Once again, I am a voter for the National Soccer Hall of Fame’s annual player election, and, as I’ve always made my ballots and rationales public, there’s no reason to stop now.
But instead of the usual quick comments about each nominee and my final list, I felt this year I should address the question, “What IS a Hall of Famer?” It seems as though there are many different standards and definitions of what constitutes a player worthy of induction. Here, I’ll tell you what I think and reveal my selections.
Now there’s the question of what the electorate appears to think makes one a Hall of Famer. I guess we can start by looking at who we’ve elected lately:
- Nineteen players have been elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame since 2004. Fourteen of them are men, five are women, and every single one was some degree of star for the US National Team.
- Fourteen of the nineteen were elected in their first year of eligibility. Only Thomas Dooley (seventh), Earnie Stewart (fourth), Joy Fawcett, Preki (both third) and Jeff Agoos (second) were elected after spending more than one year on the ballot.
- Michelle Akers is the only one of the nineteen who did not play in a Division I domestic league (as she retired a year before the WUSA began play).
So the rough profile of a Hall of Famer is a male who played in MLS, had a high-achieving career for the US National Team, and whose qualifications for the Hall were so obvious that they were elected swiftly. Given the haphazard nature of the attempts at pro leagues for women, it’s not difficult to see why international success plays the biggest role on the distaff side of the equation.
My personal view is that there are four “levels” of US Soccer Hall of Fame player:
- Level I: One of the very best players ever to play the game. These are the slam-dunk, obvious choices, the ones who combine individual brilliance with team success, and to whom the term “future Hall of Famer” was applied while they were active. Usually – but not always – Level I Hall of Famers have long careers, are genuinely famous, break records and contribute to championships, star for club and country, with the countdown to their inevitable enshrinement commencing as soon as they take off the uniform for the last time. Michelle Akers, Eric Wynalda, Claudio Reyna and Mia Hamm are good examples of Level I Hall of Famers. (They’re the top four percentage vote-getters in the modern era, incidentally.)
- Level II: An outstanding player who had a very long career, contributed to championships and to the growth of the game in this country, and had some success internationally (either at the club or country level, or both), but who may not have been considered one of the very best ever. You could put Tom Dooley, Jeff Agoos and Earnie Stewart in this category. True “fame” or “notoriety,” if you prefer, can sometimes bump a player from Level II to Level I, a la Alexi Lalas or Tony Meola. And Paul Caliguiri didn’t get 89 percent of the vote on the basis of that goal, but I don’t think it hurt. Marcelo Balboa, Tab Ramos, Cobi Jones and John Harkes are probably Level II Hall of Famers.
- Level III: An excellent player who made a significant contribution to the game, especially at a critical juncture. When they were on the Players Ballot, I voted for Mary Harvey and Bruce Murray because they were terrific players who helped set the stage for US Soccer success, while being largely forgotten by today’s fan. As a voter, I never wanted fans to think American soccer just arrived fully formed on that day in Suwon in 2002, so I didn’t want to pass up the chance to recognize players who helped us get to where we are today. Level III is also why I have voted for Marco Etcheverry and Mauricio Cienfuegos nearly every year I’ve had a ballot, as they were stars for MLS teams when the league was getting up and running. (As they’re non-Americans, though, I don’t like their chances.)
- Level IV: An excellent player who represents an overlooked facet of the history of the game in this country. I vote for Victor Nogueira every year and have voted for Pato Margetic in the past, as they were two of the greatest indoor players ever, and the NSHOF has consistently ignored the indoor game despite its obvious contributions to the American soccer landscape. (Now, of course, there is an online Indoor Soccer Hall of Fame – which I’m proud to be a voter for – and United Soccer Leagues added an indoor wing to its existing Hall in 2011. That kind of made sense, but was still kind of a dick move and resulted in Keith Tozer – who had technically coached exactly one game under the USL umbrella at the time – and Tatu – who’d been retired for eight years and had never played in a USL game – making the inaugural class.)
With that said, let’s look at the 22 players who met the criteria to be included on the 2013 ballot and see where they fit in my personal accounting system:
- Chris Armas: I love Chris, and have voted for him twice. Winning followed him everywhere – he played in four MLS Cup finals (winning one) and won three US Open Cups. A five-time MLS Best XI selection who earned 66 caps for the Nats (and would have played in at least one World Cup had he not been injured in 2002), I think he’s a Level II guy, but he’s only received about a third of the votes in the last two elections. It doesn’t look good for him.
