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What’s your favorite pass of all time? The Athletic’s North American soccer staff weighs in

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Identifying a great goal is easy. Same goes for a great save. A great pass, though? That’s a little more difficult – not because there are so few contenders, but because there are so many.

It is in that spirit that we, The Athletic’s North American soccer staff, submit our nominations for the best passes we’ve ever seen, about a week after our counterparts in the UK did the same. Our only rule was that we couldn’t repeat any of their selections, and our list, as you might expect, is a tad more U.S.-centric than theirs. But all the same, these are the services that caught our imagination.

Let us know your nominations for your favorite pass ever played in the comments below…


Tab Ramos – to Earnie Stewart, United States vs Colombia, 1994 World Cup, June 22, 1994

Tab Ramos was the sort of player the United States rarely produced in the 80’s and 90’s: technical, highly-skilled with his feet and gifted with exceptional passing ability and vision. In 1994, with the whole of the United States watching, Ramos connected with Earnie Stewart to spur the USMNT onto an improbable, memorable victory against Colombia.

That game is mostly remembered for the USMNT’s other tally in the match – an Andres Escobar own goal which, days later, led to tragedy. But Ramos’ service here is stunning, a perfectly weighted, chipped through ball which hits Stewart in stride. It might not be the nicest pass I’ve ever seen, but it certainly ended up being the most meaningful, helping soccer establish a firm foothold in the United States, one which remains strong to this day.

Pablo Maurer

Trinity Rodman – to Ashley Hatch, Washington Spirit vs. Racing Louisville FC, NWSL regular season, Oct. 9, 2021

There’s no more famous pass in American women’s soccer than the ball that left Megan Rapinoe’s left foot that found Abby Wambach’s head back in 2011 against Brazil, though I’d argue that Heather O’Reilly’s assist in the 2012 Olympics should also be a contender. In terms of a pass that you just want to watch on repeat and yell about for a few days? Look no further than 2021 NWSL rookie of the year, Trinity Rodman.

There’s nothing particularly special about this match, just that it was in the middle of the Spirit’s run to their first NWSL championship last season, amidst a contentious ownership battle and plenty of other off-the-field issues. For all the discussion around the Spirit, though, Rodman just did what she does best: ball out. It’s a perfect example of how even as the stories around the sport are challenging, at the heart of the game is pure, jaw-dropping talent that makes you just want to point at your screen in disbelief.

Meg Linehan

Ronaldinho — to Henrik Larsson, Barcelona vs. Celta Vigo, Dec. 20, 2005

Like Meg, I’m fighting the urge to highlight the most famous pass in American soccer history (Rapinoe to Wambach). I’m also being forced to leave out my favorite pass of all time, which is when Minnesota United midfielder Ibson sent a backpass in the defensive third straight into the stride of Bayern-bound Alphonso Davies.

It isn’t an Americana pick, but this comes with sentimental value. I grew up in Saint Cloud, Minnesota — not exactly a bastion of world soccer. However, my family treated men’s and women’s World Cups alike as appointment viewing, having my face painted ahead of the 1999 final and waking up in the wee hours of the morning with my brother to catch the United States’ quarterfinal run in 2002. It wasn’t until ESPN started putting the Champions League final on its airwaves that I really got into club soccer — and no player captured my young imagination quite like Ronaldinho. His look was so singular that I was drawn to him right away. With his take-on ability, dribbling tricks and other-worldly passing, I don’t think I’ve ever fallen for a player in quite the same way — well, aside from his successor.

You could choose many passes from his greatest hits compilation as the “best” and you wouldn’t be laughed out of the room. I’ll hear arguments for his back-bump assist against Osasuna in the same 2005-06 La Liga season. No matter where you lean, no player before or since combined the ability and the audacity to routinely make passes like this quite like Ronaldinho.

Jeff Rueter

Carlos Valderrama — to Freddy Rincón, Colombia vs West Germany, 1990 World Cup Group Stage, June 1990

Carlos “El Pibe” Valderrama’s stoppage-time assist to the late Freddy Rincón at Italia ‘90 stands as one of the great moments in World Cup history. Valderrama sliced open West Germany’s world champion defense with Colombia’s World Cup hopes on the line. Colombia needed a draw to advance to the knockout round for the first time in the country’s history. The guile and determination that El Pibe displayed, and his ability to see Rincón out of the corner of his eye, was remarkable.

Valderrama described that moment during an interview with The Athletic last summer.

