• The U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame reflects players who have had immense impact on the national team level, but it's long past time where club standouts received their due.
By Brian Straus
June 16, 2017

Gordie Howe. Hank Aaron. Brett Favre. Karl Malone.

Jeff Cunningham.

They’re all second-best. But only one isn’t a first-ballot hall-of-famer.

National Soccer Hall of Fame voting for the Class of 2017 closes Friday, and Cunningham—the second leading regular season goal scorer in MLS history—is eligible for the second time. He didn’t make it in 2016 despite the 139 league goals he tallied across 14 seasons with five MLS clubs. He also won a U.S. Open Cup and a Supporters' Shield with the Columbus Crew and two Golden Boots. 

But that wasn’t sufficient. Add it all together and it didn’t surpass 14—which is the number of caps Cunningham earned with the U.S. national team. He was a reserve on the 2002 CONCACAF Gold Cup championship squad and in the ’03 Confederations Cup, and in a soccer culture that still values national teams a lot more than clubs, Cunningham’s is not a Hall of Fame resume. But maybe it should be.

For what it’s worth, none of the top 10 players on MLS’s list of leading goal scorers is in the Hall. That’s kind of amazing. Leader Landon Donovan isn’t yet eligible and Chris Wondolowski remains active, but the likes of Ante Razov, Jason Kreis and Taylor Twellman are on the outside with Cunningham looking in. They’re all guilty of the same crime—none had standout national team careers.

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Sports evolve and standards change. The NFL is nearly 100 years old, but among the quarterbacks on the career touchdown passes list, Fran Tarkenton is the only member of the top 10 who retired before the 1990s.

Chemistry and tactics change as well. From 1903—the year of the first modern World Series—through 1989, there were 17 50-home run seasons in Major League Baseball. Since 1990, there have been 26. Meanwhile, defense has ruled the NHL, where there were 76 50-goal seasons in the 1980s (seventy-six!) but just 13 over the past decade.

Soccer may have changed the most. A significant number of American fans won’t be familiar with most members of the NSHOF. The sport has a long but mostly obscure history here, and that's led to inductees whose statistics and achievements are dwarfed by modern-day players. Even relatively well-known men of the past like Billy Gonsalves, Joe Gaetjens, Bert Patenaude, Walter Bahr and Frank Borghi had only a handful of caps—often less than 10.

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The sport was different back then, but you can’t question the fact that the aforementioned players were impactful. We can evaluate them only by contemporary standards. Most excelled at the club level, and the majority helped lay American soccer's vital yet somewhat under-appreciated foundation. No one disputes that they’re part of the story or that they've been honored accordingly.

After all, isn’t that what a hall of fame is about? It should present and celebrate the history of a league or sport through the athletes who played it, the contributors who built it and the artifacts and relics that tell a tangible tale. If the narrative changes—if batting averages or shooting percentages rise or fall—the threshold for induction will evolve. But it’s the narrative that’s important. Relevance and passion are seeded by memory. That’s especially the case for American soccer, which remains overshadowed by the likes of the NFL and NBA and is still largely responsible for sharing its own story.

FC Dallas's Toyota Stadium will be the new site for the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame.
U.S. Soccer

At this point, as progress continues on the long-awaited brick and mortar NSHOF at FC Dallas’s Toyota Stadium, understanding the mission of a hall has never been more important. Since the Oneonta, New York, facility closed its doors in 2010, the NSHOF essentially been a page on U.S. Soccer’s website and a bunch of boxes at a North Carolina warehouse. If fans and voters (mostly voters) haven't given the Hall its due under those conditions, it’s understandable. But soon that’ll change. We’ll all have the chance to see and touch that history, and it’s vital that the whole record is available.

In most countries around the world, soccer is experienced through the rhythms of the local club. It’s a personal and almost parochial relationship. National team games and tournaments are special occasions. But the club, whether you’re a player or supporter, represents the lifeblood and day-to-day.

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MLS is now in its 22nd season, and its one of three professional leagues operating in the USA. There are 60 fully pro teams (including a handful in Canada and one in Puerto Rico that feature American players), with more to come. Yet modern NSHOF voting doesn’t reflect this reality. Instead, it hinges almost entirely on a candidate's impact during 15-20 national team games each year, and even more so on whether they excelled in month-long tournaments.

It makes some sense for women’s soccer, which is at a different stage in its development at the club level. But for men, there’s now a whole lot more to a career than the national team. Many have helped pro soccer gain unprecedented traction in the USA through day-to-day work in their communities and at their clubs. And those clubs, in turn, are building on that foundation by investing in youth development, fostering a culture and simply existing.

And so at this point in the American soccer story, it’s possible to play a significant part without enjoying the favor of a particular national team coach. What is Real Salt Lake without Kreis? How can we ignore Twellman’s goals-per-game ratio or his post-retirement crusade for concussion awareness? Steve Ralston, Jimmy Conrad, Chris Armas, Ben Olsen, Tony Sanneh, Josh Wolff, Gregg Berhalter, Eddie Lewis, Frankie Hejduk—and we can’t let anyone forget Clint Mathis—all had an impact.

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That doesn’t mean each should be inducted. Far from it. But the sum total of their careers must be considered more carefully, and at least a couple should pass the test. Only national team stars are getting in right now (apart from veterans candidates, which comes from a separate vote) and at this stage of the game’s growth, contributions by the aforementioned and others to club and community must be weighed alongside their international record. Soccer is about both.

The slights to foreign-born MLS players who represent their native countries are even more egregious. Voters saw fit to induct NASL icons like Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto, Vladislav Bogicevic and Karl-Heinz Granitza. They weren’t from here, but they infused their league with an identity, furthered American soccer and were a ton of fun to watch. They’re part of the story.

But there hasn’t been a single MLS player who represented a foreign nation voted into the NSHOF. Jaime Moreno, who was the most complete attacking weapon during the league’s first decade, isn’t in. His Bolivia and D.C. United teammate Marco Etcheverry, the linchpin of a dynasty that set the early MLS standard, isn’t in. Carlos Valderrama, a marquee inaugural-season signing who remains fourth on the all-time assists list—not in. Pat Onstad won three MLS Cup titles with San Jose and Houston and backstopped the Rochester Rhinos to their famous 1999 Open Cup triumph. He’s a two-time MLS goalkeeper of the year. But he’s Canadian, so he’s not in the NSHOF. We wonder what’ll happen when Dwayne De Rosario, a four-time champion and one of the most electrifying players in MLS history, becomes eligible next year.

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There was plenty of noise and ridicule when this year’s ballot was released and David Beckham was listed. He played for the LA Galaxy for just four and a half seasons, and for some of that time he either wasn’t all that great or was in Milan. But there were moments when he was great, and that–plus his two MLS Cups–tells just part of the tale. Without Beckham, there likely is no Thierry Henry or Robbie Keane, and without them there’s probably no David Villa, Kaká or Sebastian Giovinco. It’ll be a long time before anyone can write a book on the history of the American game without including a chapter on Beckham and the Designated Player revolution. We can’t force different candidates to meet the same criteria. In a U.S. soccer museum, Beckham belongs.

Induction criteria will change. Some day, players whose accomplishments and contributions equal Moreno’s or Twellman’s may be far more common. But that day doesn’t come without those whose highlights we’re watching now. It’s a good thing, a testament to soccer’s growth, that club contributions should be taken more seriously.

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