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The Soccer Hall of Fame’s “Essential XI” is infuriating

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Let’s get this out of the way: The National Soccer Hall of Fame’s “Essential XI” ballot — vote today! –will make you want to massage a mannequin made of broken glass.

That’s not because the XI isn’t fun, or the NSHOF won’t be amazing, but because choosing the members of this particular 3-4-3 is improbably difficult.

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I’ve filled out the XI a bunch of times, and not once have I felt good with my picks. Even the positions which seem clear cut… just… aren’t.

There’s one tip I’d give anyone considering their ballot: DO NOT choose a foreign player who played in the old NASL or an import who spent the waning days of his career in a nascent MLS.

Franz Beckenbauer and David Beckham definitely deserve credit for their contributions to American soccer, but having one of them pop up in an all-time XI would be an embarrassment in my — and I’m assuming many others’ — eyes.

Also, don’t do the write-in… the candidate won’t win (I made an XI of Josh Wolffs, anyway).

So here are the main options I wrestle with when I look at the nominees. Having men and women in the same XI is also a headache given the USWNT’s success.

Goalkeepers

Brad Friedel
Frank Borghi
Hope Solo
Nick Rimando
Tony Meola
Kasey Keller
Brianna Scurry
Mary Harvey
Tim Howard

Respect to all of these players, but it’s hard not to immediately strip this to Keller versus Howard (with Friedel in third, which is insane given our soccer culture). There’s recency bias here, I’m sure, but Howard’s success with Manchester United and then at Everton, holding the No. 1 chair for 10 seasons? That’s nuts. Keller’s career is nearly as amazing, and his performance against Brazil in the 1998 World Cup is close to Howard vs. Belgium in 2014. Brutal choice.

Ultimately I went with… Howard.

Defenders

Franz Beckenbauer
Harry Keough
Alexi Lalas
Marcelo Balboa
Christie Pearce Rampone
Steve Cherundolo
Carla Overbeck
Paul Caligiuri
Carlos Bocanegra
Brandi Chastain
Joy Fawcett
Kate Markgraf

Let me say this first, as a (horrible) forward, for some reason my favorite players were always backs. Bocanegra and Cherundolo are in my Top Three USMNT players of all-time. That said, it’s impossible to avoid Chastain’s status of holding the most iconic moment in U.S. Soccer history (It is called a Hall of Fame, after all), and Rampone held her position through one of the most competitive times in USWNT history. Keough gets the nod for his status on a legendary USMNT team and a storied career in coaching, too. He’s an architect.

Ultimately I went with… Keough, Chastain, Pierce-Rampone.

Midfielders

Walter Bahr
Michael Bradley
DaMarcus Beasley
Heather O’Reilly
Megan Rapinoe
Cobi Jones
Kristine Lilly
Carli Lloyd
Earnie Stewart
Julie Foudy
Tab Ramos
Claudio Reyna
David Beckham
John Harkes

First off, you have to include Lilly. She owns 354 caps and scored 130 goals, the latter of which is insane for a midfielder.

Now if you include Foudy, Rapinoe, Bahr, or Harkes — the latter’s omission perhaps the most egregious — you’ll have to exclude three absolute icons of the American men’s game.

Cobi Jones is the USMNT’s all-time caps leader, and his record is safe for some time. His iconic dreadlocks also just trump Alexi Lalas as the top look in U.S. Soccer (apologies to all the bald GKs and Bradley).

To me, Reyna and Bradley are similar players, generals, and trendsetters. Given the World Cup qualifying failure of the 2018 cycle, there’s a temptation to look past Bradley but that’s asinine. He’s got 140 caps, 17 goals, memorable goals at Azteca and in a qualifier’s qualifier against Costa Rica. And Donovan against Algeria doesn’t happen if Bradley doesn’t equalize against Slovenia. This doesn’t include his exploits at Roma, Gladbach, and Toronto FC. He’s really good.

Reyna won three NCAA championships under Bruce Arena at Virginia, earned 112 caps for the USMNT, and opened doors for Americans in Germany and Scotland (winning a double at the latter) in addition to becoming a fixture for Man City, making a World Cup Best XI, and winning the freaking Hermann Trophy.

All this leaves out Earnie Stewart and a two-time women’s World Player of the Year in Lloyd. Wow.

Ultimately I went with… Jones, Lilly, Reyna, Bradley.

Forwards

Landon Donovan
Carin Jennings-Gabarra
Tiffeny Milbrett
Abby Wambach
Cindy Parlow-Cone
Eric Wynalda
Alex Morgan
Michelle Akers
Jozy Altidore
Brian McBride
Clint Dempsey
Giorgio Chinaglia
Mia Hamm
Pele

This one feels reason enough to demand separate XIs for the USMNT and USWNT. In order to include a male, you need to ditch either Abby Wambach, Michelle Akers, or Mia Hamm. You have to exclude two of those to get both Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey on the XI!!

Hamm scored 158 goals (second all-time) and 145 assists (first) in 276 caps. Even given the investment in American women’s soccer compared the rest of the world, that’s absurd. Akers scored 107 times in just 155 caps. That’s insane. Wambach, as dominant as she was, doesn’t touch that.

Which pretty much brings us to Donovan or Dempsey (Sorry, Eric Wynalda and Brian McBride). For me, the level of success Dempsey found as a flame-holder for American soccer in England tips the scales for me. He’s scored the same amount of goals in 16 less caps, though Donovan torches him in assists. If you forced me to take Donovan over Dempsey, I wouldn’t put up much of a fight.

Ultimately I went with… Hamm, Dempsey, Akers

Toni Kroos signs new contract at Real Madrid

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German midfielder Toni Kroos has extended his stay at Real Madrid.

Kroos, 29, has signed a new contract at the Santiago Bernabeu which means he will be there until at least 2023, as the former Bayern Munich midfielder will close in on almost 10 years as a Real player.

The silky central midfielder who delivers stunning set pieces for club and country spoke on Monday in a press conference arranged by Real Madrid.

He has won three Champions League trophies and a La Liga title at Real, and although this season was easily their worst since he arrived at the club, locking the German down to a long-term deal makes sense.

Luka Modric’s future has been uncertain despite the Croatian midfielder, now 33, picking up the Ballon d’Or this year and the likes of Casemiro and Isco have had campaigns to forget.

With Zinedine Zidane back in charge of Real and their horror 2018-19 campaign over (it ended, typically, with a 2-0 home defeat to midtable Real Betis) it is all about moving on as quickly as possible at Real.

Kroos will be a key part of their future.

10-man Red Bulls hold off Atlanta United at home

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Atlanta United’s five-game winning streak went up in smoke as the New York Red Bulls pulled off an incredible 1-0 victory.

Playing down a man for around 65 minutes, the Red Bulls shutout Atlanta United’s high powered offense in front of 18,495 fans at Red Bull Arena. Tom Barlow, in just his second appearance with the Red Bulls, scored the game-winning goal in the 65th minute off a header at the far post, one that left U.S. Men’s National Team goalkeeper Brad Guzan rooted to his line.

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Tim Parker was shown a straight red card in controversial fashion, after grabbing Josef Martinez’s left arm with Martinez in front of him just outside the box. Martinez was clearly pulled back but continued running and eventually got a shot off that Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles parried away.

Referee Robert Sbiga then decided to call the play back and award Atlanta United a free kick outside the box. After what seemed to be consultation with his assistants, Sbiga then showed Parker a straight red card, likely for denial of a clear goal scoring opportunity (DOGSO) while Martinez was through on goal.

The outcome is a massive one for the Red Bulls. It’s been a rough season, with the loss of both Jesse Marsch and Tyler Adams and the poor form of Bradley Wright-Phillips up top. Wright-Phillips was out on Sunday and another attacker Andreas Ivan, went off with an injury in the first half as he was about to be substituted off anyways following the red card.

Alejandro Romero Gamarra, Kaku, has made his feelings known that he wants (or wanted) to leave the club. His form hasn’t been stellar this season either.

