Saluting Soccer’s Buffalo Soldiers

By Andrew Dixon, III
Updated: February 9, 2009

MIAMI — As we celebrate Black History month and continue our countdown towards Wednesday’s U.S.-Mexico qualifier, as promised, I’m saluting the brothers that have represented the United States in international soccer competition.

From the historic and tragic story of Joe Gaetjens, to the contributions of Desmond Armstrong and Jimmy Banks to the accomplishments of Earnie Stewart, Eddie Pope and DaMarcus Beasley, contrary to popular belief amongst the Black community, Blacks really do play this game and have represented the United States with accomplishment and dignity.

Choosing a Best XI? Not so easy but let’s give it a shot, shall we?

***image7*** Easy choice for Goal Keeper as the Jersey-bred Tim Howard has established himself firmly as the No. 1 goal keeper for the United States in this current World Cup cycle and for the foreseeable future. The son of a Black American and a Hungarian woman, Tim grew up playing both basketball and soccer, excelling at both. He started representing the US on the U-17 level before graduating high school and beginning his career.

Tim worked his way up to MLS’ NY/NJ Metrostars (now RBNY) where his shot saving abilities and All-Star apperances landed him the 2001 Goal Keeper of the Year award and the attention of European scouts. He moved to European giants Manchester United in 2003 and was named to the English Premiere League’s Best XI for 2003-04.

Since moving to Everton FC he’s been at the top of his game and it has shown in his appearances for the US National Team. His performances between the pipes have been instrumental in saving matches for the US, most notably in the Gold Cup final of 2007, in a couple of World Cup Qualifiers last fall and last year’s exhibition against Argentina.

Named the 2008 US Soccer Male Athlete of the Year and has been recognized for his humanitarian efforts on behalf of those with Tourrette’s Syndrome which he’s had since birth.

DF: David Regis (1998-2002)
(BBC)

DF: David Regis (1998-2002) (BBC)

David Regis was a controversial selection for the 1998 World Cup gaining citizenship through his American-born wife but supplanting long time left back Jeff Agoos for all three games in France.

The Martinique-born Regis however played quite well in France and held the left back position throughout qualifying for the 2002 World Cup. He got into the attack along the flank whenever possible and started the US-Mexico match in Columbus in 2001. Some uneven performances in the warm-ups for 2002 World Cup saw him lose his starting spot, though he did make the team.

Regis played most of his career in France and was a teammate of Oguchi Onyewu at Metz.

DF: Eddie Pope. (1996-2006)
AFP

DF: Eddie Pope. (1996-2006) AFP

The first player ever to grant me an interview, when you speak of Eddie Pope, you’re speaking of arguably the best central defender ever to represent the United States.

Born in raised in North Carolina, he played four years for the University of N. Carolina at Chapel Hill where he was a first team All-American. Drafted by DC United in their inaugural season, he played for the Olympic team that year also and won the inaugural MLS Cup with a headed goal in overtime. His stellar career was spent entirely in MLS and was named to MLS’ All-Time Best XI

He began representing the US in 1996 and started every game he appeared in for the Red White and Blue. He played very well in the 1998 and 2002 World Cups establishing himself as an automatic choice in center of the defense. Never one to foul recklessly, his quiet leadership was key in marshalling the defense in the run to the quarterfinals in the 2002 World Cup.

Started two matches at the 2006 World Cup but was sent off in what his final appearance in a US shirt. No matter. He has set the standard by which many US central defenders will be measured.

***image8*** The other center back was the toughest position to fill because there are a couple of different players who could be here. Jimmy Banks, Oguchi Onyewu and Robin Fraser all could claim this spot.

But I settled on Desmond Armstrong, an Ellicot City product and a first team All-ACC performer at the University of Maryland. In the mid 80′s he established himself in the indoor game and made the first of his 81 appearances for the United States against Egypt in 1987.

He represented the United States at the 1988 Olympics and overcame a broken leg to become the first American born Black player to represent the US at a World Cup when he opened up in the center of defense at the 1990 World Cup against Czechoslavakia. He started all three matches at Italia ’90, fending off stupid questions from foreign journalists like “Why aren’t you playing basketball, aren’t you good enough?”

Armstrong continued to be a mainstay with the US, being the first American to participate in the UNICEF All-Star Gal in 1991 and appearing in 36 matches over the next two year. So it was surprising that Armstrong, 29 and apparently at the peak of his career, was one of the last cuts from the 1994 World Cup side.

