After a strong run of form including friendly wins against Germany and the Netherlands, the United States Men’s National Team came fourth in the CONCACAF Gold Cup and must now beat Mexico in October to go to the Confederations Cup. This is not what most American fans expected of their team; much of the ethos of American soccer is built on the idea of continuous improvement. But have things actually gone downhill?
I decided to look at some numbers from the last three World Cups. Specifically, I wanted to see if the United States had a better squad in the past than in Brazil 2014. An easy place to start was the World Football Elo Ratings site (with data from Advanced Satellite Consulting), which currently has the United States on 1778 points. You can read about Elo ratings here.
Going into last year’s World Cup, the USMNT rated a bit higher at 1838, as opposed to 1765 before South Africa 2010. But before Germany 2006, the rating was 1813, and it was 1779 before Japan & Korea 2002. Based on these figures alone, the squad was weakest in 2010 – after peaking at the Confederations Cup in 2009 – and the current squad is no better than the one that went to Asia 13 years ago:
These overall ratings condense the effects of coaching and players, however. Another question is whether the coach has had the same quality of raw materials on hand. For an answer, I looked at another Elo ratings site – this time for clubs. The idea was to average the club ratings of all the starting players in the first match of each World Cup. There was just one problem; the ratings only covered European leagues.
To get around this, I added standard ratings for teams from Major League Soccer and, for the benefit of DaMarcus Beasley, Liga MX. For reference, a rating of 1450 in 2002 was about the level of the Turkish and Belgian first divisions or the English and French second divisions. In 2014 the same rating was similar to the average in the Eredivisie and a bit behind the 2. Bundesliga.
Here’s how the ratings for the USMNT’s starting XI stacked up in the first games of the 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014 World Cups:
With MLS and Liga MX at 1400: 1523, 1573, 1631, 1544
With MLS and Liga MX at 1425: 1537, 1580, 1634, 1555
With MLS and Liga MX at 1450: 1551, 1587, 1636, 1566
With MLS and Liga MX at 1475: 1564, 1593, 1638, 1578
With MLS and Liga MX growing from 1400 to 1475 by 25 points every four years: 1523, 1580, 1636, 1578
If the last scenario is the most realistic, then it implies that the 2010 USMNT was actually the strongest squad, and other factors may have contributed to its weaker results in the run-up to the tournament in South Africa. In any event, this metric suggests the team that went to Brazil was no better than the one at Germany 2006. In fact, every case above has the 2014 USMNT as the weakest edition since 2002, when Bruce Arena almost made it to the semifinals with an even less promising group of players.
Of course, not every player is fully representative of his club. Some of the ones who started in the World Cup weren’t starters for their professional teams, and others moved to bigger clubs after the tournaments. But the overall message here is that the disappointing performance of the USMNT may be symptomatic of a bigger problem: the quality of American players isn’t rising as anticipated.
This may be why Jürgen Klinsmann feels he has to cap-tie any decent footballer who has even a whiff of American citizenship. Given what he has to work with, it may be harsh to expect better results than those of his predecessors. Indeed, the national team Elo ratings suggest Klinsmann did a fantastic job getting the team ready for Brazil 2014. If some of the gloss has come off since then, it may just be the USMNT finding its level again.