Steward Ceus has a MLS Cup. Or a ring. Or he got to take the trophy home for a week and drink out of it in front of the Western range of the Rockies. In the early days of MLS it was Lamar Hunt’s lucky flask. Or whatever. Times were tough in MLS 1.0.
You don’t remember Steward, do you? He won MLS Cup 2010 (on the bench during the final against Dallas, one of two backups to Pickens) without making a regular season appearance for Colorado.
Here is how Ceus is usually remembered. You’ll see it engraved on his epitaph.
Steward is no longer in MLS, and the above goal certainly did not help his case. But he is not of the illustrious stock we’re here to observe. We heard plenty of Gigi Buffon’s Champions League shortcomings recently. And it is not possible to make this a ‘who’s who of MLS who haven’t won the CCL - it would be too depressing and actually feature every player in MLS history. We’re here to see the Allen Iversons, Dan Marinos, Barry Sanderses, Eric Lindroses, and Ted Williamses of MLS, and namely, MLS Cup. And Mike Grella.
Reaching the MLS Cup final and losing it once is gutting enough. Imagine doing it four times. Shalrie Joseph doesn’t need to (let alone want to), as he is in every way tied for the Jim Kelly Memorial MLS award. Many times a center back, holding mid, or box-to-box piece in New England’s starting set, Shalrie produced 40 goals and 35 assists in nearly 25000 regular season minutes. What truly lands him on this list, however, is that he still managed to land seven MLS all-star appearances and was named to the league’s Best XI four times. That negates the four MLS cup losses, right?
This is probably the best time to bring up Taylor Twellman, another four-time MLS cup runner-up and the man on the end of the above Shalrie cross (Ralston also makes an appearance at the end of that gif). Joseph’s New England compatriot for several seasons, Twellman, like Joseph, had offers from Britain rebuffed by MLS. The league managed to hold on to TT for several years afterwards, allowing him to not only be named to the MLS Best XI twice, but also net 101 goals in and add 28 assists throughout his New England career. He won a golden boot. He was the league MVP. MLS neophytes now know him for his commentary.
We love you, TT. And we all assume Taylor asks the above question as a result of watching Steve Ralston for almost his entire career. Steve is as MLS as it gets. Sometimes spectacular, but always consistent, Ralston is one of the best providers in MLS history, notching 135 assists and 76 goals in over 33,000 regular season minutes. He is second all-time in league assists as a result. It’s longevity, but it’s also heaps of vision, skill, and relatively injury-less campaigns. His numbers are downright impressive. Like Twellman, Ralston hails from St. Louis and as you’ve already guessed, missed out on MLS Cup four times.
Ralston was a sadly under-appreciated figure in USMNT circles from the late 90s through early 2000s, much like Mark Chung. Whereas Ralston managed 36 caps with the national team, despite his MLS production, Chung also landed a mere 24 caps (Twellman only had 30). Coincidentally, neither of the two ever attended a World Cup with the USMNT. Ralston, with an arguably larger axe to grind, even scored a game-winning goal in 2005 World Cup qualifying against Mexico that solidified qualification for the 2006 World Cup (a tournament that we’ve collectively wiped from our memories). Mark Chung, likewise, definitely has a case that can be made. In nearly 25,000 league minutes he produced 61 goals and 76 assists. Three times Chung was named to the league’s Best XI, and was also a finalist for MLS MVP on one occasion.
The idea of a designated player is now a decade old (Ralston, Twellman, and Chung never would’ve fit that bill in 2007), and perhaps the best salary cap exception to grace the league prior to Sebastian Giovinco was Thierry Henry. Titi never won a title with the still MLS Cup-less Metrostars/Red Bulls and only managed to visit the conference semifinals (including that weird trip through the western conference in 2011) twice. His electrifying play at Arsenal still continued from 2010-13 in New York, as he collected 51 goals and 42 assists in over 10,000 minutes in the league. He was simply a man who could stand in the middle of the flames on the pitch and barely wince at the heat. Furthermore, he was twice named to the MLS Best XI and was a three-time all-star. Thank goodness Red Bull Arena wasn’t slathered with turf or else we may have never seen the man in the United States.
