With the United States men’s national team in preparations for the World Cup, a new generation of players is inching closer toward the opportunity of a lifetime. In Qatar this fall, the roster will be full of young, talented players getting their first major stage to start building their legacies. For all they have done to establish themselves at the club level in recent years, nothing can compare with the stakes of the world’s most-watched sporting event.
Performances at the World Cup will forever shape how players are remembered. That, more than anything, is why Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey are the first two names that come to mind when any conversation takes place asking about the GOAT of the USMNT. It’s that way for fans and, as a recent ESPN poll shows, it’s that way for a group of mostly active players who have international appearances to their names.
ESPN asked current and former Major League Soccer-based U.S. internationals who aren’t in camp with the USMNT a simple question: Who is the greatest USMNT player of all time?
Here are the results: Donovan 22, Dempsey 17, Claudio Reyna 2, Tyler Adams 2, DaMarcus Beasley 1. And before you get up in arms over the lack of inclusion of goalkeeping luminaries such as Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller and Tim Howard, several respondents stated explicitly that there should be a separate category for shot stoppers. — Bonagura
Very little separates the national team careers of Donovan and Dempsey: 16 appearances (in favor of Donovan), 14 assists (also in Donovan’s favor) and one Gold Cup (again, advantage Donovan). They jointly own the USMNT’s career goals record with 57 apiece; they each represented the U.S. at three World Cups; and they’ve each worn the captain’s armband at varying points in their careers.
That goes some way to explaining why a number of our anonymous voting panel submitted “honorable mention” ballots for whichever player they hadn’t chosen at No. 1 (which, sadly, we couldn’t count) and lobbied to be allowed to split their vote between the two (another request we regretfully couldn’t honor).
Even if you need a magnifying glass to differentiate the pair’s international careers, though their club careers unfolded in stark contrast.
These two are front and center of the U.S. men’s pantheon, but it’s Donovan who was the face of the game in this country during his playing career. Why is that? Primarily, it comes down to silverware.
The man from Southern California started his career in Germany, like so many of today’s rising American stars, at Bayer Leverkusen, but he made only nine appearances for the club. In fact, he played 101 times on loan with the San Jose Earthquakes, and won two MLS Cups, before he made his Bundesliga debut for Leverkusen in 2005 at the age of 22.
A permanent return to MLS would follow just 144 minutes of Bundesliga action in the 2004-05 season, and from there, Donovan cemented his reputation as the best in the U.S. His accomplishments with the LA Galaxy ensured that his name was always in American headlines: he would win four more MLS Cups (six in total), two Supporters’ Shields, one U.S. Open Cup, one Golden Boot and one MVP award, registering 178 goals and 132 assists in 416 appearances with the two California clubs.
So synonymous was Donovan with soccer, and MLS in particular, in this country that the North American league renamed its most valuable player award to the Landon Donovan MVP Award in 2021.
Herculez Gomez and Sebastian Salazar debate who should partner Walker Zimmerman in the USMNT defense.
For Dempsey, it was different. He wasn’t ushered into a historic European club. The Texan grinded his way through college at Furman, was overlooked by seven organizations before being drafted eighth overall by the New England Revolution in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft and earned three All-Star selections before finally crossing the Atlantic to join Fulham.
The quaint west London club narrowly avoided relegation twice in Dempsey’s first 18 months there, but then he began to command respect in the Premier League. He was the Cottagers’ top scorer in three of his six seasons with the club, scoring the fourth-most goals in the Premier League in 2011-12. He, under the stewardship of Roy Hodgson, helped drag the club to a Europa League final — scoring arguably Fulham’s greatest-ever goal with a deliciously ambitious chip of Antonio Chimenti to seal their round-of-16 upset of Juventus.
He would go on to spend one season with Tottenham Hotspur before returning to MLS with the Seattle Sounders, but his trophy cabinet was sparse in relation to Donovan’s: one U.S. Open Cup, one Supporters’ Shield and one MLS Cup – which was won with him on the sideline recovering from an irregular heartbeat.
While Donovan was lifting trophies and winning awards in MLS, Dempsey was helping blaze a trail for American players to make it in Europe. Despite the two reaching equally lofty heights with the USMNT, the successes that defined their club careers could hardly be more different, which neatly illustrates why their predecessors, teammates and successors (and the rest of us) have so much trouble choosing between them. — Lindberg
First, let’s start with the outlier in the anonymous poll results. In no world is Adams already in the conversation for greatest of all time. The results came back anonymously, so we don’t know who voted for him, but let’s just assume it was two guys lobbying for a friend and move on. Could he enter the conversation one day? If he does, here’s the case: Adams is on an impressive trajectory, having moved to the Bundesliga at 18, and is the player best suited to captain the team long term. If he racks up more than 100 caps, captains the team at multiple successful World Cups and plays in a top-five European league for 10-plus years at a high level, that’s a career few Americans have matched.
Pulisic, though, is the obvious place to start. No one in team history had had such an immediate impact at such a young age. At 17, he was the youngest player to score for the U.S. in the modern era and the youngest to appear in a World Cup qualifier. His transfer to Chelsea broke the American transfer fee record ($73 million), and just last week he became the fastest player to reach double-digit goals (21) and assists (10), besting Donovan’s pace by one game (49). Chances are, he’ll break the goals record held by Donovan and Dempsey and finish with a list of accomplishments — one that already includes a Champions League title — that exceeds either player’s.
There were stretches during qualifying when Weston McKennie was the team’s most important player, and that, coupled with his play at Juventus, means he deserves a mention. He can impact the game at both ends and has a star quality, and a breakout World Cup would raise his profile significantly.
Giovanni Reyna‘s dad received a couple of votes, and the 19-year-old has the talent to get to that level. His ability to break into a talented Borussia Dortmund side at just 17 showcased that, but unfortunately his availability this season has been severely limited by injury. At their best, Reyna and Pulisic are in a league of their own. — Bonagura