RECIFE, BRAZIL — "Why hasn't the United States produced a Lionel Messi?" is a question people frequently ask soccer journalists to answer. This is not an unintelligent line of inquiry from the casual fan or other interested party. There are more youth soccer players in America than in any other country in the world, and there is more money, too. It's not unreasonable to think that someone should have emerged with world-class talent and motivation.
Except, when you take a second to think about the realities of international soccer, it actually is.
It's fair to say that the first U.S. soccer superstar has already been born.
First of all, the 27-year-old Messi is on the shortlist for “best player of ever.” He's not there yet, but he's close. So is it really a surprise that the U.S., a country that didn't really care about soccer until 20 years ago, hasn't produced one of the best players ever? I don't particularly think so. (No one ever asks basketball-mad Argentina why they haven't produced LeBron James. Is Manu Ginobili really the best they can do?)
But even lowering the bar a little bit, here's a complete list of players who are truly world-class, a subjective definition, which we’ll subjectively define as “players who averaged more than 1.15 non-penalty goals plus assists per 90 minutes played” this past season:
- Messi (Argentina)
- Luis Suarez (Uruguay)
- Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
- Gareth Bale (Wales)
- Sergio Aguero (Argentina)
Notice anything about that list? It's very short.
Soccer-playing powerhouses like England, Spain, and France don't have anyone there. Producing truly elite goal-scoring talent is exceptionally difficult, requiring the perfect combination of ability, mental aptitude, opportunity, and hundreds of other factors that are difficult to quantify and impossible to game. If those three countries, and every other nation in the world, can't do it on a regular basis, it seems a little silly to think that the U.S. could. Put another way: Three teams at the World Cup have a world-class attacker; 29, including the Americans, do not.
(The U.S. does have a tradition of elite talent, but it's in the goalkeeping ranks. Tim Howard, the current U.S. goalkeeper, is one of the best in the world, and some might even say the same about his backup Brad Guzan. Before them, Brad Friedel, then Kasey Keller were among the world’s best shot-stoppers.)
The question of building high-quality talent is one that has vexed American soccer experts since the 1990s. Bruce Arena, the Los Angeles Galaxy coach, who also brought the U.S. to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup, recently said, "We haven't made much progress in the last 12 years." While he's not entirely wrong—his '02 squad was the best U.S. team at any World Cup—he overlooks the rapid improvements the youth system has made in the last decade. DeAndre Yedlin made Jurgen Klinsmann's 23-man World Cup roster, becoming the first of Major League Soccer's so-called "Homegrown Players" (youth-team players who eventually sign with the affiliated pro team) to do so. There are a dozen young men like him on the horizon and hundreds more behind them.
As the depth grows, so does the potential for a standout individual. The success of an elite athlete is primarily due to two factors: natural ability and being able to maximize that natural ability. There's nothing to be done about the former—either you're born with it or you're not—but the latter is, at least partially, systemic. All the skill in the world won't help you if you aren't pushed by your peers and by coaches to use it effectively. In the past, a gifted American soccer player wouldn't need to work on his technique because he was so much better than everyone else around him. Slowly, due to improvements in coaching, youth development, and an increasing number of kids who have enough talent, that is changing.
So no, American soccer has not produced a Lionel Messi. Very few countries have. But for the first time ever, we are getting to a point where all the necessary factors are close to being in place to do so. It's fair to say that the first U.S. soccer superstar has already been born. But good luck finding him—everyone else is already looking.