A monthly column about the State of U.S. Soccer that takes a hard look at everything from the performance of the U.S. National Teams to pro soccer in the good ‘ole U-S-of-A. If you’re looking for a viewpoint that you won’t see in a generic, nuts-and-bolts U.S. Soccer press release, you’ve come to the right place.
Last week when three of the biggest names in U.S. Soccer history – Tab Ramos, John Harkes and Marcelo Balboa – were elected into the Soccer Hall of Fame, reporters and fans alike tossed around the words “pioneer” and “legend” to describe all three former MNT and MLS players. But what exactly did these three men do to be called pioneers and legends? Well, we’ll tell you how and also let you know what we remember most fondly about each future Hall of Fame inductee. Oh, and as an added bonus, we’re supplying you with footage of a few of their most memorable goals with the national team.
The MNT Numbers:
Years – 11 (1988-1990, 1992-2000)
Caps – 81
Starts – 70
Minutes – 6306
Goals – 8
Assists – 14
Points – 30
Cards (Y/R) – 9/0
Record – 38-29-14
World Cups – 3 (1990, 1994, 1998)
World Cup appearances/goals: 9/0
World Cup qualifying appearances/goals: 15/3
Why He’s a Pioneer: Being part of the first team to qualify for the World Cup in 40 years is probably cause enough to get a player into the “U.S. Soccer pioneer” club, but Ramos did so much more to help bring the world’s game back into the consciousness of the American public. While his on-the-field contributions can never be questioned, Ramos was one of the first U.S. soccer players to cross into the mainstream when he signed up with Snickers (and also Nike and McDonald’s). Having his face plastered over the airways helped solidify that soccer and its players were marketable (we know you ate your share of Snickers) and opened the doors for Mia Hamm, Landon Dovonan and Freddy Adu. To be a true pioneer you have to be willing to lead the way and create a path for those that follow, something Ramos did when he was the first player signed by Major League Soccer on Jan. 3, 1995. He left a career in Spain, ventured into a league that no one really knew would succeed. His involvement in MLS helped the league set a strong foundation that has continued 10 years later.
Why He’s a Legend: You might not have known that along with his 11 years with the full MNT, he played for the U.S. at the World Youth Championship in Mexico in 1993, he was on the 1988 U.S. Olympic Team and he was a member of the bronze medal-winning U.S. team which surprised European observers in 1989 during the first FIFA World Championship for Five-a-Side Football (now futsal) in the Netherlands. Impressive in itself, wouldn’t you say? But he did all that before he was really even in a groove with the national team. After playing at North Carolina State, he got his first cap against Guatemala on Jan. 10, 1988. From there he played in 80 more games, being on the field for more than 6,300 minutes, scored eight goals, and notched 14 assists. He is one of only 10 players to ever compete in three World Cups and became the first to pull off that feat along with Marcelo Balboa and Eric Wynalda when he took the field in France in 1998. Want something even more impressive? During his time, Ramos was considered the best American playmaker to ever step on the field.
What We Remember: When someone talks about Tab, what’s the first thing that comes to mind (and saying the sugar-free soda does not make you funny)? We remember a lot of memorable moments in Ramos’ career, but two stand out the most and they can be divided into good and bad. The bad came during the 1994 World Cup when Ramos was brutally elbowed by Brazil’s Leonardo along the sideline during their second round game and had to leave the game with a fractured skull. While Leonardo’s crushing blow is remembered by the millions of Americans watching that July 4 game due to its savageness, what shouldn’t be forgotten is that before the Brazilian lashed out, Ramos was one of the best players – if not THE best – on the field. He was such a nuisance to Brazil he might have actually been able to keep a star off of Brazil’s jersey (okay, maybe a stretch, but with Tab they might have been able to at least force penalties). The good came on Sept. 7, 1997, in Portland Ore., during a 1998 World Cup qualifying match against Costa Rica when his blast from 25-yards out into the lower right corner provided the U.S. with a 1-0 win and kept them on their path towards France. Along with being one of the most remarkable goals in U.S. history, you had to love Tab’s follow through, running over the endline, around the goal and not letting a single teammate catch up to him until a good ten seconds later.
