Menus Subscribe Search

But It's Just a Game

messi-argentina

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
Noah Davis is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @noahedavis.

More From Noah Davis

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

Recent Posts

July 22 • 8:00 AM

On Vegas Strip, Blackjack Rule Change Is Sleight of Hand

Casino operators are changing blackjack payouts to give the house an even greater advantage. Is this a sign that Vegas is on its way back from the recession, or that the Strip’s biggest players are trying to squeeze some more cash out of visitors before the well runs dry?


July 22 • 6:00 AM

Label Me Confused

How the words on a bag of food create more questions than answers.


July 22 • 5:07 AM

Doubly Victimized: The Shocking Prevalence of Violence Against Homeless Women

An especially vulnerable population is surveyed by researchers.


July 22 • 4:00 AM

New Evidence That Blacks Are Aging Faster Than Whites

A large study finds American blacks are, biologically, three years older than their white chronological counterparts.



July 21 • 4:00 PM

Do You Have to Learn How to Get High?

All drugs are socially constructed.


July 21 • 2:14 PM

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.


July 21 • 2:00 PM

Why Are Obstetricians Among the Top Billers for Group Psychotherapy in Illinois?

Illinois leads the country in group psychotherapy sessions in Medicare, and some top billers aren’t mental health specialists. The state’s Medicaid program has cracked down, but federal officials have not.



July 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, MacArthur Genius?

Noah Davis talks to Yoky Matsuoka about youth tennis, wanting to be an airhead, and what it’s like to win a Genius Grant.


July 21 • 11:23 AM

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?


July 21 • 10:00 AM

How Small-D Democratic Should Our Political Parties Be?

We need to decide how primaries should work in this country before they get completely out of hand and the voters are left out entirely.


July 21 • 8:00 AM

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don’t actually walk like primates at all.


July 21 • 6:00 AM

Sequenced in the U.S.A.: A Desperate Town Hands Over Its DNA

The new American economy in three tablespoons of blood, a Walmart gift card, and a former mill town’s DNA.


July 21 • 5:00 AM

Celebrating Independence: Scenes From 59 Days Around the World

While national identities are often used to separate people, a husband-and-wife Facebook photography project aims to build connections.


July 21 • 4:00 AM

Be a Better Person: Take a Walk in the Park

New research from France finds strangers are more helpful if they’ve just strolled through a natural environment.



July 18 • 4:00 PM

The Litany of Problems With the Pentagon’s Effort to Recover MIAs

A draft inspector general report found that the mission lacks basic metrics for how to do the job—and when to end it.


July 18 • 2:00 PM

Sure, the Jobs Are Back, but We Need a Lot More

We’re back to where we were before the 2008 recession, but there are now 12 million more people in the United States.


July 18 • 12:00 PM

What Are the Benefits of Government-Funded Research?

Congress wants to know.


July 18 • 10:31 AM

Why Didn’t California’s Handheld Phone Ban Reduce Motor Accidents?

Are handheld cell phones as dangerous as they have been made out to be?


July 18 • 10:00 AM

The Upside of Economic Downturns: Better Childhood Health

For children, the benefits of being born in tough times can outweigh the costs.


July 18 • 9:48 AM

What Tech Talent Shortage? Microsoft Trims 18,000 Employees From Payroll

Like manufacturing before it, the Innovation Economy has reached a turning point, with jobs moving to places where labor is cheaper.


July 18 • 8:00 AM

The Academic of Comic Books

Kim O’Connor talks to Hillary Chute about comics as objects of criticism, the role of female cartoonists, and the art world’s evolving relationship with the form.


July 18 • 6:00 AM

The Supreme Court’s ‘Hobby Lobby’ Ruling Isn’t a Women’s Health Issue

It’s a private health issue. And it affects us all.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don't actually walk like primates at all.

Why Didn’t California’s Handheld Phone Ban Reduce Motor Accidents?

Are handheld cell phones as dangerous as they have been made out to be?

The Upside of Economic Downturns: Better Childhood Health

For children, the benefits of being born in tough times can outweigh the costs.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

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