Given the American side’s relative youth, Armstrong’s experience and versatility, not just in defense but midfield as well, would have seemed to have been an asset but coach Bora Milutinovic much to the surprise of Armstrong and several others around the camp.

Armstrong never again appeared in a US uniform but his influence was felt as Roy Lassiter chose to wear Armstrong’s No. 15 when represented the US. Armstrong has since gone on to organize inner-city Christian programs, coach Montreat College and is currently Director of Recruiting for the Brad Friedel Premier Soccer Academies.

***image12*** One of the most versatile performers for the US, Tony Sanneh makes this squad at right back based primarily on his outstanding tournament at the 2002 World Cup. As well as Eddie Pope played, Tony Sanneh was the US’ best defender during that quarterfinal round.

Learning the game from his Gambian father, Tony actually started his career as a forward and was the all-time scorer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He played both indoor and outdoor, primarily in the USL with the Minnesota Thunder until being signed by DC United in 1996. He scored in both of DC’s first two MLS Cup wins and played primarily in the midfield.

His career with the National Team began in 1997 and though he was not on the 1998 World Cup team began making steady appearances during qualifying for and the run-in to the 2002 World Cup.

He established himself as the right back of choice with a superb performance in a pre-World Cup friendly against Holland but defied expectations as he shut down Luis Figo and provided the game winning assist in the US’ 3-2 upset win over the heavily favored Portuguese in the opening match. He was steady and in some cases dominant in all of the US’ matches during that run.

Injuries and inconsistent playing time oversees limited his appearances thereafter but he gets the nod at right back here.

***image9*** It seems as if DaMarcus Beasley has been around forever. The Ft. Wayne native came into consciousness in 1999 by capturing the Silver Ball (as the second best player) as a member of the US’ U-17 side. Joining the Chicago Fire in 2000, his game improved under the tutledge of Bulgarian great Hristo Stoichkov and became an integral part of some of those truly stacked Fire sides of the early part of this decade.

He was a member of MLS’ Best XI in 2003 and finally got a move to Europe the following year, excelling at PSV Eindhoven in Holland. His career his taken him to England and Scotland where he currently plays for Glasgow Rangers, one of the most storied clubs in international football.

His debut for the United States National team came early in 2001 but he didn’t figure into any of the World Cup qualifiers that year. But as his game improved over the next year, using his tremendous quickness and skill the escape bigger defenders, he started to earn consideration in Bruce Arena’s plans for the United States, culminating in getting a start against Portugal in the opening match of the 2002 World Cup.

Not even 20 years old at the time, he was fearless running at the Portuguese defenders and drawing fouls. His belief in his game helped set the stage for the US’ quarterfinal run and made DMB an indispensable part of the US lineup for years to come.

He’s played key roles in successful Gold Cup campaigns and World Cup qualifying. He was criticized by fans and media pundits (myself included) for a substandard opening game in the 2006 but came back well in the games against Italy and Ghana.

He’s scored big goals for the US and will continue to be relied upon over the next couple of years for qualifying and hopefully a successful run at the 2010 World Cup.

***image11*** Born in the Netherlands to an American serviceman and a Dutch mother (a former sprinter), Earnie Stewart was a constant on the US team through the 90′s. From his historic goal against Colombia in the 1994 World Cup to his appearance in every match of the 1995 Copa America, a stunning goal from about 45 yards out away to Honduras in 2001 and his inspired play in the 2002 World Cup, when the US was establishing itself and gaining respect on the international stage Stewart was there every step of the way.

He started out as a forward in the 1994 World Cup but played mostly in the midfield during his club career which was primarily in the Dutch Eredivisie with teams such as NAC Breda and Willem II. He also played two years in MLS with DC United and won a championship in 2004.

Stewart never failed to answer the call on behalf of US Soccer.

***image10*** Freddy Adu could be a questionable pick considering that he hasn’t had many games at the senior level. Nevertheless in the short time he’s played for the US, he shown that he is capable of playing in an attacking midfield role.

Even most people outside of soccer know Adu’s story. Born in Ghana, his mother won a lottery to come to the United States. Freddy started tearing up youth leagues and came to the attention of scouts all over the world. He elected to stay home and after finishing high school early, signed with DC United at age 14.

Though his club career has meandered (stops at DC United, Real Salt Lake, Benfica and Monaco) his intrnational career has been productive, playing big roles on the US-20 and U-23 teams.

He’s represented the US on the senior level and has already impressed with his creativity, ball skills and free kick ability.

