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U.S. Soccer's 'Best XI' neglects great players of old

The U.S. Soccer Federation has wound up their 100th anniversary year by announcing their all-time Best XI national team for both the men and women.

The players on the women’s Best XI are familiar faces to anyone that has followed the game over the past 20 years or so. The first women’s national team game was in 1985, so seeing so many recent faces (three of the 11 are still active) is not unexpected.

As a matter of fact, the only person who seems to take issue with the picks is Hope Solo. Which isn't a big surprise, nor is her lack of familiarity with Roman numerals.

The first national team match on the men’s side was in Stockholm in 1916, so it is a bit surprising that when the men’s Best XI was picked, they all came out of the exact same era.

To some extent, it’s understandable. Few living people have seen some of these folks play, and there is no YouTube video of Bert Patenaude’s hat trick against Paraguay at the first World Cup.

Another trouble is that the U.S. team didn’t play as often in those days. There was no CONCACAF Gold Cup (or CONCACAF) for most of the last century, and World Cup qualification from our part of the world was a simpler affair. Rather than the knock-down drag-out “hex” matches the U.S. plays in now, the 1950 team, for example, played matches against Mexico and Cuba. That was it.

That means we have people who were “stars” of the national team with a scant number of caps, or full national team games. Joe Gaetjens, the man that scored against England at the 1950 World Cup, had a total of three caps. With so few matches, how do you judge whether Gaetjens's performance against England was a regular thing or just that of a guy who had one really fantastic game in him?

Given the relative obscurity of the players before 1990, it’s easy to see why a Best XI voter would vote for say, Eric Wynalda over Willy Roy even though Roy’s average of a goal every other national team game puts Wynalda to shame. It is also arguable that with the rapid evolution of the professional game in this country, the guys from the last two decades or so probably are better than the ones from the previous eight.

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So, who were those guys? I've gone through the list of nominees for Best XI and divvied them up into three periods. The modern period would be any player that played at the 1990 World Cup or after. Since that’s modern, I’ll call the period after the 1950 World Cup through 1990, when the U.S. was unable to qualify, neolithic, and anyone from 1950 or before paleolithic. If you wonder why I went for an archaeological metaphor, you've never tried to look up U.S. soccer stats from that period.

You probably know the modern period guys. Here are the rest of them with some bits of information about their accomplishments. I didn't pick a “team” of these guys, but Steve Holroyd of the Philly Soccer Page did.

Paleolithic era (through 1950 World Cup)

Walter Bahr (midfield, 19 caps) – Bahr had the assist on the all-important goal against England in the 1950 World Cup. He scored only one time in his national team career (against Cuba in a World Cup qualifier), but earned four American Soccer League titles and two US Open Cup finals appearances with the Philadelphia Nationals. His play with the Nationals earned a look from teams in the UK, but he chose to stay in his native Philadelphia. After retiring from playing, he coached Penn State’s soccer team to fourteen NCAA tournament appearances.

Frank Borghi (goalkeeper, 8 caps) – Borghi's shut-out performance in that 1950 match against England is all the more remarkable because he was regarded as a better baseball player than soccer player. He counted on his upper body strength and would leave goal kicks for field players. He won two National Challenge Cup (now called the U.S. Open Cup) championships with Simpkins Ford in his club career. He was played in the movie Game of Their Lives by Gerard Butler.

Davey Brown (forward, 3 caps) – Brown played all three of his national team games against Canada. He scored in two of those appearances, both 6 – 1 wins in 1926. He played his club ball for the ASL’s New York Giants, where he had over 200 appearances. His most productive season for that squad was in the 1926-27 season, where he scored 52 goals in 32 games. Unfortunately, an injury kept him out of the first World Cup in 1930.

Aldo “Buff” Donelli (forward, 2 caps) – Donelli tallied four goals against Mexico in qualifying for the 1934 World Cup, his first appearance in a US jersey. He also scored the U.S.’s only goal in a defeat at the hands of Italy, becoming the only U.S. player to score on Italian soil for over half a century. Donelli was also accomplished in the other football, coaching gridiron squads for Columbia University and Boston University, as well as the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Rams.

