The 10 Best Individual Performances by US Players in a World Cup

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Which American soccer players have covered themselves with glory on the world’s biggest stage?

With the U.S. Men’s National Team about to appear in its 7th World Cup in a row – and 10th overall – we look back at the top 10 individual performances by US Men’s National Team players in the World Cup.

From the semifinalists of 1930, to 2010’s group winners, players from five different World Cups are featured. More consideration was given to players who helped their team advance in the Holy Grail of sports tournaments than those who floundered, such as 1934’s single game, 7-1 loss to Italy.

No player appears on this list more than once.

10. Tony Sanneh, 2002
Tony Sanneh was an absolute monster at the 2002 World Cup. Even when he played in a back three against Mexico and Germany in the knockout rounds, he was getting forward and delivering crosses. At a time when most of the USA backline featured players who could defend but not attack, Sanneh could do both.

Sanneh’s most notable contribution in the World Cup was a picture-perfect cross to Brian McBride for the winning goal against Portugal. As so many of USA’s attacks did in that tournament, the play started with the ball at Sanneh’s feet. He calmly played it out of the back, made an overlapping run, and delivered a curling ball right onto the head of McBride.

Even with his stellar defense and attack, Sanneh’s World Cup is somewhat of a what if? as he missed a header from close range in the quarterfinals against Germany that would have probably taken the game to extra time.

9. Joe Gaetjens, 1950
Joe Gaetjens’ story has been told countless times, though mostly incorrectly, ever since the U.S. upset England 1-0 in the 1950 World Cup with a header from Gaetjens. There is a certain mystique behind the Haitian national, who wasn’t even a U.S. citizen at the time of the first Brazilian World Cup, though he had signed what were then known as “First Papers,” the initial step on the path to a U.S. passport.

What we do know is that he scored one of the most famous goals in US soccer history. England were the favorites to win it all coming into their first World Cup, having boycotted the first three thanks to a dispute with FIFA. After winning their opening game 2-0 against Chile, England dropped their second game thanks to the 38th minute goal by Gaetjens. The U.S. would lose their other two games of the tournament, and Gaetjens was largely anonymous in those losses, but he warrants a place on this list thanks to the magnitude of the only goal that he would ever score for his adopted country.

8. Tab Ramos, 1994
Some have argued that USA would have had a better chance playing Brazil 11 on 11 rather than up a man, but down Tab Ramos. The 1994 U.S. team was not an individualistic squad. Head coach Bora Milutinovi? knew that his team wasn’t as talented as most of the other teams in the World Cup, so he inserted a rigid 4-4-2 system where every player was expected to defend.

Tab Ramos was the one player who was even close to having any sort of free reign, and he was the one player who the team ran through, despite playing on the outside of the midfield. Ramos’ most obvious contribution was this beautiful through ball that Earnie Stewart finished for the winner against favorites Colombia, but he was impressive throughout in leading the States to their first knockout round appearance in 64 years.

Ramos’ World Cup ended via a vicious elbow from Brazil’s Leonardo in the Round of 16. Though the score was level and the U.S. was now up a man thanks to the red card, the team’s body had lost its head.

7. Steve Cherundolo, 2010
It’s always embarrassing when healthy players are subbed out of a game in the first half, and that’s exactly what happened to James Milner in the 31st minute of the U.S. – England 1-1 draw in 2010. Milner was so thoroughly manhandled for half an hour by Steve Cherundolo that manager Fabio Capello had no choice but to put on Shaun Wright-Phillips.

Wright-Phillips, and the rest of the left midfielders that the U.S. faced that year, had little to no impact because the then-Hannover 96 player was in the best form of his career. In fact, all five of the goals that the U.S. conceded in South Africa came from the middle of the field – Dolo was at fault for none of them.
Cherundolo also attacked well out of the back, overlapping and whipping in his trademark crosses while also assisting on Landon Donovan’s goal against Slovenia (1:50 in the video below).

