The Next Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo Will Play for the United States

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The Next Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo Will Play for the United States
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann has recently come under fire for openly declaring that the U.S. cannot win the upcoming World Cup.

While only the most optimistic of fans would argue otherwise—Klinsmann believes it would take seven miraculous performances in a row for the country to succeed on the world stage, as reported by Sam Borden on NYTimes.com—such things are just not said in the land of the free and home of the brave.

The franchise system applied to all the major domestic sporting leagues mean that no matter how abjectly teams perform, fans can go into the new season with a sense of unbridled expectations, and this attitude is demonstrative of the country’s expectations as a whole when it comes to sport.

Klinsmann’s comments got under the skin so much that commentator Michael Wilbon called for the German coach (who has lived in the country for well over a decade) to be deported, according to Nina Mandell of USA Today.

“You haven’t won anything,” Wilbon said. (Klinsmann has, in fact, if anything, exceeded expectations by indeed winning the Gold Cup last summer and qualifying for the World Cup with relative ease.) “You’re supposed to be such a great coach, why are they paying you?”

The nuance that Wilbon and many other casual observers missed is that Klinsmann is not just the coach of the national team, he’s in charge of essentially reinventing the country’s approach to the beautiful game entirely.

In December, he was upgraded from being just national coach to being the technical director for U.S. Soccer. However, this was really just a formality, cementing the role that Klinsmann had been performing since his appointment in 2011.

His tenure as national coach for his native Germany had a similar brief, as he uprooted previously held self-evident truths and aimed to instill a unified playing style in the stars of the youth teams. This work is now bearing fruit, with Germany boasting arguably the strongest squad, man for man, ahead of this year’s finals.

The difference between his work with the German and U.S. national teams—other than the sheer scale of the task—is that this time he appears to be determined to stick around to see his approach bear fruit. That it will is inevitable; the only doubt is over how long it will take.

It’s not Klinsmann’s superb coaching record that makes success such a certainty. Everything is gradually falling into place for the sport in the States, not just for continued progress, but for an explosion of talent, the likes of which could potentially eclipse anything the sport has seen in its decades-long existence.

Klinsmann’s stewardship has coincided with a time when Major League Soccer (MLS) is growing exponentially, with over six million fans through the turnstiles in the last two seasons compared to less than half of that in 2006. It’s not completely uncharted territory for the sport in America.

The North American Soccer League (NASL) of the 1970s and ‘80s briefly shone before collapsing under the weight of astronomical wages being paid to a select few players and an inability to consistently attract talent. Even with the likes of Pele and Johan Cruyff involved, the NASL never reached the average attendances that the MLS now boasts.

The MLS briefly threatened to head in the same direction, with David Beckham’s arrival at the LA Galaxy triggering a gold rush of other teams looking for a similar blockbuster name.

Thankfully the designated player system has kept the situation in check, and now the league is gradually attracting better and better players, many of whom could have opted to ply their trade in Europe’s top leagues for longer. David Villa’s signing with the newly established New York City FC (owned by Manchester City, whose involvement is another sign of the long-term prospects of the league) is a prime example.

Then there’s America’s sporting heritage and culture. Nowhere puts higher stock in competition and wringing the very last drop of talent from every player in every sport, regardless of age or ability.

America's stellar Olympic record is testament to a country hell-bent on sporting prowess, and with the interest in football steadily increasing, it’s only a matter of time before they turn their attentions to another truly international competition.

Klinsmann has suggested that one particular aspect of this dedication to success—the draft system, and its emphasis on players attending college prior to starting their professional careers—could be a hindrance in the long term. While it does give young players plenty of experience against their own age group, it will struggle to keep them abreast of their European counterparts, who will have been mixing it with seasoned veterans for the best part of four seasons by the time the U.S. players begin their career.

With the aforementioned franchise system comes an irrepressible sense of sporting careers being more finite. Unless you’re good enough to at least play for a farm team of one of the major sides, you’re going to struggle to make a living out of it.

With football, you can be nowhere near the quality of the world’s best players and yet still earn a very competitive salary playing in less competitive countries or lower leagues.

But the fact is that statistically, players from the U.S. won’t have to worry about not being the world’s best for much longer. With such interest in the sport, with such infrastructure and resources at the country’s disposal, it seems almost inevitable that within the next 20 years we can expect a veritable superstar to emerge.

Obviously astronomical talents like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo are almost unique, once-in-a-generation players, but with such a groundswell of interest in the game at youth levels—it’s now the second-most popular sport for 12-24-year-olds—and with Klinsmann’s experienced hand on the tiller, it’s only a matter of time before the United States has players competing for the Ballon d’Or.

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