There Are 1,290 Reasons to Get Excited About Yunus Musah
And an assist ain't yet one
On Monday, Yunus Musah committed his international future to the United States. The 18-year-old Valencia winger adds to an already-promising young crop of American talents, getting significant minutes for top clubs in Europe. The USMNT has never had anything like this before:
Born in New York City to Ghana-born parents, Musah grew up in Italy and then London, came up through Arsenal’s youth system, and represented (and even captained) England at various youth levels. In addition to the USMNT, he was eligible to play for England, Italy, and Ghana. Given the US’s still-fledgling international status -- they haven’t won a full-strength Gold Cup since 2007, and you also might remember that they, uh, didn’t qualify for the last World Cup -- the more talent in the player pool, the better.
Every player has his own reasons for deciding what national team to play for: personal identity, a relationship with a coach, feeling truly wanted by the federation, like the uniforms, don’t wanna travel, etc. But the US, in particular, has a couple factors working in its favor. First, the federation has a lot of money, and the potential fanbase is massive. LeBron James once posted a picture of himself in a Christian Pulisic jersey. Not happening if CP opts to play for Croatia. Pulisic is a fantastic player, but he’s as famous as he is because he’s codified himself as American. (We’re not getting into his Instagram activity today, OK?) Second, despite the failure of 2018, the path to the World Cup is much clearer in CONCACAF than it is through Europe or South America. Every cycle a couple talented teams miss the World Cup via UEFA and CONMEBOL. If the US misses the World Cup, it’s only because of a grand, institutional failure -- and even when there is a cascading disaster like there was last cycle, the team still comes within a single result of qualifying. And third: the team still isn’t that good!
Both by virtue of the respective talent levels of each team and the comparative ease of qualifying through CONCACAF, Musah has a way better chance of playing in a World Cup for the USMNT than he does for England. Were he eligible to play for the US, Patrick Bamford might be the greatest American striker of all time. (Don’t agree? Take a look at Brian McBride’s goal-scoring stats.) He’s currently fourth in the Premier League in non-penalty goals plus assists -- and he hasn’t been capped by England once. If Musah has a Bamford-esque career, he’ll end up with 50-something caps for USMNT. If he opted for England and experienced the same outcome, he might never even wear the jersey once. Whether or not this played a part in his decision -- he’d never say it if it did, of course -- opting for the US over England makes Musah way more likely to appear in a World Cup one day.
England might have more young talent than any other country right now; their under-21 pool has a bunch of players who aren’t only playing but significantly contributing to top Premier League teams already. Musah just isn’t there yet. He’s playing and doing some defensive work, but that’s about it. Here’s an overview of his production, compared to other players at his position in the Big Five leagues:
In terms of the most important aspects of winger play -- getting shots and creating them for your teammates -- Musah’s been bottom of the pile across Europe’s Big Five. Per Michael Imburgio’s DAVIES model, among players with at least 1,000 minutes played in his role, Musah has been the least valuable in Europe’s top leagues. But just so I don’t totally alienate my USMNT readership, here’s what it looks like when an 18 year old both plays a ton and does it at a high level:
Reyna is a freak, and it’s unfair to compare other 18 year olds to him. Ninety-nine-point-nine-nine percent of players aren’t doing what he’s doing at his age; he’s really special. At the same time, most players -- 95-plus percent? -- simply aren’t playing as much as Musah has at his age. Since 2008, per Stats Perform, only 49 players have registered more domestic minutes in the Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga, or La Liga before age 19 than Musah’s 1,290. (I cut out France, since the league has a significantly lower average-age than the other four.) Almost all of the guys ahead of Musah on the list went on to, at worst, have a solid career at the highest level, and if that’s Musah’s outcome -- a league-average winger in the world’s best leagues -- it’s a win for the USMNT and consistent starter for the team for a decade.
Of those 49 aforementioned players, I think you can divide them into seven different groups:
-Star: Gianluigi Donarumma, Timo Werner, Jadon Sancho, Raheem Sterling, Marquinhos, David Alaba, Marcus Rashford, Dayot Upamecano
-On the verge of stardom: Kai Havertz, Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Bukayo Saka, Pedri, Ansu Fati
-Contributor for a top-15 team in the world: Luke Shaw, Julian Draxler, Phil Jones, Nicklas Sule, Julian Brandt, Joel Matip
-Promising, but too early to tell: Ryan Sessegnon, Florian Wirtz, Mason Greenwood, Jan Thielmann, Takefusa Kubo, Ander Barrenetxea
-League-average-ish player: Iker Muniain, Amadou Diawara, Max Meyer, Nicola Murru, Mathias Ginter, Jorge Mere, Jordi Amat, Tom Davies, Davide Santon, Simone Scuffet, Matija Nastasic, Pedro Pereira, Santi Mina
-Burned bright then faded: Mario Gotze, Jack Rodwell, Jack Wilshere, Mario Balotelli
-No longer in Big Five: Jose Mauri, Adalberto Penaranda, Baba Rahman, Declan John, Enrico Brignola, Konstantin Rausch
Quibble all you like with who fell where, but even the bottom two groups -- a ton of initial production followed by a drop-off or pros who kept playing at a slightly lower level -- wouldn’t be bad outcomes for Musah’s career. Plus, all of those outcomes would still see him consistently getting call-ups for the USMNT.
Now, I haven’t seen any studies like this for soccer, but there’s data for it in baseball because there’s data for everything in baseball. A Fangraphs study found that of the 190 players who made at least 100 plate appearances before their 21st birthday, 20 percent of them ended up in the Hall of Fame.
The theory behind it is that if the coach, whose job typically rests on the successful short-term performance of the team, thinks you’re good enough to play as a teenager and not cost him his job, then you probably have some special set of skills that will eventually coalesce into a productive professional player -- even if, initially, those skills don’t result in production. Musah certainly has those skills; look at this run!
Obviously, it would be preferable if Musah were already producing expected goals and expected assists at somewhere above the literal bottom-1 percentile among all players at his position. But save for a select few, that just doesn’t happen. Barely 100 days past his 18th birthday, the most important thing for Musah’s future projections is not how he’s playing, but simply that he’s even playing at all.