Of the many on this list, there are only a few as steeped in MLS soccer lore as Marcelo Balboa, a man who reached those lofty heights for a bicycle kick that didn’t actually find the back of the net in the ‘94 World Cup. But Marcelo obviously made a name for himself in MLS after that watershed event in American soccer history, tallying 24 goals and 23 assists in six seasons as a Rapids defender (he played one solitary game at the end of his career for the Metrostars). An all-time MLS Best XI selection, Balboa will probably be remembered best for his bicycle kick, but do not let that minimize how consistently well he performed in MLS for the better part of a decade, a fact that made his acceptance into the US Soccer Hall of Fame that much easier.
Balboa shares a few things in common with the next man, his 1998 World Cup teammate, on this sublime list: Brian McBride. The man who took an elbow in ‘06 from Daniele de Rossi and shrugged it off, blood covering his face. The man whose diving header against Portugal solidified a 3-2 upset against Portugal in the ‘02 World Cup group stage. And later he cemented himself as a legend by driving home Josh Wolff’s dropped ball against Mexico in the knockout stages of the same World Cup. As a consequence, the Arlington Heights, Illinois native, like Balboa, was named to MLS’ All-Time Best XI. Brian was an MLS All-Star eight times over, scoring 80 goals and providing 52 assists in a career that sent him from MLS to Europe and back, later propelled him to the US Soccer Hall of Fame in 2014. He is the only man on this list to have a pub named after him.
The final two on this list, outside of Steve Ralston, have probably the strongest grievances as the most individually successful yet shorthanded trophy-wise in MLS history. “El Pibe” was a man with hair. Beautiful hair. Extravagant hair. Furthermore, a beautiful pair of feet offered Carlos Valderrama perfect symmetry on the pitch, easily making him one of the most recognisable and effective players in MLS’ infancy of the late 1990’s. He was the league’s first-ever MVP. His 26 assists in a season (2000 - Tampa Bay) is an unbreakable record. He is fourth all-time in league assists despite playing half the minutes of the three men above him (Donovan, Ralston, Davis), and is another MLS All-Time Best XI selection. Currently a resident of Florida, he is the only star on this list who has a statue made in his likeness, and rightfully so.
Lastly, and certainly not least, is Jason Kreis, the corn-fed, Nebraskan fenom who reached statistical benchmarks before it was cool. He was MLS’ first American-born MVP (Preki was born in the former Yugoslavia, later naturalized for the US), the first player to reach 15 goals and 15 assists in the same campaign, the first player to surpass Roy Lassiter in all-time goals and assists, and the first player in MLS history to hit the century mark for goals. He ended his career after a short spell in Salt Lake with 108 goals and 74 assists. Frustratingly enough, Jason’s record-shattering exploits were seemingly in vain for a Dallas Burn team that made the conference final twice during his prime. He kept his goalscoring pace despite playing in Dragon Stadium for a season, which should count for at least one MLS Best XI appearance. Regardless of his ongoing successes, turmoils, and occasional failures as a head coach, he was a remarkable force as a player in MLS 1.0 into the early years of MLS 2.0. He’ll always have the 2009 RSL title to wear with pride, but for the love of Steward Ceus, at least let this man win another MLS Cup as a coach.
And how on earth does Mr. Kreis not have a player page, given his storied career, on MLSsoccer.com?
But the real victim in all of this, if we're being objective, is Mike Grella. Mike, for one, is a friend of Total MLS. That counts for at least three MLS Best XIs and one conference semifinal visit. We want the best for him in life and in soccer. Are his numbers better than Ralston, Kreis, or Valderrama? Yes, in that they are smaller and therefore easier to keep track of. But do numbers really show how much we as a society hurt at the sight of an electrifying Italian-American burning up the sidelines without any MLS Cups to display in his trophy case?
Numbers are a part of math. Has math ever won a game? Have numbers ever embarrassed Frank Lampard on national television? They can’t. They haven’t. They won’t.