Joe Gaetjens (forward, 3 caps) – Gaetjens scored a grand total of one goal for the U.S. national team, but it will be remembered as the one that defeated England in 1950. After the World Cup, he moved to France to play for Racing Club of Paris and then back to his native Haiti to start his accounting career. Despite his trying to distance himself from the turbulent politics of his homeland, he was kidnapped and presumed murdered by the infamous Tonton Macoute in 1964.

Billy Gonsalves (forward, 6 caps) – “The Babe Ruth of Soccer” came out of the Portuguese immigrant community in Massachusetts that fostered so many players in the early days of U.S. soccer. Gonsalves was notable for being able to shoot with either foot, and for being a gentleman player that never earned a caution or ejection in a career that lasted a quarter century. He played in two World Cups (1930 and 1934) and was part of the inaugural class of the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame in 1950.

Harry Keough (defender, 17 caps) – Keough played for a variety of teams in the St. Louis area throughout the forties and fifties. A Spanish speaker, Keough was given the responsibility of captaining the U.S. team in the match against Spain at the 1950 World Cup. Keough’s defensive abilities helped the US shut out England in that tournament. He continued to play for the national team after that world cup, earning his last cap in 1957. The Keough Award, named for Keough and his son Ty, also a former U.S. national team player, is given to an outstanding male and female soccer player in St. Louis every year.

Ed McIlvenny (midfielder, 3 caps) – The team thought that it would be appropriate to make McIlvenny, a native of Scotland, captain for the match against England in the 1950 World Cup. It worked out well, since a throw in from him started the play that resulted in the U.S.’s winning goal in that match. After the tournament, he returned to the British Isles where he had appearances for Manchester United and Waterford United.

Benny McLaughlin (forward, 12 caps) – McLaughlin was a regular on the U.S. national team in the late forties through the fifties, but missed out on the 1950 World Cup because he had to plan his wedding and couldn’t get time off work. He won four ASL titles with the Philadelphia Nationals during his time on that team, and also played for Brookhattan and Uhrik Truckers.

Bert Patenaude (forward, 4 caps) – Patenaude scored the very first hat trick in World Cup history, even if it took until 2006 for the soccer gods to certify it. He also scored against Belgium in that 1930 tournament, giving him the third best total in that very first World Cup. No American came close to scoring that many goals in a World Cup until 2010.

Ed Souza (midfielder, 6 caps) – Another of the Luso-American contingent from Fall River, Souza scored one goal in a US jersey and played in both the 1948 Olympics and the 1950 World Cup. He played for amateur side Ponta Delgada FC, and won the National Challenge Cup (now U.S. Open Cup) with them in 1947.

John “Clarkie” Souza (midfielder, 14 caps) – Not related to Ed Souza, but was also a member of Ponta Delgada FC. Souza’s performance at the 1950 World Cup earned him a spot on the tournament’s Best XI team, something no American would do until 2002. In addition to representing the Yanks at the 1950 World Cup, he also played for the U.S. at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics.

Archie Stark (forward, 2 caps) – Even though he had few appearances for the U.S., Stark goal scoring prowess was legendary in his time. All four of the goals he scored as a national team player were in a single match against Canada in 1925, but he is best remembered for the goals he scored at the club level. He scored 70 goals for Bethlehem Steel in the 1924 season, which is not only the record in any American league, but was the record worldwide until it was broken last year by Lionel Messi. Messi, by the way, is still 30 goals behind Stark’s all-time career tally of 253 goals at press time.

Neolithic era (1950 World Cup through 1990 World Cup)

Adolf Bachmeier (midfielder, 15 caps) – Bachmeier’s entire career was in the period where the U.S. was considered a no-hoper for World Cup qualification. He got his first call up for a devastating 8 – 1 loss against England in 1959. He captained the national team during qualifiers for the 1970 World Cup.

