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
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

October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


Follow us


That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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