MF: Cobi Jones (1992–2004)
(wsoccer)

MF: Cobi Jones (1992–2004) (wsoccer)

Few players have maxed out their potential the way Cobi Jones did. #13 went from a walk on at UCLA to the United States’ all-time leader in appearances with a staggering 164 appearances.

Cobi represented the US at the 1992 Olympics and his flank play on the right led to his inclusion with the full US National Team and eventually the 1994 World Cup side.

There he appeared in every match as a substitute and impressed enough to be signed by English side Coventry City, making him the first Black American player ever to play in the English Premiership.

Cobi appeared for the US often during qualifying for the 1998 World Cup where he became one of the few players to actually not disappoint and was a mainstay with the National team as the decade closed.

As other players like DaMarcus Beasley started pushing for starting spots and age started creeping up on his legs, he still showed his worth, most especially during the 2002 World Cup matches as he helped kill off Portugal and Mexico.

Never quite got the respect from American fans during his career but he earned every minute he got on the field for the United States.

 F: Joe Gaetjens (1950)
(dailymail.co.uk)

F: Joe Gaetjens (1950) (dailymail.co.uk)

The first Black player to represent the United States was actually born in Haiti and never became an American citizen and only played three matches for the Red White and Blue. But knowledgeable American soccer fans know Joseph Gaetjens and celebrate him for his game winning goal in the biggest upset in World Cup history.

Born in 1924 Port-Au-Prince, he came to the US to study accounting at Columbia, washing dishes to help pay his way. He played locally for Brookhattan of the old American Soccer League and won a scoring title, gaining the attention of US Soccer officials.

Eligibility rules were so loose that merely stating his intention to become an American citizen was all that was needed to represent the United States and he became a member of the 1950 World Cup side.

In the US’ second group match against heavily favored England (the inventors of the game), Gaetjens’ scored on a diving header in the first half. The goal was the only tally in the history making 1-0 upset, after which Gaetjens was carried on the fans’ shoulders.

Known for his passionate play and blinding speed, Gaetjens’ played in France before moving back to Haiti. Gaetjens himself was non-political, it was said that he only wanted to teach Haitian kids to play the game he loved so much.

However, it was he who paid the price for his family’s support of an opposition candidate. He was arrested by Duvalier’s Tonton Macoutes as a political prisoner and never seen again, presumably killed in July of 1964.

Gaetjens remained the only one to play in a World Cup until Jimmy Banks and Desmond Armstrong some 40 years later and was elected to the United States Soccer Hall of Fame.

F: Eddie Johnson (2004-Present)
(ussoccer)

F: Eddie Johnson (2004-Present) (ussoccer)

Seems strange to put Eddie Johnson on here considering how his career has stuttered. He hasn’t been included for the US roster for Mexico on Wednesday night and after a spell of indifferent form, doesn’t look to be recalled any time soon.

Four years ago, no one would have seen this coming. After starring on the U-20 team, EJ started off his senior international career like he was going to be THAT guy on the US’ front line for years to come.

A goal against El Salvador. A natural hat trick against Panama. A goal against Jamaica. A beautiful header against T&T who went on to the World Cup. An assist on the loan goal against Mexico in 2005, a goal and an assist against Guatemala in a match where he dominated the entire back line.

In all, he had eight goals in his first eight appearances.

Then just like that, it fell apart. He got injured in the spring of 2005 and the confidence, the swagger and the goals never reappeared.

It could be that I’m including him on this list just on potential and past glory alone. That may be true.

But as they said about Jimmy McNulty, “Brother, when you were good, you were the best we had.”

Who’s Got Beef?

Robin Fraser:Arguably the best defender in MLS history, outlasted five National team coaches but never quite got an extended run on the National Team. Did claim a 3rd place medal at the 1999 Confederations Cup.

Oguchi Onyewu:He’s scored some timely goals from the central defender spot and his stare-down of Jared Borgetti in 2005 is the stuff of legend. But Armstrong’s 81 caps and the presence of Eddie Pope is keeping him off the list…for now.

Jimmy Banks:Another central defender who appeared on the 1990 World Cup side along side Armstrong. Had 36 caps with the US team between 1986 and 1991. Founded an inner-city youth soccer camp and a full-time and volunteer worker with the Milwaukee Boy’s and Girl’s Club when his playing days were done.

Roy Lassiter:Great MLS career but even he admitted that four goals in 30 appearances with the National Team was disappointing.

Ricardo Clark:Could still make this list as a defensive midfielder. He’s had some solid outings against Mexico and at the 2007 Copa America but some uneven appearances as of late have kept him behind Michael Bradley.