Wednesday, May 20, 2009

ATH: Old School National Team

Taking Attendance
By Andrew Dixon - MIAMI, FL (May 18, 2009) USSoccerPlayers

"13 years deep in this marathon I'm runnin’"
De La Soul, Trying People


When Major League Soccer began play in '96, there was a lot of negative energy thrown its way. Just the thought of maintaining a soccer league in the United States seemed like a long shot. It was suggested that the League lost momentum by not starting play in '95. Then, of course, there were the Soccer Haters who just simply wanted the league to go away.

Here we are.

Few players remain from those first few seasons. Veterans of questionable defending, some questionable jersey choices, and the shootout. The Old School, by any standard. The ones that remember. Today, I'm paying tribute.

Brian McBride
Columbus Crew 1996-2003, Chicago Fire 2008-Present

MLS' first #1 Draft Pick, and a seven-time MLS All-Star, the Chicago native helped make soccer relevant in a region dominated by Buckeye Football. For a club that prided itself as being America's Hardest Working, McBride was often its heart and soul.

McBride's athleticism was evident early. He has a hold up style that has influenced other forwards. His 62 goals is a club record that he shares with Jeff Cunningham. In all, he's scored 82 times including regular season and playoffs.

As many big games as McBride has played in for the United States, it's hard to believe that he hasn't played in MLS Cup. A victim of those early dominant DC United sides, he remains one of the most respected players in American soccer history.

My most lasting MLS moment of him isn't on the field. It was the day he announced he was leaving Columbus for Fulham and he and his wife left passing by a huge poster of him on a Columbus street. That to me demonstrated the impact he had in Columbus and in MLS.

Steve Ralston
Tampa Bay Mutiny 1996-2001, New England Revolution 2002-Present

From Baby Face to Grizzled Veteran, Steve Ralston has become one of the most consistent players in the League's history. He doesn't have crazy stats or jaw dropping skill on the ball. He's simply gone about his business and turned himself into one of those players who are indispensable to their teams. Want proof? Ralston came into the season as the all-time leader in appearances, minutes played and career appearances. He also never left.

On a Tampa Bay team that featured the likes of Carlos Valderrama, Roy Lassiter, Martin Vasquez and Giuseppi Galderisi, Ralston still managed to stand out and be named 1996 Rookie of the Year (which I always thought was kind of strange seeing as how the league didn't exist before then...but I digress). He owned the right midfield for the Mutiny. After El Pibe and Lassiter were gone, it was Ralston who became the team leader earning the first of his team two MVP awards and his first Best XI selection.

After the Mutiny folded he moved to New England and basically picked up where he left off, forming the nucleus of what became one of the toughest midfields in the league (Pat Noonan, Clint Dempsey and Shalrie Joseph). That helped turn New England into a mediocre club to an MLS elite. He plays wherever he's needed, whether it be at right midfield, left midfield or right back.

As hardworking and dependable as he is, it's amazing that he's still getting it done. Yes he has multiple All-Star and Best XI appearances and but he's still one of MLS' most underrated players.

Jaime Moreno
DC United 1996-2002, NY/NJ Metrostars 2003, DC United 2004-Present

What is there to say about Jaime Moreno that hasn't already been said?

I could simply begin and end with the fact that he's the All-Time leading goal scorer in the history of the League. Remarkable when you consider he’s shared goal scoring duties with the likes of Raul Diaz Arce, Roy Lassiter and Luciano Emillio in both forward and attacking midfield roles.

I could mention that he's the only player in this League with at least 100 goals and 100 assists. I could mention his instrumental role on four MLS Cup winning sides. I could mention the fact that as the quality of the league has improved, Moreno hasn’t lost his effectiveness.

What’s impressed me the most is his calm demeanor. No matter the situation, on the field or off, he never seems fazed, never seems to lose control, and is always in control of the situation. No matter who’s on the field with him, no matter how many defenders are surrounding him, no matter what controversy or distraction is swirling off the field, Moreno has always seemed above it all.

A legend in this League, he has to be in the conversation regarding the best ever to play in MLS.

Frankie Hejduk
Tampa Bay Mutiny 1996-98, Columbus Crew 2003-Present

I’ve often said that few people have maximized their potential the way Cobi Jones did and continue to stand by that statement. Frankie Hejduk is another candidate.

The surfer dude from Cardiff, CA spent most of the 1996 season on the Olympic team but joined up with the Mutiny making several late season appearances. By ’97 he was a regular in the lineup, making 23 appearances and etching his name in stone at right back. The following year he was making bold predictions about making the 1998 World Cup side, backing it up with the speed and tireless running that has defined his career.

He spent 5 years trying to make his mark in Europe and returned to MLS in 2003 with Columbus where he’s become a fixture at right back. His work rate and hard tackles finally got rewarded with a championship ring. His goal in MLS Cup ’08, was pure Frankie: a tireless late match 70 yard sprint to head home a pass.

His crosses may still need a warning label, but you can’t have it all. Frankie’s taken what he’s got and made it work.

Zach Thornton
NY/NJ Metrostars 1996-97, Chicago Fire 1998-2006, Colorado Rapids 2007, RBNY 2008, Chivas USA, 2008-Present

I would imagine that the only people who knew Zach Thornton was in the League in 1996 were his family and the Metrostars who paid him. But by the end of 1998, everyone in American soccer knew the big man from Maryland.

Brought to Chi-town as a back up Jorge Campos, he took over the job when Campos went to France for the 1998 World Cup, posted an insane 1.17 goals against average, made a few point blank saves at MLS Cup ’98 ,and didn’t give it up his spot in the nets for eight years.

Along the way, Zach claimed five All-Star selections, a Goalkeeper of the Year award, two team defender of the year awards, a team MVP award, and three US Open Cup championships. The argument could be made that he was the best American keeper not named Keller or Friedel.

Never a demonstrative keeper who screams at his defenders or flies off his line, h uses his positioning to deny chances. The basic job of a keeper.

After being dealt to Colorado after the 2006 season, he bounced around the League. What looked like a journeyman's end to a quality career has instead turned into a rebirth with Chivas USA.

The Beast is back and still getting it done.

Tony Sanneh
DC United 1996-99; Columbus Crew 2004, Chicago Fire 2005-06, Colorado Rapids 2007, LA Galaxy 2009-Present

The Big Cat came to DC United in 1996 and became an integral part of DC’s early dynasty, slotting in the right midfield. He scored in two MLS Cups before leaving for Germany. When he returned in '04, he helped Columbus to their first Supporter’s Shield.

Injuries limited his playing time over the next few seasons. He's making a comeback with LA, trying to help a team he twice beat in MLS Cup regain respectability.

Other Old School Playas

CJ Brown: He’s been in Chicago for so long I’ve forgotten he was there. Since starting with the Fire in ’98 he’s become the club’s all time leader in MLS regular season appearances, games played, games started, and minutes played,

Andy Williams: The poor man’s JJ Okocha, he began his MLS career in 98 and has played with Columbus, Miami, NY/NJ, New England, Chicago, AND Real Salt Lake. An influential play maker everywhere he’s gone. Set a consecutive assist mark as a rookie in 1998 with Columbus.

Andrew Dixon is a soccer writer based in Miami and a weekly columnist for USSoccerPlayers. Contact him at: golnoir@golnoir.net

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