Each year, The Guardian releases its Top 100 players in the world.  I looked at the 2017 list to analyze just how players arrived on this stage.  The Guardian compiles this list across 169 judges from 63 countries, giving this list a global, broad-reaching scope.  The stories of Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo (once again #1 and #2 on the list) have dominated the global soccer narrative over the past decade, but analyzing the full list shows a variety of paths to earn this acclaim.

I started by looking at each player’s club from 5 years ago, and compared that player’s ClubElo score from December 2012 to December 2017.  I’ve previously used ClubElo to analyze transfers from MLS to Europe, coaching performance, and Ballon D’or nominees.  It normalizes performance across Europe, and makes this a club discussion rather than a league one.

There are some limitations to this approach.  ClubELO measures clubs from the top flight of a European league, and the top two divisions of England, Spain, Germany, Italy, and France.  Unfortunately, that excludes all other clubs; for this group, clubs from Brazil and Argentina are a notable omission.  If a player had yet to make a breakthrough to a ClubELO team by 2012, I used the first year of available data.  For example, N’Golo Kante first appears with Caen in 2013, not Boulogne in 2012.  Similarly, Neymar first appears in 2013 with Barcelona, as his time with Santos is not included.

The circle size below represents the percentage of available league minutes a player was on the field for that club (2017 data is for the 2017/18 season through this week).  This yields additional perspective of how critical a player was to a club, regardless of the club’s rating.

Below is the distribution for the Top 100 players.

ClubELO of 2017 Guardian Top 100-All

There’s a convergence of talent at play.  In 2012, the Barcelona and Real Madrid player clusters top the list above 2000 ELO, while Sundsvall – where Emil Forsberg played in 2012 – is the bottom team in the mid-1200s.  As the best players join on the strongest teams, the distribution tightens.  By 2017, Barca and Madrid players remain on top, but Milan (represented by Leonardo Bonucci) are the lowest team at just over 1700 ELO.

Notable for US fans is that for the first time ever, we have a guy on the list!

ClubELO of 2017 Guardian Top 100-Pulisic

Though Dortmund have struggled this season, Christian Pulisic’s ascent looks impressive in this broader context.  He’s played more frequently each progressive season, and he’s doing this at age 19.  For another look, here is Pulisic’s year-by-year performance, Messi’s unmitigated brilliance, and a collection of attackers entering the prime of their careers.

ClubELO of 2017 Guardian Top 100 - Attacker Examples

As recently as 2014, only Messi (#2) and Isco (#84) made the top 100 among the players listed above – the others traveled different paths.

Forsberg had the steepest climb, transferring to Malmo, then RB Leipzig (second-division at the time.)  Paulo Dybala made the biggest one-season leap, going from Palermo’s driving force in 2014 to a key contributor at Juventus in 2015.  Both Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah hit a speedbump after a transfer to Chelsea, and then recharted their paths after time with Werder Bremen/Wolfsburg (De Bruyne) and Fiorentina/Roma (Salah).

None of this is to say that anything is guaranteed for Pulisic’s career, but it’s not just his US performance that’s generating his reputation.  He’s starting from a higher base than anyone else in the US player pool, one that looks aligned with other household names.

Those other names also provide a template for other US players: breakthrough somewhere as a younger player, consistently start, and find the next step.  Germany seems to be the best spot for this approach, notably with Weston McKennie and Josh Sargent.  In MLS, Tyler Adams is most similar, becoming a key starter for NY Red Bulls as a teenager.  As the ascent for some of the Top 100 players shows, 5 years is an eternity in club soccer.  Given our unfortunate focus on 2022 instead of 2018, here’s hoping we prioritize development above all in the near future.