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Numbers Don’t Back up the Notion That American Soccer Is ‘Too Honest’

In advance of the United States’ World Cup debut against Ghana on Monday, Sam Borden of The New York Times wrote about a curious dilemma faced by the American players: To flop or not to flop?

Several sources in Borden’s feature floated a theory that, culturally, American athletes find it hard to embrace the dishonesty of what FIFA calls “simulation.” Ostensibly, this is not because the Americans are necessarily a more virtuous lot, but rather because a major ethos of American sports (such as gridiron football) is toughness — playing through injury and refusing to show pain, rather than the diving and writhing that has come to characterize soccer for many American fans.

Even so, it’s not hard to brand such a narrative as thinly veiled chauvinism, the likes of which can subtly surface during international competitions such as the World Cup. In 2009, John Terry voiced similarly self-serving sentiments regarding his English side:

“I can speak about the England lads and I think [diving] is something we don’t do,” Terry said. “I think we’re too honest, sometimes even in the Premier League you see the English lads get a bit of contact and stay on their feet and try and score from the chance they have been given. … I think sometimes that honesty goes against us. I think sometimes as a country we’re too honest.”

Of course, in reality, every national team has its moments of simulation. That’s why response pieces to Borden’s article didn’t have much difficulty finding more than a half-dozen video clips of U.S. players diving with as much aplomb as anybody.

Even so, it’s possible a slight disinclination to diving could hurt a team at the margins, statistically speaking. To investigate this angle, we looked at ESPN Stats & Info’s data from World Cup qualifying matches to see whether American opponents were getting called for fewer fouls and yellow cards than the typical team. (The hypothesis being that, if the U.S. were diving fewer times than average, their opponents would be called for fewer infractions.)

During qualifying, the average World Cup-bound squad drew 15.4 fouls and 2.3 yellow cards per match. And true to the theory, the U.S. drew only 10.3 fouls and 1.0 yellow cards per match in qualifying, both stats well below the norm. Looking at these data points, it’s tempting to think there is something to the idea that Americans don’t flop enough.

However, the truth behind those numbers is murkier. First, the per-game averages for all World Cup-bound CONCACAF teams were much lower than the overall rates — just 11.4 fouls and 1.6 yellow cards drawn per match — so the style of play and/or officiating in America’s confederation seems to lend itself to fewer whistles in general.

Also, Jürgen Klinsmann’s effort to transition the Americans from a counterattacking to a possession-based team is a work in progress. The U.S. recorded only 38 percent of the possession time in its World Cup opener against Ghana, and was out-shot 85-77 during qualifying, so it’s unlikely the team controlled the ball as much as an average CONCACAF team in qualifying. Whether you flop or not, it’s hard to draw fouls when you don’t have the ball.

On balance, then, this analysis doesn’t provide much support for the theory that American players don’t dive enough. It seems when they do dive, they’re just about as effective at drawing fouls as you’d expect, given whom they played against and how much they possessed the ball.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.