Meanwhile, Atlanta’s finally found its way back into the win column and is looking more like the juggernaut from last season, especially with five-straight shutout wins. It’s all back to zero today though, with the defeat at the Red Bulls on a perfect grass pitch up a man.

Mbappe hints he could leave PSG

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Kylian Mbappe accepted his award as the Ligue 1 MVP, dedicated it to Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, and then mentioned he could be off soon to another club.

Wait, what?

Yes, following Mbappe accepting his award, the French star and World Cup winner stated he hoped he could continue his career at PSG but left open the possibility of moving to another club that allows him to take the next steps in his career.

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“This is a very important moment for me, I arrive at a first or second turn of my career,” Mbappe said, via L’equipe. “I’ve discovered a lot of things here, I feel that maybe it’s time to have more responsibility. I hope it may be at Paris Saint-Germain, it would be with great pleasure, or perhaps elsewhere for a new project.”

Mbappe later clarified his comments, stating he was looking for more responsibility. “If it’s at PSG, that’s good. If it is elsewhere, it will be elsewhere for a new challenge.

“For me, it was time to say it. I am someone whole: when I say something, I think it. For me, it was the right time to say it. That’s it, I said it!”

It’s unclear why exactly Mbappe used this moment to put some pressure on PSG. Perhaps its to remind them that the club needs to be successful in its transfer endeavors this summer, so it can compete deep into the UEFA Champions League. With Neymar injured and a central midfield ravaged by injuries, PSG capitulated and somehow fell to Manchester United in the Champions League Round of 16, grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory.

There’s no reason why PSG can’t dominate the Champions League like it does Ligue 1, especially with the attacking trident of Mbappe, Neymar and Edinson Cavani. But of course, against better competition, the inferiority in mentality and in talent along the backline has started to show.

So, where could Mbappe go? There’s very few places that could effectively match both his salary and his competitive goals. It’s the usual suspects, Real Madrid, Barcelona, and perhaps Manchester City, should they be interested in it. More recently, while Man City has spent big, it’s been on signing multiple players on $50 million transfers, as opposed to one player on a $200 million transfer, for example.

It’s unlikely, but an intriguing option would be Liverpool. If the club somehow came up with the funds, imagine Mbappe playing alongside Sadio Mane and Mo Salah, with Roberto Firmino coming in to spell either of the three over the course of the season. Mbappe would likely make up that one-point difference between Liverpool and Man City, and if that’s what it takes for Liverpool to finally win the title, it could be worth the initial massive investment.

Messi finishes season leading La Liga in goals, assists, and more

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Lionel Messi turns 32 this summer, and after more than a dozen years of first team soccer, playing more than 50 games a season, the old man’s still got it.

The Argentine star, playing his first season in almost a decade without direct competition from Cristiano Ronaldo, scored twice as Barcelona tied Eibar, 2-2. The two goals gave him 34 for the season, by far the most by any player in the league, and his 50th in all competitions.

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Messi also led La Liga this season with 13 assists, 136 shots, 85 shots on target and 70 through balls. In terms of successful dribbles, Messi’s 132 fell seven short of Celta Vigo’s Sofiane Boufal.

Messi’s 34 goals gave him his sixth Pichichi, the trophy given to the league’s leading scorer. Messi is now tied with legendary Telmo Zarra for the all-time record of most Pichichi’s, and Messi is now three ahead of Ronaldo.

As if Messi wasn’t already a legendary player, the man seems to be showing no signs of slowing down. It may have helped that he skipped matches with Argentina after the 2018 World Cup this past fall, keeping him fresh for Barcelona. Even so, the man looks as good, if not better, with age.

Messi already holds the record for most goals in league history, and at this rate, he’ll set it to a level that will be almost impossible to reach. While he’s going to be remembered for his incredible control on the ball, it doesn’t hurt that he’s been incredibly productive during his career, including in 2018-2019. Barcelona won the league title with ease and the club made the UEFA Champions League semifinal. If for some better defending, Messi could be contesting for another Champions League title.