Why no U.S. players in #WorldCupRank?
Snoop Dogg says that U.S. international Clint Dempsey is "the No. 1 soccer player in the world." Yet ESPNFC.com's Top 50 World Cup Countdown of the best players at the World Cup disagrees.
OK, so Snoop Dogg is a bit biased on this count but Dempsey not only failed to get the top mark, he didn't make the list at all. In fact, the entire U.S. team was shut out, including goalkeeper Tim Howard and midfielder Michael Bradley.
"I would say I'm not surprised by it," ESPN television analyst and former U.S. international Taylor Twellman said. "How many Champions League players are playing in this World Cup? We know we don't have many Americans playing in Champions League right now. When you come out with a ranking like that, a lot of people immediately look at the Champions League final. There were three or four guys who are going to play against the U.S. already in just that game. I totally understand it."
Indeed. Of the current 23-man U.S. roster, only Jermaine Jones and Julian Green appeared in this year's Champions League. Jones had already left for Turkish side Besiktas by the time the knockout stages began, while Green played a scant three minutes in a match that meant little to club side Bayern Munich.
Even if you expand the list to include big clubs that fall just outside the Champions League category, you won't find any additional Americans now that Bradley and Dempsey have returned to MLS. That plays a significant role in the likelihood that a player will make such a ranking.
"Some of it just comes down to where you're playing and who you're playing for," ESPN television analyst and former U.S. international Kasey Keller said. "And our national team isn't going to win the World Cup. You start looking at the number of players, it doesn't take a lot when you have the world's elite at a World Cup to come up with 50 players."
Should Howard, Bradley or Dempsey have gotten more consideration?
Of the three, Dempsey is the toughest case. After excelling for English Premier League side Fulham, Dempsey moved to Tottenham Hotspur in the summer of 2012. He had his moments during his stint with the London club, but never reached the level of being an indispensable component for the side before moving back to MLS. At age 31, the feeling remains that while Dempsey is still a critical player for the U.S. team, he has about reached his ceiling.
A more compelling argument can be made for Bradley given that he continues to improve and is just 26 years old. But he was never able to cement his spot in the Roma lineup under manager Rudi Garcia and, like Dempsey, opted for the money and greater responsibility that came with a move back to MLS.
"I think Michael does an excellent job for the U.S. team," Keller said. "But he was a squad player at Roma. You have to remember, so much of where the thought process is when you're ranking these players is what you see week in and week out. It's not necessarily what they do for their national team, it's what they do and who they're playing against every day. If you're not more or less a starter for one of the top clubs in the world, you're not going to be in that category."
The best case of all can be made for Howard, given the exceptional year he had for Everton. But on a list of 50 players there isn't going to be much love for goalkeepers; only four made it on this occasion.
Keller added, "Who would be the goalkeepers? You're looking at Manuel Neuer; you're looking at Gianluigi Buffon. You're talking Bayern and Juventus. Bayern won their league, Juventus won their league and Everton finished fifth. It was a great year and Howard had a great season, but that's what you're coming up against. It's very, very difficult to be starring for a mid-table team, anywhere, and be in the top 50 at a World Cup."
Not everyone shares Keller's view, however. Former U.S. teammate Alexi Lalas is convinced that both Bradley and Howard could "play with any team in the world." That raises the question of whether the long-held belief regarding bias against American players by those in Europe is still a factor. Not everyone is convinced.
"I think the Americans who have gone over there have a really good reputation. But at the same time I wouldn't agree that there's a player who should be at one of the top clubs in the world either," said former U.S. international Claudio Reyna, who is now the director of soccer for New York City FC. "It all comes down to performance. The guys who have made it in Europe, you can see they've made the jump to play in a higher league at a higher club. If you don't perform, that's why they haven't made it to the highest level."
Lalas insists the issue runs deeper than that. There are always instances where player signings don't work out, but a sporting director is less likely to get fired if the player in question is from Brazil, Argentina or the Netherlands.
"It takes a certain level of courage to go with an American because if it doesn't work out, it's not, 'The player didn't work out.' It's, 'the American didn't work out,'" Lalas said. "Not only did you mess up, but you messed up with an American. In the realm of hedging your bets, that was a much riskier proposition given the perception and given where Americans have traditionally been."
It's a discussion that's often intertwined with why American players don't fetch a greater transfer fee on the open market, and the answer is often the same. An American player, preferably an attacking one, needs to make a breakthrough at a major club before the benefit of the doubt can be given. Despite the heroics of players like Brian McBride, Dempsey, Bradley and Reyna, that has yet to really happen at a top club on a sustained basis.
All of this doesn't necessarily spell doom for the U.S. next month. The Americans have had their moments in recent World Cups and history has shown that having a dominant number of players in the top 50 isn't a guarantee of anything -- though it certainly helps. One only has to look at the tortured history of the Dutch -- with a few notable exceptions -- to see how a talented team can implode.
"If I've got 18 guys on the same page but two players in the top 50 and no one wants to play together, I'll take the other team," Twellman said.
Keep the faith, Snoop.