“It happened very fast,” Valderrama said. “Freddy and I understood each other very well. But that play happened so quickly. You can’t think at that moment. That was the most important match for us at that time. So in the end, it’s remembered as a historic assist.”

Felipe Cardenas

Wayne Rooney – to Lucho Acosta, D.C. United vs. Orlando City, MLS, Aug. 12, 2018

I restricted myself to the world of American and Canadian soccer for this exercise, which… Did not really make it easier. While there are plenty of worthy contenders (I have particular soft spots for this Victor Vazquez ball from MLS Cup 2017 and Howard’s throw against Algeria), I kept coming back to Wayne Rooney’s famous delivery to Lucho Acosta against Orlando in 2018.

The choice is less about the pass than the entire play itself. Remember the context: Though there were months left in the regular season, D.C. United’s miserable start to 2018 meant this August match against a dreadful Orlando team was essentially a must-win. Rooney, playing in just his sixth match for the club, almost single handedly snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat.

With the game tied 2-2 entering the sixth and final minute of stoppage time, D.C. threw their entire squad — including goalkeeper David Ousted — into the Orlando box for a corner kick. Center back Kofi Opare directed a header toward goal that was cleared off the line by Orlando midfielder Uri Rosell, who volleyed the ball deep down the left flank. Orlando’s Will Johnson ran onto it near midfield and appeared to have a clear path to an open goal, but Rooney, who had lingered near the top of the penalty area during the corner kick, had other ideas.

He followed a 70-yard dead sprint with a perfect slide tackle on Johnson, who was attempting to square a pass to a teammate for what would have been a tap-in winner. Rooney then got up, took three touches down the right sideline and launched a high, arcing, gorgeous ball toward Acosta at the back post. The 5-foot-3 Argentine somehow rose up above the taller Chris Mueller and headed home to complete a hat trick and give D.C. an unbelievable win. He jumped the ad boards and into the supporters’ section to celebrate, creating what remains as the best moment in Audi Field history. Rooney, completely gassed, doubled over in exhaustion near the sideline.

“It was strange,” Rooney said afterward. “We went from losing the game, basically, to winning in the space of five seconds. It’s great. They’re the best games of football to win.”

Sam Stejskal

Tim Howard – to Landon Donovan, U.S. men’s national team vs. Algeria, World Cup, June 23, 2010

“Distribution, brilliant.”

Everyone in American soccer knows Ian Darke’s rapturous “Go, go USA” commentary after Landon Donovan’s tournament-saving goal against Algeria. This blurb is about what came seconds before, narrated by those two simple words Darke said with palpable anticipation.

The distribution was brilliant. With one movement, Howard took eight Algerian defenders out of the play, putting the ball perfectly in the stride of Donovan, the United States’ most feared counterattacking player, in a 4-on-2 situation with a crucial result on the line. The effectiveness of the throw is perhaps matched only by the ineffectiveness of the broadcast at capturing the feat; the world feed cut away before Howard’s windup and came back to the action once Donovan was speeding away. To date, the best and most accessible footage of the throw comes from this and other fan videos, as mentioned in Matt Pentz’s tremendous oral history of the goal from a couple years ago:

Some will say that this play doesn’t belong on this list, because throwing the ball is a fundamentally different skill than playing with one’s feet, head, chest, etc. Some may call me a clueless American, praising a skill more akin to gridiron football and baseball than soccer. They will have a legitimate point, and I don’t care. I love threaded lazers and lofted perfection; tosses like Howard’s require vision, accuracy, timing, and composure just like any of them. That it set up perhaps the single most indelible U.S. men’s soccer moment ever made it instantly pop into my mind for this exercise.

Alexander Abnos

(Photo: Ross Kinnaird/EMPICS via Getty Images)





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Philadelphia Union take draw streak into matchup with the Portland Timbers

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Philadelphia Union (5-1-6, first in the Eastern Conference) vs. Portland Timbers (3-4-6, seventh in the Western Conference)

Portland, Oregon; Sunday, 10 p.m. EDT

LINE: Portland +139, Philadelphia +189, Draw +241; over/under is 2.5 goals

BOTTOM LINE: The Philadelphia Union play the Portland Timbers after playing to a draw in five straight games.

The Timbers are 2-1-3 at home. Bill Tuiloma leads the sixth-ranked scoring team in the MLS with four goals. The Timbers have scored 20.

The Union are 2-1-2 in road games. The Union are first in the Eastern Conference conceding only nine goals.

The matchup Sunday is the first meeting this season between the two teams.