6. Brad Friedel, 2002
Stopping one penalty in a World Cup is a huge feat for a goalkeeper. Brad Friedel saved two in the U.S.’s surprising run to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup. Despite losing 3-1 to Poland in the first round, the “Human Wall” stoned Mexico in the Round of 16 and led the US to an upset over tournament dark horses Portugal.

Friedel did allow seven goals in five games, but he also helped reduce the consistent mistakes that were made by center back Jeff Agoos. The goalkeeper’s reaction and one-on-one saves set the modern bar for the level of play of U.S. goalkeepers in the World Cup.

That bar has not yet been surpassed by successors Kasey Keller or Tim Howard.

5. Alexi Lalas, 1994
Everyone has now forgotten that Alexi Lalas scored a clearly onside (though judged offside by the referee) screamer against Colombia. It matters little as Lalas was so good during the American World Cup that afterwards he went straight to play for Padova in Serie A, then a contender for the best league in the world.

Lalas helped stifle the powerful attacks of Switzerland, Colombia and Romania before the U.S. were ultimately knocked out by the eventual champion Brazil on July 4th in Stanford. After the American run in the tournament concluded, the gangly, ginger player became the face of U.S. Soccer and one that many still recognize today.

4. Claudio Reyna, 2002
As the only American to be named to a FIFA World Cup All-Star team in the modern era, Claudio Reyna captained the U.S. to its best World Cup finish since their return to the tournament in 1990. Reyna was a calming presence in the middle for the States, spraying passes around and keeping possession for the quarterfinalists.

Oddly enough, Reyna is probably most remembered for his performance against Mexico where he started at right midfield in a 3-5-2 formation. The run that set up the winning goal of the game in the first half was pure class from Reyna.

His clever play on the right side of the field in that game forced Mexican coach Javier Aguirre to sub out left midfielder Ramon Morales in just the 28th minute in order to keep up with the Americans. Had Reyna scored when he attempted to chip Oliver Kahn from midfield, his performance would have been one of the all-time World Cup best, but sadly he missed just wide as the U.S. was knocked out against Germany.

3. Bert Patenaude, 1930

It took Bert Patenaude just four days to set a record that would stand for 80 years. Patenaude scored once in USA’s inaugural World Cup game against Belgium, then struck a hat trick four days later to finish the tournament with four goals, a U.S. and CONCACAF record until Landon Donovan broke it in South Africa.

That hat trick was the first in World Cup history, though it wasn’t until 2006 that this was acknowledged. The forward finished with the third most goals in the tournament and led the U.S. to its best result ever: a semifinal appearance in Uruguay.

2. Landon Donovan, 2010
USA fans will remember Donovan’s World Cup for his goal against Algeria, but the team wouldn’t have even been in the position to advance if it weren’t for his goal against Slovenia. Not a single player for the US was assertive enough to make a run into a good place in the box, so Donovan simply took matters into his own hands, rifling a near post shot at the face of Slovenian goalkeeper Samir Handanovi? to rescue any hope that USA had of advancing.

Donovan was also excellent against England, and though he faded somewhat against Ghana, he still managed to tie the game up with a coolly taken penalty that gave him the US and CONCACAF all-time record for World Cup goals. Here’s that Algeria moment again, for old time’s sake:

1. John O’Brien, 2002
Claudio Reyna got all the accolades, but John O’Brien was better. Displaying vision, tenacity and even a scoring touch, O’Brien was the main reason for USA’s run to the quarterfinals in 2002. People forget that Claudio Reyna was hurt and didn’t play in USA’s 3-2 victory over Portugal. Well, guess who scored the opening goal in that game?

O’Brien led the midfield in such a way that we have only seen from Michael Bradley since. The one time that U.S. fans were able to see him completely healthy in a US uniform produced results like this:

These kinds of passes were the norm rather than the exception for the Ajax man who was so good that he was brought to the 2006 World Cup despite playing in just four league games the year and a half prior.

O’Brien put together five games in 2002 that have yet to be matched by an American. U.S. fans will hope that one day those five games will be surpassed but, as of today, no one has come close.

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