The United States Men’s National Team made some progress last summer at the World Cup. They made it out of a tough group, captured the nation’s attention, and gained some international respect. Individually, Tim Howard stood out as a world-class goalkeeper. But the question remains: what will it take for the U.S. to develop a formidable roster whose results demand respect as a legitimate footballing country?

The answer is as simple as it is complex.

We need an American-born and raised superstar recognized worldwide as an elite talent. If/when that happens, “soccer” will blow up in this country, pass the NHL, and potentially cut into the popularity of the NBA, MLB, and NFL.

The most recognizable American athletes among boys aged 5 to 17 consist of household names like Kevin Durant and Lebron James. But also hugely popular are aging stars Derek Jeter, Peyton Manning, and Tiger Woods. Meanwhile, most kids interested in sports at least know who Lionel Messi and David Beckham are.

Imagine what an American made, incredibly gifted and successful footballer on a world-famous club would do for exposure of the sport here. Such an individual would command a salary in line with the richest American athletes; five of the top 15 wealthiest athletes in the world are footballers in Europe (including Messi and Ronaldo in the top four). Kids that grow up poor worship athletes in part because they want to be rich.

Part of the reason that top international footballers are so wealthy are their endorsements. Messi and Ronaldo made over $50 million combined last year pitching products. This puts their faces out there and contributes greatly to them being recognizable to even casual young fans who are highly impressionable.

The USMNT has come a long way in the last 40 years, and the talent level in MLS is considerably better today than it was in the inaugural 1996 season. To take the next step (and be considered a good footballing country), we need to keep our best players in country, attract foreign (under 30) talent, and fill our stadiums while also getting the viewing public to care about the matches.

I don’t see this happening until we have our own Messi or Ronaldo. His face will be all over TV and the internet. Kids growing up will idolize him here and all over the world. And in turn, millions of young men in the U.S. will want to play The Beautiful Game. The net result would yield a wealth of talent sure to produce an even better national team and MLS.

But when will our superstar arrive? I think it’s just a matter of time. Our youngest national team members (Julian Green, DeAndre Yedlin, and John Brooks) all made an impact during the World Cup. Howard and Clint Dempsey have shown they are better than average Premier League players. And when athlete X arrives on the scene, expect the sport to explode in this country and in turn produce more homegrown international stars for years to come.


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