Everyone is perpetually searching for the new Lionel Messi.
They proclaim. They anoint. They heap expectation upon expectation on every 16-year-old kid with a flick-flack dribble or swerving free kick. Lieke Martins and Sam Kerr and Marta have all, at times, been called the ‘female Messi’. There’s an Israeli Messi and a Serbian Messi and even a Massachusetts Messi.
We all search for him. For the one. A player that controls a football like it was telekinetically controlled at will by its dribbler. A footballer who is equal parts alchemist and physicist.
Might Robbie Mertz, born and raised in Upper St. Clair, be deserving of the title of ‘Yinzer Messi?’
Mertz signed with Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC in March of this year after a successful career in NCAA soccer with the University of Michigan, and earned his first start for the Hounds on May 14 against the Dayton Dutch Lions in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. He started his first USL match on May 25 at home against Charlotte, and scored his first goal four days later on the road in Indianapolis.
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) June 3, 2019
Mertz has the second-most goals on the Hounds squad with four, including a stunning brace on June 29. He also is second on the team in passing accuracy, second in accurate passes in the attacking half, and fourth in key passes.
That’s all very good, but to declare a player to be the second coming of one of the greatest footballers of all-time – even to refer to someone as the local iteration of Messi – is a big pronouncement.
There are some definite similarities. For one thing, when it comes to height, the two stand shoulder to shoulder. FC Barcelona list Messi at 5 feet 6 inches tall; while Riverhounds SC has Mertz down, generously, at 5 feet, 7 inches.
Both players were regarded as exceptional at a young age. Messi, the son of a steel-mill foreman, was discovered by Barcelona as a 13-year-old, playing for his youth club Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina. He was good enough that Barca chose him for their youth academy, La Masia, perhaps the most prestigious soccer training program in the world.
Mertz, born and raised in the greater environs of Steel City, came up with his hometown club, the Riverhounds Development Academy. Riverhounds assistant coach Dan Visser shared that Mertz was good enough that his coaches had him practicing with the professional Riverhounds squad when he was just a boy: “(Hounds goalkeepers coach) Hunter Gilstrap will tell you they had him jumping in with pro guys when he was twelve, thirteen years old.”
The first to distance himself from the comparison is Mertz himself.
“I’m a big Messi guy. I think he’s the greatest of all-time. But I would in no way compare myself to him.”
Mertz’ earliest influence as a soccer player was another stunning attacking player altogether: former Arsenal and New York Red Bulls forward Thierry Henry.
“When I first started watching soccer on TV, it was the Premier League, it was ‘03. At that time Arsenal FC (were known as) the Invincibles. As a young kid you tend to root for the team that’s winning, that’s the best. So, I’m an Arsenal fan. I’ve been for 15 years. At that time Thierry Henry was one of the best players in the world. He was a big influence on me, especially at a young age.
“If you watch me, there’s not much of Thierry Henry in there. I learned over time that my physical attributes were very different than his, in terms of stature, in terms of the way I move. What I did appreciate from him was the grace that he brought to the game. I really enjoy watching the way he ran with the ball. His movement. And he says ‘In the box, I am King.’”
Henry made his mark on the game as a guileful player who could pick up the ball from wide and dart inward towards goal on the attack. Messi, too, is known predominantly as an attacker that will come from a wide spot into the middle in order to create goals. And while Mertz has played a bit out on the wing, especially as a freshman at the University of Michigan, his skill set is primarily refined for the middle of the pitch.
Mertz explains: “When I was younger, I played a little bit on the outside, and I enjoy playing more on the left side than on the right because I can bring it inside in on my right foot. But my strengths are connecting the game, passing, in the small spaces.”
So while Mertz resembles Lionel Messi in both his diminutive height and his prodigious technical ability, the two don’t quite approach the game in the same manner. While Messi lives almost exclusively in the attacking half of the field, Mertz is more of a Swiss-army knife: attacking the net, connecting passes, and also defending.
His teammate Ryan James has also appreciated the way Mertz finds multiple ways to contribute. James says “He’s a feisty little player in the middle. He’s willing to go forward. He’s solid on the ball, which makes him a good player in this league already.”
Visser explains: “He’s good on both sides of the ball. He’s not a player that is just good on the ball. He can hold his own defensively in addition to finding spaces and getting into the attack.”
When asked to come up with an analog, Visser can’t quite find a perfect twin, but eventually settles on two of La Liga’s league superstars that are not Lionel Messi.
“He’s like Luka Modric or (Andres) Iniesta, one of the smaller holding midfielders that get into the attack. But Robbie is unique in the amount of energy he brings, and in the way he’s always buzzing around.”
That peskiness as a defender is something incredibly useful for a soccer team, even if it means that Mertz isn’t quite to be regarded as the Yinzer Messi. The peskiest midfield defender in the world is undoubtedly Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante, but it is the rare occasion that he proceeds with his teammates into the attack.
Another player that can be seen to buzz and harass opponents is another English Premier League midfielder; Manchester United’s Juan Mata. Both stand 5-foot-7.
There are other players of small-stature that have had a big impact on the field who might also be better comparisons with Mertz than would Messi. Italian maestro Andrea Pirlo is the king of hitting inch-perfect 40-yard diagonals, a skill that all midfielders aspire to. Mertz also has qualities that would compare favorably with a nimble pass-connector like former Arsenal midfielder Mikel Arteta, or with an emerging all-around talent like Latif Blessing of LAFC.
Whether he goes on in the future to earn the sobriquet of ‘Yinzer Kante’, ‘Yinzer Pirlo’, or ‘Yinzer Arteta’ is currently of little concern to Mertz, who is focused on improving as a player and staying humble.
“I think the biggest thing for me is just staying grounded, and just keep doing the things that got me to this position in the first place,” he said. “Whether I’m on the scoresheet or not doesn’t matter. I just want to keep winning games. The way I do that is by helping us connect the dots in-possession and working hard, defensively.”
Visser adds that while Mertz has been a huge addition to the squad, he still has some areas which he can improve – namely, quickening his ability to read the game.
“He’s generally clean on the ball, but if he holds onto the ball too long, those spaces close quicker than they did in college,” Visser said. “I think he’s adjusted really well to that. But he’s got to continue to get better at knowing how fast those spaces will close.”
Whatever we nickname him or whomever he gets compared to doesn’t concern Robbie Mertz much. He is committed to two things: helping his team win games and improving himself as a player.
A guy with a tireless work ethic and deep humility? That might be the yinzer-est thing of all, no matter what name he goes by.
Featured Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC