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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

It’s confirmed: Club Leon parts ways with Landon Donovan

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Landon Donovan’s four-month adventure in Mexico appears to be over.

Club Leon announced on Sunday that it had parted ways with Donovan, despite the 36-year-old having a contract through the end of the calendar year. Donovan made just eight appearances for Leon, with just one start, and failed to score or assist on a goal as Leon slumped to 13th place in the Clausura season.

[READ: England squad reconnects with fans]

“…both parties have decided not to (keep the contract) for the Clausura that united us,” Leon said in a statement. “The departure of Landon from our team has been exemplary in all aspects. The club loses a legendary professional from the world of sports that leaves an indelible institutional imprint.”

It’s unclear what’s next for Donovan, but he stated in an interview with PST’s Matt Reed that he intends to continue playing in Mexico.

Donovan recently drew the ire of U.S. Men’s National Team fans and Donovan’s former teammates when he revealed he was rooting for Mexico at the World Cup this summer as part of a Well’s Fargo campaign.

Landon Donovan talks El Tri support, USMNT and more

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For hardcore U.S. Men’s National Team supporters, it is still difficult to comprehend the concept of their boys missing out on the World Cup, but that reality has officially set in with the start of the competition in Russia.

[ MORE: What will hosting 2026 World Cup mean for USA? ]

It is that failure though that has prompted several former USMNT greats like Alexi Lalas, and more recently, Landon Donovan, to call on Americans to support Mexico and CONCACAF nations Costa Rica and Panama as they begin their journey on the world’s biggest stage.

Again, it’s probably hard to wrap your mind around if you’re an avid USMNT supporter.

Mexico — who is and has been thought of for decades as the U.S.’ greatest foe — couldn’t possibly be uttered in a positive way by USMNT fans. Or could they?

Donovan, who currently plays for Liga MX side Club Leon, has partnered with Mexican beer company Modelo, along with former Chicago Cubs catcher David Ross, to shed some light on breaking curses.

Courtesy of Modelo

In the case of the Cubs, Ross and his teammates ended a 108-year World Series drought, while Mexico is hoping to break a rough streak of its own in Russia as El Tri aims to advance past the Round of 16.

El Tri has failed to reach the quarterfinals in each of the last six World Cups appearances, with their last final eight appearance coming in 1986 — when Mexico hosted the World Cup.

Pro Soccer Talk recently spoke with Donovan in an exclusive interview about a wide array of subjects, including his newfound affection for Mexico, the future of the USMNT, World Cup 2018 and much more.


Matt Reed: Was there anything in particular that changed your perception of Mexico? Because I’d have to imagine you’ve gotten a decent amount of backlash given your ties to the USMNT and what you’ve meant not just to them but how heavily you were involved in the USA-Mexico rivalry.

Landon Donovan: Any time you have the opportunity to actually see things firsthand, and meet people face to face and immerse yourself in their culture, I think you’re going to become more sympathetic. You’re going to have more respect. The only Mexico I had known was being in a stadium of 100,000 people booing me. I didn’t know any other Mexico. Having the chance to be around these people and make friends there has really given me a new appreciation for everyone.

MRThe intentions are obviously good. But simply put, why should Americans root for Mexico at the World Cup given the massive rivalry between the two countries? 

LD: I see the world a little bit different. We’ve got enough hatred and divisiveness and nastiness in the world right now. I don’t believe that’s sustainable or frankly enjoyable to be around. In the big picture, forget that I just spent four months of my life in Mexico, if Mexico and Costa Rica and Panama do well at the World Cup that bodes well for us. That helps CONCACAF in the end. And conversely, iff they go out and bomb out in the first round and don’t advance, what does that say about us? What does that say about the fact that we couldn’t even qualify? I think if you take a little bit of that emotion out of it and look at it objectively, you can at least have a bit of an appreciation for wanting to see Mexico and these other teams do well.

MR: What do you see from this current Mexican side, and ultimately how far can they advance in Russia? Again, this is a classic situation of a talented squad underperforming in the lead up to the World Cup.

