The past decade was an exciting one for American soccer. Some of the most talented players this country has seen yet exploded onto the scene.
Major League Soccer experienced growth to 15 teams with three more to come in the next couple of years. Teams began profiting, soccer-specific stadiums were built, and the Designated Player rule brought a handful of international superstars stateside.
American players, usually passed over in foreign leagues, got an incredible amount of respect and were bought by some of the biggest clubs in the world, like AC Milan and Manchester United.
As for the national team, it was the biggest decade the team has ever had.
The United States team qualified for three World Cups (2002, 2006, and the upcoming 2010 World Cup). Their magical run to the quarterfinals in the 2002 World Cup was the country's best World Cup finish since 1930.
They won three CONCACAF Gold Cups (2002, 2005, and 2007) to go along with a second-place finish in 2009 and a third place finish in 2003.
The team also was the 2009 Confederations Cup runner-up, losing in the final against Brazil, 3-2. Making the appearance in the tournament more impressive was their 2-0 victory against number one ranked Spain, stopping the country's 35-game unbeaten streak.
The previous ten years were very important to the growth and success of soccer in the United States. Many players stepped up and achieved things previous eras would have thought impossible.
So here are the five most important American soccer players of the past decade.
5. Kasey Keller
Keller was a part of two World Cup teams this decade (2002 and 2006), and along with midfielder Claudio Reyna, became the first American to be named to four World Cup rosters.
He became the most capped goalkeeper in the country's history and the all-time leader in both wins and clean sheets.
Individual accolades included the Honda Player of the Year and the U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year in 2005.
For the majority of the decade he played in the world's largest leagues, such as Spain's La Liga (Rayo Vallecano 2000-2001), England's Premier League (Tottenham 2001-2005, Fulham 2007-2008) and the German Bundesliga (Borussia Monchengladbach 2005-2007).
Finally, in the last year of the decade, Keller-- an Olympia, Washington native-- signed with his home team Major League Soccer team, the expansion Seattle Sounders. One of the most successful teams in the league both on the field and off it, Keller was an integral part of the team's good fortunes and helped lead them to become the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open champions. He also set a record for most minutes without allowing a goal to start the season in MLS history (457 minutes).
The man has enjoyed success wherever he has gone and does so with an incredible amount of class.
4. Brian McBride
Regarded as one of the national team's best players, McBride was a member of both the '02 and '06 World Cups and is the only American to date to score in multiple World Cups ('98 and '02). He also was one of three overage players featured for the United States in the '08 Summer Olympics, where he was named team captain.
McBride was the '02 Gold Cup MVP.
He was named to the MLS All-Time Best XI that came out in '05.
McBride had a rather large impact on English Premier League teams signing Americans.
After loan stints with Preston North End ('00) and Everton ('03), he made a full-time transfer to Fulham in '04, bought for $1.5 million. There, he made 153 appearances and scored 40 goals before returning to MLS after the '08 season. He was given the club's captaincy in '07 and was named Fulham Player of the Year in both '07 and '08. He was so popular at Fulham, not only did the club sign two more Americans (Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson), but they also renamed a bar at Craven Cottage "McBride's" in his honor.
The most iconic image of McBride comes from a game against Italy in the '06 World Cup. He was elbowed by Daniele De Rossi and blood flowed from his face. He needed three stitches to close the gash, but returned to the game and displayed his toughness.
McBride was very talented in the air, but his tenacity and work ethic are what made him so important. He was the epitome of what the American player should be.
3. Claudio Reyna
You don't get the nickname "Captain America" for just any reason.
The captain of both the '02 and '06 World Cup teams, Reyna set a benchmark for all Americans to strive for. An integral part of the U.S's quarterfinal finish in '02, Reyna was rewarded by becoming only the second American in history to be named to the World Cup all-tournament team.
Reyna was the '00 Honda Player of the Year.
For club, he was a mainstay in England's Premier League, playing there from '01-'07 for both Sunderland and Manchester City. In '07, the Livingston, New Jersey native came back home to play for MLS' Red Bull New York, where he was named captain.
Reyna was an incredibly successful player who is widely regarded as the finest that America has ever produced.
2. Landon Donovan
There is not a single player with the stats and accolades that Donovan has piled up in his career, one that has really only taken shape this decade.
Arguably the most important player in MLS history, he has been named MLS MVP ('09), MLS Cup MVP ('03), MLS All-Star MVP ('01), MLS Best XI ('03, '08, '09), and MLS All-time Best XI.
He's scored the most goals (42) in U.S. men's national team history, is the all-time assists leader, and is the active leader and fourth all-time in caps (120).
He was named U.S Soccer Athlete of the Year in '03 and '04, Honda Player of the Year in '02, '03, '04, '07, '08, and '09 (the only American to ever win the award six times), and the Honda Player of the Decade.
He played on both the '02 and '06 World Cup teams, as well as the '00 Olympic squad.
