Ask any casual soccer fan in the United States what the USMNT needs. Anyone who is not a regular viewer of MLS and footy from other parts of the world. They'll probably tell you that what U.S. soccer needs is their own Lionel Messi. The Michael Jordan of soccer. It's a repetitive mantra that's become a meme. Hell, it was a meme before 'meme' was a commonly used term. U.S. soccer will arrive and be able to compete with the big boys when we have our own Lionel Messi.
Of course, Lionel Messis don't grow on trees. Wayne Rooney, Mesut Özil, Franck Ribery and Andrea Pirlo are brilliant players, but none of England, Germany, France or Italy has a Messi. He's Lionel Messi. He's a once in a generation player whose skills had just as much to do with chance as they did with the youth systems of Newell's or Barcelona.
The United States may never have a Messi. They may never have anyone of the class of the other four above-listed players either. These are players that come from major European powers with world-class clubs and youth academies. The infrastructure, both in terms of clubs and culture, allows those talents to be cultivated. Until MLS or another professional league has been established in the United States for decades and soccer is a considerably more popular sport, competing with the likes of England or Germany is unlikely.
However, the United States' opponent on Tuesday is also killing them in player development. They're not a country that has one of the best leagues in the world, they don't have a massive population, and footballers are not worshiped like gods to the degree of Italy, England, Germany and the like. Belgium is, in theory, a country that the United States should parallel in talent. And they don't. In fact, it's not even close.
Here's the starting lineup that Belgium played against Azerbaijan on Friday. They disappointed in this game, but these players are immensely talented and Azerbaijan were lucky to win. The result is beside the point.
Mignolet, Kompany, Lombaerts, Vertonghen, Alderweireld, Simons, Fellaini, Witsel, Mertens, Hazard, Lukaku
Now, here's that group of players with their names replaced with their ages.
23, 25, 26, 24, 22, 34, 23, 22, 24, 20, 18
Only one of those players, 34-year-old Timmy Simons, will not be in or near the prime of his career during Belgium's next major cycle, World Cup 2014 qualifying. Now, here's those players again, with their names replaced by the clubs that they play for.
Sunderland, Manchester City, Zenit St. Petersburg, Ajax, Ajax, Nürnburg, Everton, Benfica, PSV Eindhoven, Lille, Chelsea
Every single one of those teams is expected to contend for a place in Europe this season. Every single one of those players plays regularly for those clubs. These players originally came from teams in Belgium, which is the 13th ranked league in Europe.
From the 13th ranked league in Europe and a country of 11 million people, Belgium has produced one of the best collections of young talent in the world. This is in a country where Phillippe Gilbert, Tom Boonen, and Kim Cljisters are bigger stars than footballers. This is not Spain, England, Italy, or Germany. This is not an unattainable goal.
Finding the next Lionel Messi in the United States is going to be extremely difficult. So is becoming one of the world powers of football. But becoming Belgium? It's not an unattainable goal at all, and it's fitting that the United States has scheduled a friendly against a team they should strive to emulate. We can't have our Messi, but our Lukaku or our Hazard? Well, that shouldn't be impossible.