EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — So far as I can tell, people in Germany don’t have a debate over who is the Face of German Soccer, just as Spaniards don’t over who’s the Face of Spanish Soccer. But some countries’ soccer cultures just have a thing, a fetish of sorts.
In England, they can’t stop talking about the importance of the England captain. And here in the U.S., for as long as I can remember, we’ve been obsessing about the Face of American Soccer. I’m not sure why this is the case, not least because soccer is one of the ultimate team sports. Maybe it’s because we like to market individual stars in the U.S., or maybe it’s because soccer is always trying to get bigger here and feels like it needs a charismatic pitchman—or, as is often the case, a pitchwoman.
But the older I get, the more appreciation I have for the players who’ve had the honor—and let’s be honest, the burden—of being the Face of American Soccer. Yes, being TFOAS can be lucrative and bring you fame, but it also comes with the pressure of having to be on, all the time, whether you’re signing autographs off the field or dealing with the highest of expectations in your performance on the field.
The Face of American Soccer is not an official title, of course, and yet you can more or less trace it over time on the men’s and women’s sides. Another way of looking at it is asking: Who was/is the biggest star and personality in the team? Here’s my best guess:
USMNT FACE OF AMERICAN SOCCER
2011 – now Jurgen Klinsmann, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan
2011 Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey
2006 – 2010 Landon Donovan
2002 – 2006 Bruce Arena, Landon Donovan
1999 – 2002 Bruce Arena
1998 Steve Sampson
1994 – 1998 Alexi Lalas, Cobi Jones, John Harkes, Eric Wynalda, Tony Meola
USWNT FACE OF AMERICAN SOCCER
2013 – now Alex Morgan
2012 Alex Morgan, Hope Solo, Abby Wambach
2007 – 2011 Hope Solo, Abby Wambach
2004 – 2007 Abby Wambach
1995 – 2004 Mia Hamm
1991 – 1995 Michelle Akers, Anson Dorrance
You might disagree with all of this, which is fine, but here’s one thing that stands out: Landon Donovan, who will play his final game for the U.S. on Friday night against Ecuador (7 p.m. ET, ESPN, Unimas), has been the Face of American Soccer, men’s version, for 12 years, longer than any other FOAS on these lists.
There’s a lot that goes into that, as Brad Guzan explained Thursday when asked what most impressed him about Donovan’s career.
“It’s the way he handled an entire country on his back in terms of helping the sport grow, his performances in big moments that meant a lot for the sport in this country,” Guzan said. “The way he handled everything was unique. I don’t know if anyone else will have that opportunity, because he was the first to do it. That’s probably what I respected about him the most as a player.”
Another thing you notice on these lists: While the women’s side has almost been entirely made up of players, the men’s side has much more of a coaches’ presence. The biggest personality on the USMNT during its 2002 World Cup quarterfinal run was Bruce Arena. These days the biggest personality is Jurgen Klinsmann. One of the main reasons Klinsmann was hired was simple: He’s comfortable not just coaching the team but also selling soccer to the U.S. masses.
That was never Bob Bradley’s thing when he coached the U.S. from 2007 to 2011. Bradley just wanted to win games and never desired to be the Face of American Soccer. And so Donovan took over the role by himself. He wasn’t always comfortable in that spotlight, but he accepted it, both the good and the bad. Donovan’s 2006 World Cup was brutal, and he and Arena took more blame than anyone. And for that reason it was impossible not to be happy for Donovan when his famous goal against Algeria saved the U.S. at World Cup 2010.
After that game, Donovan was overcome with emotion. You could tell how much being the Face of American Soccer had weighed on him, and now he had validated everything on the world’s biggest stage, giving U.S. fans a memory they will treasure forever.
I expect we’ll see more of that emotion on Friday night here, both from Donovan and the more than 33,000 fans who have come here to say goodbye to the Face of American Soccer.