TOP PERFORMERS: Tuiloma has four goals for the Timbers. Jaroslaw Niezgoda has three goals over the last 10 games.

Daniel Gazdag has six goals and one assist for the Union. Julian Carranza has scored four goals over the last 10 games.

LAST 10 GAMES: Timbers: 2-4-4, averaging 1.6 goals, 4.0 shots on goal and 4.3 corner kicks per game while allowing 1.8 goals per game.

Union: 4-1-5, averaging 1.3 goals, 4.7 shots on goal and 4.7 corner kicks per game while allowing 0.7 goals per game.

NOT EXPECTED TO PLAY: Timbers: Diego Gutierrez (injured), George Fochive (injured), Felipe Mora (injured), David Ayala (injured), Blake Bodily (injured), Claudio Bravo (injured), Jaroslaw Niezgoda (injured), Larrys Mabiala (injured).

Union: Mikael Uhre (injured).

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Salloi and Sporting Kansas City visit the San Jose Earthquakes

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Sporting Kansas City (3-7-3, 13th in the Western Conference) vs. San Jose Earthquakes (3-5-4, 11th in the Western Conference)

San Jose, California; Sunday, 7:30 p.m. EDT

LINE: San Jose -156, Sporting Kansas City +402, Draw +300; over/under is 2.5 goals

BOTTOM LINE: Daniel Salloi leads Sporting Kansas City into a matchup with the San Jose Earthquakes after a two-goal showing against the Colorado Rapids.

The Earthquakes are 3-2-3 against Western Conference opponents. The Earthquakes have a 3-2 record in one-goal games.

Sporting KC is 3-5-1 in conference play. Sporting KC has a 3-2 record in games decided by one goal.

The matchup Sunday is the first meeting this season between the two teams.

TOP PERFORMERS: Jeremy Ebobisse has seven goals and one assist for the Earthquakes. Jamiro Monteiro has scored three goals over the past 10 games.

Salloi has four goals for Sporting KC. Johnny Russell has scored three goals over the past 10 games.

LAST 10 GAMES: Earthquakes: 3-4-3, averaging 1.8 goals, 4.3 shots on goal and 6.0 corner kicks per game while allowing 2.2 goals per game.

Sporting KC: 2-5-3, averaging 1.0 goal, 3.6 shots on goal and 2.2 corner kicks per game while allowing 1.9 goals per game.

NOT EXPECTED TO PLAY: Earthquakes: George Asomani (injured).

Sporting KC: Gadi Kinda (injured), Alan Pulido (injured), Daniel Salloi (injured), Nikola Vujnovic (injured), Nicolas Isimat-Mirin (injured), Andreu Fontas (injured), Ozzie Cisneros (injured), Khiry Shelton (injured), Graham Zusi (injured), Johnny Russell (injured).

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CF Montreal hosts Real Salt Lake in non-conference action

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Real Salt Lake (5-3-4, fifth in the Western Conference) vs. CF Montreal (6-4-2, second in the Eastern Conference)

Montreal, Quebec; Sunday, 4 p.m. EDT

LINE: Montreal -142, Real Salt Lake +393, Draw +273; over/under is 2.5 goals

BOTTOM LINE: CF Montreal and Real Salt Lake take the pitch in non-conference play.

Montreal is 3-1-0 at home. Montreal is 4-0-0 when it records a pair of goals.

RSL is 1-3-3 in road games. RSL is fifth in the league drawing 68 corner kicks, averaging 5.7 per game.

The teams meet Sunday for the first time this season.

TOP PERFORMERS: Djordje Mihailovic has scored six goals and added three assists for Montreal. Kei Kamara has three goals and three assists over the past 10 games.

Bobby Wood has two goals and one assist for RSL. Tate Schmitt has two goals over the past 10 games.

LAST 10 GAMES: Montreal: 6-2-2, averaging 2.2 goals, 4.5 shots on goal and 4.5 corner kicks per game while allowing 1.7 goals per game.

RSL: 4-3-3, averaging 1.1 goals, 3.8 shots on goal and 5.4 corner kicks per game while allowing 1.6 goals per game.

NOT EXPECTED TO PLAY: Montreal: Mason Toye (injured), Bjorn Johnsen (injured), Tomas Giraldo (injured).

RSL: Zack Farnsworth (injured), Bret Halsey (injured), Erik Lee Holt (injured), Jonathan Menendez (injured), Anderson Julio (injured), Scott Caldwell (injured), Damir Kreilach (injured).

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