LD: I think from a talent standpoint they are a quarterfinal(-ish) type team. It’s interesting because when I talked to David Ross about this he had an interesting comment about the Cubs and how their 2016 season played out. He said, “On paper we’re as talented as any team in the league, but talent only gets you so far. We had a fighting spirit and belief in our group that we were going to be the team to break the curse.” They were being hounded every day about the fact that they weren’t going to do it, so when I think about this Mexico team they have to get in a room together and say maybe we’re not the best of friends. Maybe we don’t see everything eye to eye, but if we want to be a special team we’ve got to be something different. Because getting to the quarterfinals would immortalize this group. They’ve got to be willing to lay it all on the line to get there. It has nothing to do with their talent. They have plenty of that.

MR: We’ve all had a lot of time to dissect and mourn the USMNT failing to qualify for Russia. You can probably name one of a million reasons why that’s the case, but can you pinpoint an area that proved to be their downfall?

LD: I think what happened was that on the surface everything seemed fine and dandy. We got out of our group in 2014 and took Belgium to extra time. Everything seemed fine, but under the surface there were a lot of red flags. People, including myself, overlooked that. We didn’t see that there were real systemic issues going on. We paid the ultimate price of not going to the World Cup because of it, which has haunted all of us. The question as to what went wrong. There are a number of things, but I just think eventually not doing things the right way caught up with us.

MR: Do you believe not qualifying was a blessing and a curse for the U.S.? This, of course, is assuming that the program learns from its mistake and addresses the issues that set them back.

LD: No question. The only saving grace in a situation like this is if you learn from your mistakes and get better. Otherwise it’s only going to get worse. I think of the things that have happened in my life, some of the bad ones, which have fortunately not been many. If I was able to look back on it and better myself then I can say I’m glad that happened. Until I get to that place though, there’s really no benefit. That said, it doesn’t mean the USMNT needs to throw everything out. We absolutely needed to peel back the layers though, and address where we went wrong. I’m happy with the progress we’ve made so far.

MR: Just speaking about unity, and the relationship you’re aiming to help build between the U.S. and Mexico. The United Bid received the rights to host the 2026 World Cup, which will be the first time three nations have co-hosted a tournament of this magnitude. What’s the overall importance of hosting again, and even more so doing it with our neighbors to the north and south?

LD: Let’s just put aside the soccer aspect for a second. From a political and global perspective this shows the rest of the world that we have three massive countries coming together to do something really great. Especially amidst our political climate and some of our leaders and their feelings towards our southern neighbors, I just think it’s a massive message of positivity and unity when we desperately need it. I’m really proud of the efforts that everyone involved put in to achieve this and I think it’s big for society as a whole.

MR: June 23, 2010. Does that date ring a bell? In all seriousness though, how often do you still think about the Algeria game and that last-minute goal? 

LD: It honestly does because like you said it’s what people remember. It’s the strongest emotional moment on the biggest stage. It’s one thing if intellectually something like that happens. You don’t always relate to it. But when something emotional like that happens to you I think it sticks with you forever. It’s just this profound moment in a lot of fans’ soccer lives. For many, it’s when they became soccer fans or really connected with soccer for the first time. It’s just a moment etched in everyone’s memory, and I love talking to people about it because it’s so much bigger than just what I did.

MR: I’d be remiss if I didn’t get your final thoughts on the World Cup. Who wins it all and why?

LD: I think in the end Germany is the logical choice. I do think from a talent standpoint France and Belgium are super talented if they can find a way to become a team. And then oddly every World Cup in my lifetime has had people talking about Brazil. I really don’t hear many people talking about them, which I think is crazy. In some weird way, maybe that will be good for them to fly under the radar a little. There’s no drama. They can just go about their business.

McKennie, Adams, Miazga in top tier of US Soccer player pool

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CHESTER, Pa. (AP) Midfielders Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams have played their way onto the top tier of the U.S. player pool along with defender Matt Miazga, according to interim coach Dave Sarachan, who says the trio would receive strong consideration for a World Cup roster if the Americans were headed to Russia in June.