Watch Tab's goals here
The MNT Numbers:
Years – 13 (1987-1990, 1992-2000)
Caps – 90
Starts – 89
Minutes – 7805
Goals – 6
Assists – 11
Points – 23
Cards (Y/R) – 17/0
Record – 41-33-16
World Cups – 2 (1990, 1994)
World Cup appearances/goals: 6/0
World Cup qualifying appearances/goals: 21/0
Why He’s a Legend: After a career that included 13 years with the Men’s National Team, stints in Europe and coming back to be a founding father for Major League Soccer, Harkes’ legacy was set in stone. Not only did he play in two World Cups, compile 90 caps and 7,800 minutes of play, score six goals and notch 11 assists, Harkes received the highest honor on the national team when he wore the captain’s armband. A symbol of your ability, work ethic and leadership skills, wearing the captain’s armband for your country is a special honor and one Harkes deserved during his time with the MNT. Harkes’ legendary status was cemented with his awe-inspiring performance in England. Unsure of what to expect, he had an amazing run with Sheffield Wednesday and later stints with West Ham, Derby County and Nottingham Forest. In his first year, Harkes helped Wednesday capture the English League Cup championship to get promoted to the English Premier Division and scored a 35-yard one-timer past former English national team captain Peter Shilton to earn Goal of the Year in 1990. A year later he became the first American ever to play in England's hallowed Wembley Stadium when he helped Sheffield Wednesday capture the League Cup title over Manchester United. He also became the first American to play in a UEFA Cup match in 1992 and, in 1993, became the first American to score in a F.A. Cup Final, notching Wednesday's consolation goal in a 2-1 loss to Arsenal.
What We Remember: You can talk about all the U.S. matches and his impressive games in Europe, but if there’s one thing we remember about Harkesy it was his two championships with D.C. United. Partly because many of us may not have seen his games in England, but more so because of how impressive it is to win two straight championships (and get to the final the next year). With all the parity in MLS now, the chances of another team ever getting to three straight championship games and winning two in a row down the road is slim to none. Harkes was D.C. United. Yes, they had a number of incredible players on those teams (Agoos, Diaz Arce, Etcheverry, Moreno, Pope and Sanneh), but Harkes was their leader, the captain who led the team to those first two MLS titles in ’96 and ’97.
Watch Harkes goals here
The MNT Numbers:
Years – 13 (1988-2000)
Caps – 127
Starts – 118
Minutes – 10,457
Goals – 13
Assists – 4
Points – 28
Cards (Y/R) – 12/3
W-L-T – 40-46-42
World Cups – 3 (1990, 1994, 1998)
World Cup appearances/goals: 8/0
World Cup qualifying appearances/goals: 10/0
Why He’s a Pioneer: Like Tab Ramos and Eric Wynalda, Marcelo Balboa helped pave the growth of U.S. Soccer by helping the U.S. Men qualify for three straight World Cups, but his most indelible mark was his style of play. A tough-nosed defender who tackled hard, but also had a flair to get into the attack and create havoc for opponents inside the penalty area, Balboa (similar to Alexi Lalas) brought an added boost to the U.S. offensive attack. While many defenders go through their career hoping to get one or two goals for the national team, Balboa garnered 13, good enough to average one a year during his career. Balboa was also instrumental in getting people interested in the game without even touching the ball. The American people can be fickle, but they like talented players with unique looks and Balboa was one of the most noticeable players on the field with his long, black hair. During the ‘90s when non-soccer fans started to get interested in the sport, Balboa was one of the players that people responded to (again like Lalas, see goatee). Ask your mom about the ’94 World Cup. He also was one of the MLS founding fathers when he helped the league kick off in 1996, playing for the Colorado Rapids.
Why He’s a Legend: Balboa is a player you’d call a legend just by looking at his stat sheet. The heart of the U.S. defense, the “Iron Man” started the 100-cap club, becoming the first to pull off the feat in 1995 and is still the third highest with 127. He’s compiled just under 10,500 minutes of play, 13 goals, and four assists. At the highest level, he played in 10 World Cup qualifying matches and eight matches in three World Cups (tied for third highest in U.S. history). During his remarkable career with the MNT, he also won U.S. Soccer’s Male Athlete of the Year twice, one of only three players to be honored twice. With all those impressive statistics, Balboa’s “legend” is probably something that isn’t recorded – bicycle kicks. Balboa says he would practice “on my parents’ bed when they were not home with a balloon or a nerf ball,” and it appears the practice paid off as he became known for his aerobatic, over-the-head attempts, connecting cleanly on two memorable shots in his career. The first with the U.S. MNT in 1991 in the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the second in 2000 with the Rapids against the Columbus Crew, which won goal of the year honors. Yet, the bicycle kick that everyone remembers is the one he missed (read the next graph).
What We Remember: Has any missed shot ever been more burned into the memories of soccer fans? The U.S. beat Colombia 2-1 in the biggest victory ever for the U.S. at that time and while the majority of the post-game talk was about the own goal and Earnie Stewart’s winner, no one could stop thinking about the “what if.” As in “what if” Balboa’s bicycle attempt late in the game would have gone in instead of whistling just wide of the left post? Greatest World Cup goal ever? We know it’s a moot point since it didn’t go in, but soccer fans still get giddy thinking about it.
Watch Marcelo's goals here