Since this year's National Soccer Hall of Fame election was the first with players from Major League Soccer on the ballot as well as players from the U.S. Men's and Women's National Teams, one would think that it would be filled with difficult choices.
Well, it wasn't.
Of the 38 eligible players, there were only a select few -- maybe six or seven players -- who are truly worthy of enshrinement in Oneonta, N.Y., over Columbus Day weekend. Of those players, only three were able to enter as the Class of 2004. And those same three individuals, whose careers clearly stood out, got the call on Wednesday about their induction:
Michelle Akers, Paul Caligiuri, and Eric Wynalda.
There were no surprises, as the 73 voters that comprised of media, coaches and league executives got it right.
If anything, the most anticipated piece of information was whether or not Akers and Wynalda would be voted in unanimously.
They were not, which is a crime.
In fact, those who didn't vote for either player should have their voting privileges taken away for good -- that's how wrong it was to keep the best female player of all-time and the U.S. National Team's all-time leading goal-scorer off the ballot.
Nevertheless, each received over 93 percent of the vote, and easily earned their spot in the Hall of Fame.
Caligiuri, who seemed to be a lock for the third spot but was not as much of a definitive choice as the other two players he'll join in the Hall this fall, outdistanced his former teammate Thomas Dooley by 23 votes.
Four other former U.S. National Team players followed, as Hugo Perez (42 votes), Bruce Murray (33), Roy Wegerle (23) and Fernando Clavijo (20) received a good level of support, and will have a chance at getting inducted over the next seven years.
Akers was the biggest no-brainer, by far.
Mia Hamm has the all-time goal-scoring record for the U.S. Women's National Team, and Kristine Lilly is the most-capped player in the world, but no could change a game like Akers.
Tall, strong, skillful and warrior-like on the field, Akers was the most-feared goal-scorer in the world during the first two-thirds of career as the team's striker and go-to player.
The final third of her career saw her move to a midfield role under Tony DiCicco, where she was equally as dominant as a ball-winner, playmaker and scorer.
Despite being hampered by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Akers remained a world-class player and was arguably the best player in the entire 1999 World Cup, which she helped the United States win as the team's holding midfielder and on-the-field leader.
|Connolly's HOF picks
As one of the 73 voters, ESPN Soccernet.com's Marc Connolly put the following six players on his Hall of Fame ballot:
Her being awarded FIFA women's outstanding player of the 20th century was well-deserved, as was her being named to FIFA's 100 greatest living footballers list that came out earlier this year and were selected by Brazilian legend Pele.
"She was the person who set the example for our women's National Team," said her longtime teammate Julie Foudy. "Not just on the field, but off the field. (Akers was) first-class in everything she did. So well-respected … She was the first one out there working harder than everyone else."
Akers becomes the third female to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, joining her former teammates Wendy Gebauer and April Heinrichs. She's been enjoying her time with her new husband and several horses on her farm in the Orlando, Fla., area since retiring from soccer in 2000.
"When I retired, I had for the first time a chance to look back and kind of revisit and look inside and see what I had gone through, and what we did as a team for so many years," said Akers, whose first appearance with the National Team came in 1985 when she was a 19-year-old at Central Florida. "Being able to do that these past couple of years, I really need to say thanks to my coaches and my teammates over the years. We lived a lot of days -- and hard days at that -- together, and still managed to come out on top."
Wynalda's induction was an easy choice, as well. Not only was he the most dangerous American striker for close to a decade, but he was also one of the main personalities on-and-off the field that defined the National Team during the '90s.
During his induction press conference on Wednesday, he even joked about his sometimes odd relationship with the media over the years. His aloofness could be frustrating at times, but no one was more affable and open when you needed him to be.
"I know it's been hard for some of you after some of the things I've put you through," said Wynalda, known by his teammates and friends as 'Waldo.' "But I never let you down with a good quote."
With 34 goals and 16 assists in 106 appearances for the U.S. over an 11-year span, Wynalda tops both the goal scoring and all-time points (84) charts with plenty of breathing room to spare.
He was a starter in three World Cups (1990, 1994, and 1998), won two Honda Player of the Year awards, spent six seasons in MLS for four clubs, and will go down as one of the first Americans to make a splash overseas.
In 1992-93, Wynalda became the first American-born player to play in the German Bundesliga, which he lit up right away with nine goals in his first 10 games for FC Saarbruecken.
No matter what he did in Major League Soccer over a six-year span for four different franchises, he'll always be remembered for his goal for the San Jose Clash in a 1-0 win over D.C. United in April of 1996, as it was the league's first goal.
The 34-year-old is currently a broadcaster with ESPN, and has thrived as an analyst this season due to his candidness and insight he brings each week. In true Wynalda fashion, he mentioned how enshrinement in the Hall of Fame now finally ends his professional career.
"This is something that I look at as the best part of my career so far," he said. "It's done. It's over. It's official: I am retired. I'd been hanging on there maybe, possibly, to do an Alexi (Lalas) and come back, but that's over. This is it."
Caligiuri is most well-known for his left-footed "Shot Heard Round The World" goal against Trinidad & Tobago on November 19, 1989 to send the U.S. to the 1990 World Cup.
But the standout defender would be worthy of induction without even having scored that goal.
His longevity as a player was astounding, as he remains the only U.S. player to earn at least one cap for 14 straight years from 1984 through 1997.
In addition to suiting up for the National Team 110 times, including seven World Cup matches in 1990 and 1994, Caligiuri became the first American player to make a Division I professional team in Europe when he earned a spot with FC Hansa Rostock Oberliga in 1990.
His stints for SV Hamburg, SV Meppen, SC Freiburg and St. Pauli helped open up the doors for U.S. players to play in Germany like Joe-Max Moore, Claudio Reyna and Wynalda, who made mention of that on Wednesday.
"As a player, he was always kind of a mentor to me," said Wynalda about Caligiuri. "A lot of people don't understand how that all happened, but when I first came to the National Team he was my first roommate. And he helped me get to the German First Division. I remember that that was his dream. And when it turned out that the opportunity came for me to be in the First Division, he was a very integral part of that.
"I'll never forget that. I got to be the first guy to go and play and represent the United States in the German Bundesliga, and it wouldn't have happened without Paul."
Caligiuri returned stateside in 1996 to help Major League Soccer get off the ground, and spent six seasons in the league playing for the Columbus Crew and Los Angeles Galaxy. In total, his career as an international and professional spanned 18 seasons.
"I have great memories of making great friends and traveling to far places," said Caligiuri, signaling out Hall of Famer Rick Davis, Galaxy head coach Sigi Schmid and former Galaxy assistant and assistant from the 1990 World Cup team Ralph Perez, "and having great experiences on and off the soccer field."
The two-time All-American at UCLA has stayed in the area as the head men's and women's coach at Cal Poly Pomona in Division II since retiring from the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2001.
"My commitment to the game," said Caligiuri, "is far from over."
What will make it nearly impossible for Dooley, Perez and Murray to be inducted next year is that the Class of 2005 contains Tab Ramos, John Harkes and Marcelo Balboa, all of which are virtual locks after retiring in 2002.
Looking ahead to 2006, Alexi Lalas will be an easy shoe-in, with Peter Vermes probably in the running in his second year eligible.
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org