Why US Soccer Needs a Messi or Ronaldo To Hit The Big Time


Landon Donovan's long goodbye tour is finally over.

It ended with a sixth MLS title and with Donovan the undisputed best player born of his or any American generation before him.

"I would think his legacy is that he left the game as the greatest player in the history of US Soccer, and he's a damn good person," said LA Galaxy coach Bruce Arena. "That's a pretty good legacy."

That it is, and Donovan deserves the plaudits as a thoroughly nice bloke and a fine footballer.

His career has been a journey not just in tune with the rise of soccer in America, but as a major catalyst of the rise itself.

Donovan's World Cup goals against Mexico in 2002 and Algeria in 2010 will never be forgotten, nor will his controversial omission from Jurgen Klinsmann's squad this summer. 

For now, Donovan is to US soccer fans as Pele is to Brazilians. He's their Lionel Messi, Franz Beckenbauer or Johan Cruyff. He's Bobby Charlton, Zinedine Zidane or Ferenc Puskas. He's the gold standard; the best they've ever known.

We all know he doesn't belong in that company. Donovan wouldn't make an all-time 100 best players list, and he probably wouldn't have made the starting XIs of the best club sides in Europe during his peak.

That's not to say he didn't make the most of his talent, just that his talent was over ever designed to go so far.

The aim here is not to devalue his contribution, more to highlight the failure of US soccer to produce genuine world-class stars.

The true measure of American progress from here shouldn't be whether they can produce a better player than Donovan over the next 20 years - that's a given - but whether he would still feature in an all-time USA XI in 2034.

If US soccer gets things right, Donovan's only hope of making that team would rest on sentimentality. The future should put his talent in the shadows.

While Klinsmann's admirable team won an army of fans in Brazil, with their unfailing heart and more-than-the-sum-of-their-parts application, it's genius not guts that will win over the undecided majority in America.

The time for grinding it out is over - US soccer has spent too much money for that to be a satisfactory conclusion going forward.

Donovan will rightly be remembered as a trailblazing ambassador. But to take soccer to the next level in America what the sport needs is an exhilarating star who can stand alongside the Messis and Ronaldos of this world (more realistically on the tier below them) and become not just a US icon, but a global one. 

People talk about the undeniable growth of MLS, which is important too, but in the quest to be relevant globally US soccer must first produce a player who can conquer Europe. If that happens, and he returns to MLS still capable of delivering, the eyes of the world come with him.

It's a star-driven market. You only need to look at the soaring US interest in Barcelona and Real Madrid to realise what truly remarkable stars can do for the profile of a sports team. 

Tim Howard went viral during the World Cup, and would be quite the draw in MLS should he return, but Howard would openly admit he's not the star to catapult US soccer to the next level of growth.

We once thought that man might be Freddy Adu, but America's "next Pele" is 25 and on a unstoppable downward trajectory. Adu's has become a cautionary tale of false hope, so the question becomes where the next US star will come from and how soon it might happen?

Could he already be in their midst - a player like Julian Green or DeAndre Yedlin? Or perhaps a teenage American like Ben Lederman, the first from his country to enroll in the famous La Masia academy at Barcelona? Or what of the next generation being bred in MLS academies all over the country?

Twenty years on from hosting the 1994 World Cup, America's slow-burn love affair with soccer continues to grow stronger. Fans were undoubtedly won at the 2014 World Cup and more will follow when the US women go among the favourites to Canada for their version of the tournament next summer.

TV audiences for Premier League and Champions League matches have never been higher, while MLS attendances demonstrate the Field of Dreams message that "if you build it, they will come."

It's all good. It's all overwhelmingly positive for soccer in America. But to give the sport its next quantum leap in popularity, it falls on a player from the next generation to put himself in the reckoning for a place in a world best XI - to become a star who transcends all to have played for the stars and stripes before him.