Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


But It's Just a Game

messi-argentina

Lionel Messi. (Photo: ANDRE DURAO/Shutterstock)

Why Don’t We Have an American Messi?

• June 26, 2014 • 10:25 AM

Lionel Messi. (Photo: ANDRE DURAO/Shutterstock)

Because almost no country does.

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.

Noah Davis

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.