- Wade Barrett: In his first year on the ballot. Contributed to MLS Cup winners in 2001, 2006 and 2007 and played overseas in Norway. Only earned two caps for the US National Team, which I think will keep him out.
- Mauricio Cienfuegos: As noted above, I’ve voted for him as a Level III player, as he was one of the first MLS stars. His Salvadoran caps don’t factor here, other than to show how high-level a player he was (though if you saw him, you already knew that). Won one MLS Cup, a US Open Cup and the 2001 CONCACAF Champions Cup (the predecessor to today’s Champions League) with the Galaxy. This is his last year on the ballot, and his percentages have been slipping, so I think this is it for him.
- Raul Diaz Arce: A talented player, but I can’t see voting for him, and apparently most folks agree, as he only got 11 percent of the vote two years ago and wasn’t in the top ten last year.
- Marco Etcheverry: Level III guy along with Cienfuegos. One of the key players in MLS’ first dynasty in DC, El Diablo has been hanging around the top five vote-getters nearly every year and was actually third (with 59 percent of the vote) a year ago. He’d be the first MLS player voted in who ( a ) wasn’t American-born and ( b ) didn’t play for the US.
- Lorrie Fair: Lorrie is one of the genuinely sweetest people I’ve ever met, and I’m a huge fan. Her 120 US caps are impressive, and for most of her career, she didn’t have a domestic league to play professionally in stateside (though she did play three years in WUSA). Was a second-half sub in each of her four appearances in the 1999 Women’s World Cup but did play every minute of the 2000 Olympic tournament. You might be able to make the case for her as a Level II Hall of Famer, but I am not sure others agree. I don’t have full voting results for last year, but she had to have received less than 30 percent of the vote in 2012, as Jason Kreis at 30.39% was the cutoff.
- Robin Fraser: A five-time MLS Best XI guy and two-time defender of the year who could be a Level II Hall of Famer. He only managed 26 US caps, though (and just one of those in a World Cup qualifier), which probably holds him back (he got 21% of the vote in the one year I have data for that includes him). His accomplishments in the A-League predating MLS could be seen as Level IV-worthy. I could see him being a Veterans selection at some point.
- Chris Henderson: I loved the way Chris Henderson played, and he played more MLS games than just about anybody – with good success, as a two-time finalist and MLS Cup champion in 2000. He made the 1990 World Cup team at 19 (though he didn’t play in a game at the tournament) and played 79 times for the US, though never again at the World Cup level. Finished tenth in the voting three years ago and slipped to 15th a year later. The case for him as a Level II guy would be justthisclose to being makeable, but being left out of the 1994, 1998 and 2002 World Cup squads probably puts paid to that.
- Angela Hucles: A d-mid turned forward who starred in the USA’s 2008 Olympic gold medal run. That will have to be her career highlight, as I can’t see a definition that would get her in the Hall.
- Jason Kreis: Something tells me guys like Kreis (and perhaps Taylor Twellman and some others) are going to be constant fodder for calls for an MLS-only Hall of Fame, and perhaps those people will be successful one day. Given how closely tied MLS and USSF (which administers the Hall currently) are and more fractiousness is not what we need in this country, I wouldn’t imagine that would happen anytime soon. There’s no doubting Kreis’ MLS accomplishments (108 goals), but he was never able to translate that to National Team play, as he only scored one goal in his 14 caps (none of which came after age 27). He was obviously a very, very good player on the club level, and his support doubled from his first to his second year on the ballot. Could be a Level III guy, but unless there’s a shift in voting attitudes, his lack of international success (and the fact you can’t consider his coaching accomplishments) will probably keep him out for the foreseeable future.
- Roy Lassiter: The mercurial Lassiter was MLS’ leading scorer in its first season, and finished with 88 goals in league play, but only had four in 30 international appearances, and no one ever considered him among the greatest players ever. His 27 goals in 1996 included four against Chris Woods and three each against David Winner, Mark Dodd, Tom Liner and Tony Meola. One of those guys is in the Hall, the rest won’t be. Roy’s out and this is his last year on the ballot, so I think we’re done with him.