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With the U.S. rebuilding following its failure to qualify for the tournament, Sarachan will continue to rely on youth for upcoming exhibitions against Bolivia, Ireland and France.

Veterans such as Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley could have a role either in friendlies this autumn or when competitive matches resume in the summer of 2019.

“I do think those guys, some of them, will factor in, in terms of the Gold Cup, in terms of the next round of qualifying,” Sarachan said Wednesday. “I think it would be important to bring some of those veterans guys back.”

Dempsey, who turned 35 last month, is tied with Landon Donovan for the U.S. record of 57 international goals.

“The older guys, they’re valuable in the succession of everything, to mentor, to show these young guys what it really takes and what it is to be a part of the national team,” Sarachan said. “But as far as that goes, you know, sometimes a tie is all right, right? Share the spoils.”

Christian Pulisic, the Americans’ 19-year-old star midfielder, will be on the roster for the May 28 match against Bolivia in the Philadelphia suburbs. Pulisic, who is from Hershey, Pennsylvania, has not played for the national team since the 2-1 loss at Trinidad and Tobago in October that eliminated the U.S. from World Cup contention.

While U.S. training starts May 21, Pulisic will report late so he can remain with Borussia Dortmund for a postseason exhibition at LAFC on May 22.

“He was pretty gutted after that game,” Sarachan said of the loss in Trinidad. “There’s a lot of demands of a guy like Christian. He’s being pulled in a lot of different directions. There’s still some speculation – this didn’t come from him directly – but I know that there’s some speculation that maybe he’ll move from Dortmund. So I know there’s a lot going on. And I’m trying to be helpful in the process to allow him a little wiggle room in terms of the national team now.”

Josh Sargent, the 18-year-old forward who joined Werder Bremen this year, also will be on the roster. The U.S. plays at Ireland on June 2 and at France on June 9, and Sarachan said many Europe-based players may skip the Bolivia match.

Sarachan was the top assistant to Bruce Arena, who quit after the U.S. failed to qualify. Sarachan would like to be considered for the job going forward, but new U.S. Soccer Federation President Carlos Cordeiro plans to first hire a general manager for the men’s national team, a new position.

“I would only be guessing at this point if it’s someone in place before or after the World Cup,” Sarachan said of the GM.

The 63-year-old Sarachan coached Cornell from 1988-97 and the Chicago Fire from 2002-07. He does not consider himself to be an interim coach.

“I don’t like that term personally. I hate using the word interim,” he said. “I’m the men’s national soccer coach until they tell me I’m not. I’m not naive to think that I’m a slam-dunk candidate or not. I try not to even think through that other than at some point I have to figure out my next move if it’s not going to be this.”

Since World Cup elimination, the U.S. has played a road draw at Portugal and home ties against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Paraguay. Sarachan has given national team debuts to nine players, including Adams, McKennie, defender Cameron Carter-Vickers, forward Andrija Novakovich and midfielder Tim Weah – son of former FIFA Player of the Year and current Liberia President George Weah.

“I feel since November, when you could arguably say it was rock bottom in terms of U.S. soccer and the perception of it, I’d like to think that there’s a little more hope, a little more hope with the program, the direction we’re going, with the exciting young talent that’s emerging,” he said. “And that makes me feel proud, because I think the work kind of speaks for itself at this point, meaning young guys are getting great minutes.”

VIDEO: Landon Donovan scores against San Jose

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Landon Donovan grabbed his first goal for Club Leon since coming out of retirement for the second time, and it of course came in a friendly game at his former club the San Jose Earthquakes.

Of course it did.

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Donovan, 36, swiveled and hit a low shot past Andrew Tarbell in the first half to seal a 1-0 win for the Liga MX club in a game which was set up to give both teams a run-out during the international break.

Of course, Donovan playing on U.S. soil for the first time since his latest return to the game was also a big draw for fans as the former San Jose star (who won two MLS Cups with the franchise) captained Club Leon and scored the game-winner.

What’s that you say, LD should return to the USMNT and come out of international retirement too?

Watch Donovan roll back the years at Avaya Stadium, as the U.S. national team legend scored the only goal of the game.