Soccer: Who is NEXT?
ESPN The Magazine
December 18, 2011
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Mario Gotze

"Germany's Lionel Messi" burst onto the European scene last season, helping long-dormant Bundesliga power Borussia Dortmund edge archrival Bayern Munich to win its first league title since 2002. The attacking midfielder tallied six goals and 11 assists during the campaign, earning a spot with the German national team along the way. Blessed with all-world speed, skill and playmaking ability, Gotze could eclipse Die Mannschaft teammates Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller as the brightest star on an exciting young squad that qualified for Euro 2012 by winning all 10 of its qualifying matches. His club future is less certain. Dortmund's brass has staved off offers for now, but Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho is a known admirer and Gotze could be lured by the prospect of joining Ozil and fellow German national teamer Sami Khedira in Spain's capital. "I am very content where I am," Gotze says, "but you never know what will happen." Especially given the millions his talent is worth.

Ben Lederman

Ben Lederman was living the life of a typical 10-year-old travel soccer player last year, when his LA-based club team headed to Spain to play friendlies. The competition included a squad from La Masia, the famed Barcelona youth academy that counts 11 current Barca members -- including Xavi, Iniesta and Messi -- as alums. Easy win for La Masia, right? Well, not only did Lederman's team hold its own, the Yanks actually won the game, with Lederman the standout performer. The natives remembered. In April, Barca approved for the youngster to try out for its soccer school. Four days later, he became the first American officially offered entry to La Masia. With a two-year contract in hand, Lederman's parents packed up the family and moved to Spain, where their son is now getting the best futbol education in the world. Of course, with more than 200 players ages 7-18 at La Masia, there is no guarantee that Lederman will become another Messi, or even make the Barcelona senior team. One thing's for sure, though: These days, Ben Lederman's life is anything but typical.

Sydney Leroux

Her UCLA bio boldly calls Leroux "one of the most dangerous forwards in the world at the under-20 level." Her stats make that claim hard to argue: In 36 games, Leroux scored 30 goals for the U.S. U-20 team. How she came to represent the Yanks is even more impressive. Born and raised in Vancouver, Leroux represented Canada at various youth levels. She even played in the 2004 U-19 World Cup as a 14-year-old. But her dream was always to play for the USA, the country of her estranged father's birth. So at 15, three years before officially acquiring U.S. citizenship, Leroux moved to Seattle to play club ball. She shuttled between countries for the next new years, eventually landing a scholarship to UCLA and a spot on the U.S. U-20s. Her American passport arrived shortly before the 2008 U-20 World Cup in Chile, where she scored five goals to lead the field. In January, Leroux earned her first cap with the senior U.S. team. She wasn't part of the squad's memorable summer run at the Women's World Cup in Germany, but it's a safe bet to pencil her in for 2015.

Neymar

Brazil's latest one-name wunderkind will be the Selecao's front man by the time his country hosts the 2014 World Cup. For some Brazilians, that's four years too late; 14,000 supporters signed a petition imploring then-coach Dunga to take the teenager to South Africa in 2010, only to watch their Neymar-less team fall in the quarterfinals. Neymar, however, has quickly made up for lost time. In a 2-0 win over the U.S. on Aug. 10, 2010, he scored 28 minutes into his debut with the senior team. Since then, Neymar has added seven more goals in 14 appearances. His nose for the net, open-field speed and mastery of the ball have drawn comparisons to Romario, while his crazy hairstyles and freestyle tricks make him a Ronaldinho-esque fan fave. The attention will magnify once he moves from Santos, Pele's former club in Brazil, to a European team. Although when that might happen is anyone's guess. Santos holds Neymar's rights through 2014 and so far has refused to sell, turning down lucrative bids from Chelsea and Real Madrid.

Brek Shea

Midway through the 2011 MLS season, the league's MVP front-runner wasn't a household name like Thierry Henry or Landon Donovan -- it was eccentric FC Dallas youngster Brek Shea, he of the rooster-like haircut and predilection for painting. The 6'3" attacking midfielder carried his blistering club form onto the field for the U.S. national team in August, cementing his place on the left wing under new coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Shea's play dipped a bit late in the season, but many believe he has already outgrown MLS. A host of European squads hope to lure Shea across the pond as early as January. Shea has been training in London with Arsenal during the MLS off-season. A permanent move to Europe won't be cheap: Shea signed a four-year extension with Dallas in May, meaning any interested club will have to pay a hefty transfer fee for those laser-like crosses. For now, Klinsmann is preaching patience. He knows Shea will showcase his skills on the global stage next summer if the U.S. qualifies for the 2012 Olympics. And if the Texan makes a splash in London, don't be surprised if a Premier League team keeps him in England.

Doug McIntyre is a writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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