men have more than Lalas’ 96 caps for the US men’s national team, and he featured for four MLS sides including LA Galaxy with whom he won four trophies including the 2002 MLS Cup. He also featured for New England Revolution, MetroStars, and Kansas City Wizards in a career that landed him in the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2006.
Tim Howard- Howard is the most capped USA goalkeeper of all time with 121 caps over a 15-year span that included 3 World Cups. He is one of the most notable American players worldwide having starred for Manchester United and Everton in the Premier League, making 414 total appearances for Everton. Howard also featured for the MetroStars and Colorado Rapids in the MLS.
Brad Friedel- the second goalkeeper mentioned, and arguably the USA’s greatest, Friedel was amongst the world’s best ‘keepers during his playing career. He racked up 82 caps for the national team, and was a stalwart in the Premier League for Liverpool, Blackburn, Aston Villa and Tottenham. Friedel owns the record for the most consecutive Premier League appearances with 310 and also ranks in the top ten all time for clean sheets kept. He also played for the Columbus Crew in the MLS, Danish side Brondby and Turkish giants Galatasaray. Friedel starred in the USA’s quarter-final run at the 2002 World Cup and is undoubtedly one of the best players in national team history.
Clint Dempsey- the versatile attacking player is a legend at Fulham, where he scored 50 goals in 189 appearances, and is the joint-record scorer for the USA with 57 international goals. Dempsey was a star, with natural attacking flair and an eye for goal that saw him have a brilliant career in England and make 141 appearances for the national team including trips to 3 World Cups. He also a part of two Gold Cup winning teams and is the only US player to score at three different World Cup tournaments. Dempsey closed out his career with a successful stint at MLS side Seattle Sounders, where he won three trophies, and he also played for the New England Revolution early in his career.
Landon Donovan- arguably the greatest ever US player, Donovan was the rare star that played the majority of his career in the MLS, where he dominated with LA Galaxy winning four MLS Cups and scoring 146 goals in 340 appearances. He also won two MLS Cups with the San Jose Earthquakes and had successful stints in Europe with Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich in Germany, and Everton in England. Not only is Donovan the second highest goal scorer in the history of the MLS, he is also the joint-top goalscorer for the US men’s national team with 57 goals and has the second most national team caps of all time with 157. No player has more than his 5 world cup goals for the USA, and he was also named the 2002 World Cup young player of the tournament after starring in the run to the quarter-finals. Donovan has been a part of four Gold Cup winning teams, and has won the most US Soccer Athlete of the Year awards too. A fine player, with pace, creativity and excellent finishing skills, Donovan was a genuinely world class player.
Honorable mentions must go to Cobi Jones, who has the most caps all time for the US with 164, and Claudio Reyna who also starred for multiple Premier League clubs and made 111 national team appearances. The US have certainly had some fantastic players in the past, and with exciting talents like Christian Pulisic and Sergino Dest now playing for Chelsea and Barcelona respectively, there is hope that the next generation could be the best yet.