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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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Portland Timbers shut down by Philadelphia Union in 2-0 home defeat; coach Giovanni Savarese rumored to be joining Venezia

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In a showcase of one of Major League Soccer’s top defensive sides, the Philadelphia Union locked down the Portland Timbers 2-0 on Sunday night at Providence Park.

“A frustrating result,” Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said. “What differentiated this game from one team to the other is Philadelphia scored two goals, and we couldn’t find the net. We have created chances, but at the end of the day, they took advantage of the two or three moments that they had. Philly is a difficult team to play against. If you don’t have a constant energy, they never stop. Credit to them to the fact they found two goals that was the decisive separation for them.”

The Union (6-1-6, 24 points) dominated the shorthanded Timbers (3-5-6, 15 points) in the first half, displaying why they are the leading team in the Eastern Conference with stifling defensive play all night. Philadelphia opened the scoring early, too, in a spectacular moment.

Daniel Gazdag’s bicycle kick made it 1-0 Union early, silencing the Providence Park crowd.

Philadelphia continued to lurk in the attacking third, but nothing came of their immediate chances. In the 15th minute, the Timbers suffered what could be a serious loss as midfielder Eryk Williamson came off the field due to injury, shaking his head in frustration. He was replaced by Santiago Moreno.

“Sometimes, you come to a moment when it hits you,” Savarese said. “All of the sudden you have injuries, you have health situations that prevent you from having a full roster. It’s frustrating not to have everybody available. Eryk I don’t think will be available for this weekend (against Miami). He was very smart to come out of the game before he suffered something more difficult to handle. I think it will be something that won’t be too long.”

At 23 minutes in, the Union led 8-0 in shots. Portland’s first shot of the night came on a Bill Tuiloma header in the 27th minute on the feed from Moreno, but it went wide left.

In the 41st minute, Moreno had an ambitious take of his own from just outside the box, and it ended up just high of goal.

A moment of intense disagreement arrived in the 44th minute as Diego Chara was given a yellow card for a challenge in which he led with his head, and multiple players from both teams jawed at one another (and the officials) in the aftermath.

“I feel frustrated in that moment,” Diego Chara said. “In my opinion, it was a 50-50 ball, and we crashed. I don’t know why I got that. It’s a target always from the referees when they give me a yellow card. I didn’t deserve that yellow card, but it’s nothing to do.”

The match officials described Chara’s card as a “reckless challenge.”

Portland went into halftime looking outmatched on every level. That trend continued in the opening minutes of the second half.

Philadelphia doubled its lead in the 48th minute on a header from Sergio Santos, making it 2-0 Union as the road side’s defense continued to limit anything Portland tried to put together.

In the 65th minute, Portland brought on Larrys Mabiala and Marvin Loría to replace Justin Rasmussen and Cristhian Paredes. The Timbers’ attack soon found renewed life as Loría pushed the ball ahead to Moreno, whose shot was saved.

Unfortunately for the Union, the ball fell right to the feet of Sebastian Blanco, who put it in the back of the net in the 69th minute. It was called a goal initially and Philadelphia’s lead appeared halved, but after further review by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), it was disallowed due to offsides.

“Santiago Moreno was in an offside position when his teammate Josecarlos Van Rankin heads the ball to him,” the match officials said postgame. “The VAR was trying to establish if indeed, there was a touch by Josecarlos Van Rankin. Once the VAR found an angle which allowed him to confirm this touch, he recommended a review for an offside offence (sic) in the build up to the goal.”

In the 80th minute, Portland brought on youngster David Ayala for Josecarlos Van Rankin, adding another attacking talent as it desperately sought to break through for a goal.

Yimmi Chara had a chance from close range in the 86th minute, and Tuiloma had one of his own in the 90th minute, but both were saved. Beyond that, Portland had little to offer in the way of dangerous comeback scoring attempts. Philadelphia simply parked the bus in the second half, and the Timbers couldn’t often see past it, despite 12 shots and 11 corners. Philadelphia had the same number of shots and just five corners.

“Difficult match,” Diego Chara said. “We tried to win the game, but it was going in the wrong way. Philly did a good job. For us, it was difficult when we conceded that goal in the (5th) minute, and that changed our plans.”

Portland’s next match is Saturday on the road at Miami. Kickoff is scheduled for 5 p.m. PT (TV on Fox 12 Plus).

Savarese to Venezia?

Before kickoff Sunday night, Italian journalist Nicolò Schira reported that Italian club Venezia has selected Savarese as its new manager. The Timbers, in response to this report, told The Oregonian/OregonLive that “Gio (Savarese) is under contract for 1.5 more years and we have not been contacted by Venezia.”

After the match against Philadelphia, Savarese didn’t provide a clear yes or no answer to The Oregonian/OregonLive’s question about the report.

“I’d rather talk about the game today,” Savarese said. “This is the most important thing. I am the coach of the Portland Timbers, and this was a tough game to digest.”

To a follow-up question asking if he’d been in contact with Venezia, Savarese replied, “I’d rather stay on the game. I think that’s the most important part for today.”

— Ryan Clarke, rclarke@oregonian.com





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Pride Make Late Rally But Fall To Chicago Red Stars, 4-2

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ORLANDO, Fla. (May 22, 2022) – Orlando Pride (2-2-1, 5 points) fell by a score of 4-2 to the Chicago Red Stars (2-1-0, 6 points) on Sunday night at Exploria Stadium, in what served as the side’s third game in eight days. 