Rick Davis (midfielder, 36 caps) – Davis scored his first international goal as a seventeen year-old in a match against El Salvador. He and the United States qualified for the Olympics in 1980, but couldn’t go after the President Carter’s boycott. Davis would go on to captain the U.S. squad for most of the '80s, but an injury kept him out of the 1990 World Cup. His total of 36 caps was the most of any American player up to that point.

Bill Looby (forward, 8 caps) – Looby’s first appearance for the United States came in 1954, scoring four goals in the four match World Cup qualifying tournament that year. The next year, he scored a brace in a loss to Iceland.  He would go on to be an alternate for Olympic teams until 1964.

Arnie Mausser (goalkeeper, 35 caps) – The tall and rangy Mausser should be remembered as the top American goalkeeper of his era, but instead often gets tagged as the guy that couldn’t stay with one team (10 teams in 10 NASL seasons) or for the error against Costa Rica that ended the U.S.’s chance to be in the 1986 World Cup. He earned ten shut outs in his time with the team and set the standard for future U.S. keepers.

Ed Murphy (forward, 17 caps) – Scottish-born Ed Murphy scored five goals for the U.S. national team, including one against England in an 8-1 loss. He was also on the U.S. squad for the Pan-American games in 1959. The Yanks’ effort in that tournament earned them 26 goals and a bronze medal.

Kyle Rote Jr. (forward, 5 caps) – Rote initially planned to follow in his father’s footsteps with a football career, but a broken leg caused him to abandon that plan. Lamar Hunt arranged for him to be drafted to the team he owned, Dallas Tornado, to try to get more American players (and American interest) in the NASL.  He was named rookie of the year in 1972 while leading the Tornado to the league final. His first cap came against Poland in 1973.

Werner Roth (defender, 15 caps) - One of the few American players to play for the New York Cosmos, Roth got his first caps for the United States during a chaotic try at qualification for the 1974 World Cup. It was after that disaster that the team hired its first full time coach, Detmar Cramer, who made Roth one of his regular starters. Roth played the captain of the German team in the 1981 movie Victory.

Willy Roy (forward, 20 caps) – Roy’s national team career included failed campaigns in World Cup qualification for 1966 and 1970. He went out again for the 1974 qualifying campaign, and scored in three consecutive matches. That feat went unaccomplished for any other American player until 2000, and the six goals he scored went unbeaten in an American qualifying campaign until 2001. As a coach, Roy has the distinction of winning the last NASL soccer bowl while he was with the Chicago Sting in 1984.

Al Trost (midfielder, 14 caps) – Trost was part of the 1972 squad that qualified for the Olympics. The U.S. ended their Olympic run with only a point (from a draw with Morocco) and no goals scored, but it was the first time the team had qualified for the Olympics since 1960. Trost’s first cap came when national team coach Walt Czychowycz wanted to try a new squad for a friendly against Poland in 1973. Trost scored his only goal for the national team in that match.

Special thanks to the American Soccer History Archives for caps, goals and stat information.

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Click image to enlarge

Bert Patenaude (white jersey) at the 1930 World Cup.

U.S. Women's Best XI

  • Briana Scurry (G)
  • Brandi Chastain (D)
  • Joy Fawcett (D)
  • Carla Overbeck (D)
  • Christie Rampone (D)
  • Michelle Akers (M)
  • Julie Foudy (M)
  • Kristine Lilly (M)
  • Mia Hamm (F)
  • Alex Morgan (F)
  • Abby Wambach (F)

U.S. Men's Best XI

  • Brad Friedel (G)
  • Marcelo Balboa (D)
  • Carlos Bocanegra (D)
  • Steve Cherundolo (D)
  • Eddie Pope (D)
  • Clint Dempsey (M)
  • Landon Donovan (M)
  • Tab Ramos (M)
  • Claudio Reyna (M)
  • Brian McBride (F)
  • Eric Wynalda (F)