He's also been featured on multiple covers of Sorts Illustrated and the '03 and '07 covers of the U.S. version of the FIFA video game.
His barbs that international superstar David Beckham was not being a good teammate and committing to the Los Angeles Galaxy, while controversial, surely gained him even more respect from MLS fans.
Donovan is the national team's go-to-guy, the player the offense really flows through. He is truly the international face of American soccer.
Many would argue he should be number one on this list, but there is one player, that while he may not get the same recognition as Donovan, his presence is even bigger.
1. Tim Howard
No American player this decade, maybe even in history, has taken advantage of opportunities presented to him and come up bigger in monumental situations.
At the club level, Howard spent the beginning of the decade displaying his quick reflexes and incredible shot-stopping ability with MLS' MetroStars (now Red Bull New York). Howard was so impressive that in '03 he was sold to iconic soccer club Manchester United for $4 million. It was MLS' first big transfer.
Howard won the starting position before the season began and did not disappoint. He became the first American to receive a winner's medal in the FA Cup and in his first season in the Premier League was named to the league's Best XI, the only Manchester United player on the squad.
Howard moved on to Everton, where he immediately cemented himself as the number one. In '09, Howard set the club record for clean sheets in a season.
Howard was also the MLS All-Star game MVP in '09 for his performance in the penalty kick shootout that led Everton to victory and to become the first foreign club to beat the team of All-Stars.
His international career has been relatively brief but he has maximized every moment of it.
Howard was a member of the '00 Olympic team and the '06 World Cup squad, but in '07 he was finally given the opportunity to be the country's number one.
At a time when the national team began to challenge itself with friendlies against world-class competition, Howard established himself as an elite goalie.
In the August '08, on the heels of matches against England and Spain-- both in Europe-- the U.S. played number one ranked Argentina at Giants Stadium. Howard, a North Brunswick, New Jersey native, had quite the homecoming. Howard put the team on his shoulders and led them to a 0-0 tie. Left out to dry all alone too often, he made seven saves on the night, a number of which were point-blank one-on-one stops that kept the team in the game. Had it not been for Howard that night, the Americans would have most likely been laughed off the pitch.
Another notable performance was in the '09 Confederations Cup against another number one ranked team, Spain. The U.S. shocked the world by winning 2-0 and Howard was brilliant in goal. The U.S. was outshot 29-9 on the match, but Howard stood strong and turned away scoring chances from Fernando Torres, David Villa, and Sergio Ramos. Howard's game against Spain was named "Most Clutch Performance" in the U.S. Soccer Awards, voted on by fans.
Howard was also awarded the Golden Glove-- the tournament's best goalkeeper-- for the '09 Confederations Cup.
He was named U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year in '08. Many also seriously believe that he should have won at least one of the previous three Honda Player of the Year awards.
Some may argue that Donovan's stats and awards should put him atop the list. Some may also argue that the U.S. team would be worse off if Donovan, not Howard, were injured. Some would even point that the above argument for Howard stems from one big transfer and only two games; that there just isn't enough body of work.
Not to downplay Donovan's career, but Howard has become big-time. He has stepped up and put together sensational performances against some of the world's best for both club and country. He was the first big transfer from MLS that paved the way for guys like Clint Dempsey and Jozy Alitdore-- and possibly even Landon Donovan himself sometime soon-- to move to European giants.
Howard is the United States' only true world-class player. Is there any other U.S. men's national team player that you would consider to be in the top-five at his position out of everyone in the world? Howard is, and that's it.
Sensational skill, marvelous performances, big time clubs, and setting precedent for Americans, especially MLS players, to succeed overseas make Howard the most important American player of the decade.
Honorable mentions: Brad Friedel, Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, Cobi Jones, Clint Dempsey
The new decade is going to start off with a bang. A friendly against top-five ranked Netherlands will be a big match that will lead the U.S. into the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where the team has a favorable draw to get to the knockout round.
The next ten years will continue to shape the legacy that the United States makes on the international soccer scene and the nation will wonder who will be the most important players from 2010 to 2019?
Will Charlie Davies recover from injuries sustained in a deadly car accident?
Will Jozy Altidore become the first elite American striker?
Will Freddy Adu ever live up to all the hype that surrounded him?
Will Brad Guzan be the next American goalkeeper to succeed on both the international club and country levels?
How many more years will Donovan and Howard be prominent forces on the U.S. national team?
What U-17 and U-23 team players will step up and make their way to the senior roster?
How far will the U.S. advance in any three of the decade's World Cups? Is it possible the team could actually win it?
The next decade will provide the answers to these questions and more. U.S. soccer fans will be on the edge of their seats hoping that the sport and its players continue to reach new heights.
Kasey Keller: AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian
Brian McBride: AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev
Cluadio Reyan: AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
Landon Donovan: AP Photo/Elise Amendola
Tim Howard: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File