The Pride scored two goals in the second half, first from the head of defender Amy Turner and then the foot of forward Leah Pruitt, both notching their first goals as a member of the Pride. Orlando had an opportunity to add another in the 81st-minute, but Sydney Leroux’s penalty attempt was stopped by Alyssa Naeher. 

Goalkeeper Erin McLeod finished with five saves on the night. 

Orlando Pride Head Coach Amanda Cromwell:

“Obviously, we had tired legs. We had three games this week and they did not. There is still no excuse for that. We rested players [at the midweek] so we would be ready for this game. We had multiple players get minutes on the Wednesday game. The lack of energy is inexcusable. I really want to apologize to our home crowd because they deserve better when they come out to see us. You saw some of that energy at the end when we get two goals and also had a penalty. Their penalty, I don’t know, I was too far away to see really what happened. Even with all that, it is a penalty or a non-penalty away from being three-three, which is crazy.”

11’ – Sarah Griffith (Vanessa DiBernardo) – CHI 1, ORL 0

The Red Stars opened the scoring early after the ball was played through to Vanessa DiBernardo who took it to the end line and cut it across the face of the goal. Sarah Griffith was there and had her initial shot blocked up in the air, but Griffith was able to get her head to the ball and knock it over the line. 

54’ – Bianca St-Georges (Mallory Pugh) – CHI 2, ORL 0

Chicago doubled their lead in the second half after Mallory Pugh played a ball in behind the Pride’s backline finding Bianca St-Georges who fired it into the side net from a tight angle. 

64’ – Mallory Pugh (Ava Cook) – CHI 3, ORL 0

The Red Stars extended its lead after Pugh received the pass from Ava Cook and dribbled it to the top of the box, striking it with her right foot into the bottom right corner of the goal. 

83’ – Amy Turner (Courtney Petersen) – CHI 3, ORL 1

The Pride pulled one back after Sydney Leroux was fouled just outside the box after a nice run of play. Courtney Petersen took the free kick and sent it to the back post where it found Amy Turner who was able to head the ball past a diving Chicago goalkeeper. 

86’ – Mallory Pugh (Penalty Kick) – CHI 4, ORL 1

Chicago was awarded a penalty kick late in the second half and Pugh stepped up to take it. Pride goalkeeper Erin McLeod saved the initial penalty shot but the rebound fell right in front of Pugh and she was able to tap in the rebound. 

87’ – Leah Pruitt (Abi Kim) – CHI 4, ORL 2

Orlando found the back of the net for the second time of the night after Abi Kim took on two defenders from the wing and put the ball to the feet of Leah Pruitt who was able to turn and send a rocket with her right foot to the inside of the opposite goal post and into the net. 

  • Amy Turner’s goal marked her first goal in the NWSL
  • Leah Pruitt’s was her first in Pride uniform, and fifth across all NWSL competitions
  • Courtney Petersen recorded her third assist in regular season play with the service on Turner’s goal
  • With the helper on Pruitt’s score, Abi Kim recorded her first assist of the year and second in regular season play
  • After earning her first start on the road at the midweek, midfielder Viviana Villacorta made her first career start at Exploria Stadium on Sunday night. 
  • Head Coach Amanda Cromwell made five changes to her starting lineup from the midweek, with Courtney Petersen, Toni Pressley, Gunny Jónsdóttir, Darian Jenkins and Leah Pruitt all getting back in the Starting XI. 

Next Match: The Pride go up against the Washington Spirit on Friday, May 27. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. ET at Exploria Stadium, with the match aired nationally on CBS Sports Network.





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Charlotte FC overachieving, RSL bucking advanced numbers & where every team stands after MLS Week 13

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What’s the deal with these teams? NYCFC have probably been the best team in the league since finishing their CCL run. They’ve taken 19 of 21 available points, and have a +15 goal differential. They are now just fractionally behind LAFC in the Shield race on PPG, and are atop the East on the same.

They have done this despite constantly juggling injuries and absences – they’re down to their third-string right back, who’s actually a d-mid, and their No. 10 has had to be a No. 6, and their back-up LB has had to be their starting LB, etc etc etc. Everybody has to handle injuries, but I don’t think anybody’s done so as well as the Pigeons.

The one problem on the horizon, though, is the Taty Castellanos situation. In the 10 games he’s played they’ve scored 23 goals; in the two he hasn’t, they’ve scored once, and it was a PK (in this game!). Heber is back, but he’s not back, and if Taty’s sold this summer (seems likely)… how do you replace the best pressing forward in the league, who also happens to be the best playmaking forward in the league, and also happens to be one of the top goalscoring forwards in the league?

I think they’ll still be really good. But having an elite center forward has consistently been the difference, leaguewide, between being a really good team, and a team that wins hardware.

Sadly for the Fire, the only hardware they look like they’ll be competing for is the Wooden Spoon. Obviously that can change, and I’ll argue they’ve looked better in attack over the last three games as Chris Mueller has gotten into the team.

But that’s not saying much. They’re now winless in nine, Xherdan Shaqiri has been a massive disappointment, and the defense has consistently broken down after a promising start. I think they can point to the fact Jairo Torres has barely played as a mitigating factor (he only just arrived a couple of weeks ago and is carrying a knock), and perhaps moving Torres inside as a No. 10 and Shaqiri out to his more natural right wing spot could help fix things.

Though to be clear, I don’t think that’s how it was drawn up when they made those acquisitions. Rather, that’d just be Ezra Hendrickson trying to make the best out of a rapidly deteriorating situation.

So even though a lot has changed in Chicago, not much actually has.





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