- Shannon MacMillan: A Level II Hall of Famer all the way. I’ve voted for her the last two years, but only about half the electorate has. With the lack of clear-cut Level I types on this year’s ballot, maybe this is her year.
- Joe-Max Moore: Support for Joe-Max has been slowly growing, and he was up to 58% a year ago when he finished fourth. I think he’s a Level II guy (and we’ll always remember him for this) thanks to 100 caps (including four World Cup games and 20 qualifiers) and a good MLS career.
- Victor Nogueira: Level IV guy who gets on the ballot because of his NASL play (where he wasn’t a Hall of Famer) instead of his indoor play (where he’s one of the five greatest players ever). I always vote for him specifically in protest of the Hall ignoring indoor soccer, and will do so this year and next (next year being his last on the ballot).
- John O’Brien: We’ll always have Portugal.
- Ben Olsen: If Kevin Payne says Olsen’s not a viable Hall of Fame candidate, you can write down that he’ll be getting fitted for a red jacket. (Kidding, kidding.) Ben might be a Close But No Cigar guy. Neither his MLS nor his US Nats career were quite long enough or impressive enough to warrant induction, I don’t think (obviously injuries played a big part in that, but I’m not a member of The Church of Terrell Davis). It’ll be interesting to see what the electorate thinks, and also to see how the second act of his career plays out as a coach.
- Cindy Parlow: She’s a month older than Heather Mitts. She’s three years younger than Christie Rampone. She’s younger than Shannon Boxx. Because of post-concussion syndrome (which we’ll revisit later), Parlow’s career ended at 28, but what a career it was: three-time NCAA champion and two-time Hermann winner (one of only four players to win it twice), 75 goals (sixth in US history) in 158 appearances, including starting roles on the 1999 and 2003 Women’s World Cup teams and the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympic teams. Maybe it was all the stars around her that kept us from realizing just how good she was, but she was good and crammed a lot into a relatively short career.
- Ante Razov: Always liked Ante, who could be polarizing and petulant. I can’t see the rationale for putting him in the Hall of Fame, though. Good player who, in his prime, you’d like to have up front for you, though.
- Tiffany Roberts: Quality midfielder for the USA and a one-time second-team All-WUSA pick. I don’t think her career rises to Hall of Fame level, though.
- Tony Sanneh: Another guy in his first year on the ballot, and another quality player whose career was long enough but not great enough. Contributed to winning teams and served that picture-perfect ball onto Brian McBride’s head for the third goal against Portugal in the 2002 World Cup (a tournament he played every minute of). Played indoors, in the APSL and the USISL, so he has the kind of eclectic career that warms my heart, but I don’t think he was a Hall of Fame level player.
- Taylor Twellman: Great player in MLS and I loved his attitude and approach to the game. It’s a shame post-concussion syndrome ended his playing career, too, but for whatever reason, his Nats career never blossomed like many thought it would. Had he been chosen for the 2006 World Cup squad, maybe it’s a different conversation entirely. (And, let’s be honest, lots of guys who were left off that team could make cases that they could have done better than the guys who were chosen.) Given the de facto standards (good MLS career, good international career), I wouldn’t be optimistic about Taylor’s chances.
- Tisha Venturini-Hoch: Along with Cienfuegos and Lassiter, the last of the final-year-of-eligibility folks. A very valuable player off the bench for the US Nats, she had a good pro career and, I’m told, is a quality person. I don’t think she’s going to get a lot of Hall of Fame support, though (she only got 24% of the vote two years ago).
I can vote for up to ten people, and usually do (though in 2012 I voted for nine and in 2010 voted for just seven). I’ve voted for Cienfuegos, Etcheverry, Noguiera, Fraser, Armas, Kreis and MacMillan before, and while I’m not necessarily bound to continue to do so, I like to be consistent when I can. So they all get votes again this year, which leaves three available slots. I’m adding Moore and Parlow this year for nine, but can’t really see giving any of the others that 10th vote.
Keep in mind I’m on a bit of a streak here: just as I’ve never failed to vote for the winner of the US Presidential Election (eight for eight), I’ve never failed to vote for someone who was elected to the Hall that year (13 for 13 in eight years as a voter).
Now I have to do my Indoor Soccer Hall ballot, and I only have until next Thursday to do that. I probably won’t go 2,600 words on that, but no guarantees.