FC Yahoo Mixer: What's the best USMNT World Cup team post-1990?

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Joey Gulino: Hey everyone! Welcome back to The Mixer, the twice-a-week forum here at FC Yahoo where our writers will engage in lively (hopefully), civil (possibly) and (sometimes) reasoned discussion and debate on a variety of topics leading into and throughout the 2018 World Cup.

Today’s topic? We try to rank the United States World Cup sides from 1990, when the country returned to the big dance after four decades of absence, to 2014, the edition before the one the Americans missed out on.

And I’ll start with this with a blowtorch. The 2002 side, aka the most successful modern side in U.S. history, the one that beat Mexico in the Round of 16 and reached the quarterfinals, the one that saw Claudio Reyna become the first post-World War II American to be named to the all-tournament team, and the one that was a Torsten Frings handball away from reaching the semis (still bitter about that) … was actually only OK.

Everyone remembers the ultimate Dos A Cero, and the first-half onslaught against Portugal in the opening group stage game. Nobody remembers the listless draw against eventual group winner and semifinalist South Korea, nor the shellacking at the hands of Poland. It was a good team with serviceable players that worked well as a unit, but would have lost (comfortably I think) to the squad we took to Brazil in 2014. OK, feel free to decimate me.

Leander Schaerlaeckens: Much as it’s in my nature to argue — especially with you, Joey, since you’re our editor — I’ve touched my fingers to your take and it didn’t actually singe my skin. I’m kind of with you.

The 2014 incarnation of the USMNT was deeper than the 2002 team — and would have been much more so with a still-quite good Landon Donovan on it, rather than a teenaged Julian Green who was injured. A whole raft of national team greats were still in their prime and playing at, or close, to the best soccer of their careers — Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore, Geoff Cameron, Fabian Johnson were all at a peak they’ve since receded from on the national team. The issue with that team, however, was coaching.

Was the group-winning 2010 United States side the best U.S. World Cup team since the return in 1990? (Getty)
Was the group-winning 2010 United States side the best U.S. World Cup team since the return in 1990? (Getty)

Jurgen Klinsmann shoehorned a bunch of players into uncomfortable roles and tactics in 2014 and made strange selection choices. In 2002, Bruce Arena fit his system to his players, taking optimal advantage of its speed and energy. That’s why the results were better in 2002. Because I continue to believe a better-coached U.S. could have snagged the necessary goal against Belgium in the round of 16 down in Brazil. The Red Devils were incredibly wasteful that day, for all their dominance. That game was there for the taking.

I might even argue that the 2010 team, in some ways, did better than the 2002 team as well. For all the abuse Bob Bradley got for his “empty bucket” formation, that team always fielded four all-out attackers, with Donovan and Dempsey on the wings. And considering that after Charlie Davies was lost to the national team in a car accident, Bradley had no reliable second striker, a pedestrian defense, and no second central midfielder to field next to his son, this team overperformed. After all, it made to extra time against a strong Ghana side in the round of 16 and might well have matched the quarterfinal run with a more favorable bounce here and there.

Ryan Bailey: While I vehemently disagree with Leander’s opinions on La Croix water (all flavors DO NOT taste the same!), I’m with him on the top three. For me, the 2014 side was the most compelling—an opinion that I hope is not clouded by them being the most recent—and the 2002 gang are followed very closely by the 2010 one.

While Bradley’s tactical choices may not have been born from an Andre Villas-Boas six-day Powerpoint presentation, every USMNT game of that tournament seemed exciting.

Robert Green’s goalkeeping howler may still haunt my dreams — it sits somewhere in the middle of the pantheon of underwhelming tournament experiences for English people — but the comeback against Slovenia, that last-minute Landon Donovan winner against Algeria and the valiant regular-time hold-out against Ghana showed the spirit and tenacity that every good US side needs. It’s what enables a team to become more than the sum of its parts; an intangible quality that’s so often missing in the international game.

So that’s my case for 2010. And my vote for the worst? The 1994 side. Whose idea was it to let Diana Ross take penalties anyway?

(Illustration via Amber Matsumoto)
(Illustration via Amber Matsumoto)

Doug McIntyre: Someone has to stick up for the trailblazing 1990 and ‘94 teams, (do those denim kits also give you nightmares, Ryan?), so I suppose that falls to me. We’ll get to that later.

First off, you’re all dead wrong. (Especially you, Joey.) The 2002 team was easily the best U.S. World Cup squad ever. Consider the spine of that team, which had all-time best American players at just about every position: goalkeeper Brad Friedel, defender Eddie Pope, central midfielders Claudio Reyna and John O’Brien and target forward Brian McBride.

Fearless 20 year olds DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan ran amok. Hell, in-his-prime Clint Mathis started just two games. Some good fortune helped along the way, it’s true. But any successful World Cup team needs a little luck. Just ask Germany.

As for second-best, those 2014 and 2010 teams are close. I’ll give the former the nod, if only because Jurgen Klinsmann’s side faced far stiffer competition in Brazil. That said, had some of the top players during Bradley’s 2010 cycle not been injured — Jermaine Jones and Oguchi Onyewu missed South Africa along with Davies with Stu Holden was limited to a five minute cameo  — that squad would probably be No. 2 or better.

The worst American entry was obviously the dysfunctional 1998 edition, followed by 2006. That 1994 team actually had a ton of quality. Swagger too. Don’t take my word for it, go YouTube Eric Wynalda’s all-world free kick in the opener, or Marcelo Balboa’s spectacular near miss against Colombia. I still wonder what might have happened if Tab Ramos, who was driving Brazil nuts early in their Round of 16 match, hadn’t been knocked out of the game by a frustrated Leonardo en route to a narrow, 1-0 loss to the eventual champs.

Finally, the 1990 side deserves much more love. Just making to Italy after 40 years in the World Cup wilderness was a triumph. That a bunch of college players went on to hold the decorated hosts to a draw in group play is amazing to think about today, as a U.S. player pool full of seasoned pros prepares to watch the 2018 event from the nearest couch.

Joey Gulino: I can get behind the 1990s takes. Simply returning to the World Cup was no small feat, and for that, Paul Caligiuri is a legend. (I liked the outcome of that Trinidad and Tobago fixture much more.) The 1994 team got the home-soil boost so many host nations have, and there’s a different and sobering conversation to be had about the Colombia win and what it cost Andres Escobar, but there was definitely a spirit in those Americans that’s been a staple of the U.S. sides the past three decades.

It wasn’t there in 1998, which was a just plain terrible showing, but I will also be quick to point out the maligned 2006 team was also the only team to take a point off eventual champion Italy before the final. And an image burned into my brain forever is the Italians flopping left and right while Brian McBride has an honest-to-goodness bloody Braveheart face after being fouled, and he’s acting like it’s nothing. We lost that tournament, but we lost with heart.

And we’ve conducted this Mixer with heart. The closest thing to a consensus seems to be that the 2010 group-winning squad is the best, with the 2002 and 2014 sides in proximal tow. The 1994 pioneers can’t be discounted either.

One thing we can all agree on? The 2018 USMNT ain’t coming close to this list.

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