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High Five

The Five Most Influential People in American Soccer

Daryl Grove takes us through the history of American soccer, finding four men and one very special woman without whom the game in this country would not be the same.

BY Daryl Grove Posted
February 18, 2013
12:38 PM
As we celebrate Presidents Day and the men who’ve made America what it is today, let's look at the men and women who have played major roles shaping soccer in the United States.

No. 5—Bruce Arena

BIGGEST CONTRIBUTION—Restoring our pride at the 2002 World Cup.
The reputation and confidence of the U.S. men’s national team was sinking fast after a last-place finish at the 1998 World Cup. Arena climbed aboard and needed just four years to plug the holes, raise the ship, and steer it back in the right direction. He produced the best World Cup finish of the modern era in 2002, including a famous dos a cero win over Mexico in the Round of 16 followed by a showing against Germany that announced to the world that Americans could play with the big boys.

No. 4—Henry Kissinger

BIGGEST CONTRIBUTION—Spending political capital on the beautiful game.
The former Secretary of State is one of the only U.S. political figures to use his power to promote soccer in America. In the ’70s, he persuaded the Brazilian government that allowing its “non-exportable national treasure” Pele to spend a few years in New York was a good idea. In the ’80s, he lead an unsuccessful World Cup hosting bid that laid the groundwork for a successful 1994 bid (in which he also played a role). Most impressively, when the 1996 Gold Cup was about to be collateral damage in the Bill Clinton vs. Newt Gingrich federal government shutdown, Kissinger called in political favors to ensure every visiting player was able to get a visa and the tournament could go ahead.

No. 3—Don Garber

BIGGEST CONTRIBUTION—Long-term thinking
The future of Major League Soccer was anything but guaranteed in 1999 when Don Garber left his role of vice president/managing director of NFL International to become commissioner of America’s shaky soccer league. But Garber’s mantra of evolution not revolution has seen MLS slowly but surely improve every year, expanding in size, increasing the salary cap, introducing the Designated Player rule, all without ever betting the farm a la NASL. We can thank “The Soccer Don” for the success of MLS, including the arrival of one Mr. David Beckham.

No. 2—Mia Hamm

BIGGEST CONTRIBUTION—World domination
The U.S. national team is recognized around the world as the dominant force in women’s soccer. Mia Hamm didn’t accomplish that on her own, but she’s the perfect representation of the players who started it all with World Cup wins in 1991 and 1999. Coupling supreme talent with a will to win, Hamm and her teammates set the standard that successive U.S. national teams must try to match.

No. 1—Lamar Hunt

BIGGEST CONTRIBUTION—$$$
Mega-wealthy oil-man Lamar Hunt invested his money in things that returned profits, like the National Football League. He apparently coined the term “Super Bowl.” But when it came to soccer, a sport he fell in love with after seeing a Shamrock Rovers game in Ireland in 1962, Hunt was willing to spend even if it meant the return on investment would only be seen by future generations of soccer fans. He was a founding investor in both NASL and MLS, and at one point kept the latter league alive by owning three teams at once: the Columbus Crew, Kansas City Wizards, and Dallas Burn. Most importantly, he spent millions of his own dollars to build Columbus Crew Stadium, America’s first soccer-specific stadium and a shining example now being followed around the nation.

JUST MISSED OUT

Pele, who grabbed America’s attention in the 1970s, but was arguably just here on a glitzy cash grab; David Beckham, whose spell in Major League Soccer may have legitimized the league for a global audience; Alexi Lalas, whose bright red beard was the symbol of American soccer in the mid-1990s, and who continues to be a tireless enthusiast for all things U.S. soccer-related today; Brian McBride, the first American player to really make it in the Premier League, when Fulham named a bar after him.

OK, this is where you come in. Who did we leave out? Who should we have excluded? We want to hear your take, so be sure to leave it in the comments section below.

Daryl Grove is co-host of the Total Soccer Show, "the podcast for intelligent American soccer fans."

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