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Why Isn’t the U.S. Men’s National Team Better at Soccer?

Monday marks the 2014 World Cup debut for the United States men’s national team, and with it begins the Americans’ 10th attempt to capture soccer’s most prestigious trophy. Since 1930, when the team placed third in the inaugural World Cup, the U.S. has never come closer to victory than the quarterfinals in 2002. The United States has the world’s biggest economy, the world’s third-largest population, and spends an exceptional amount of money on sports, but it can’t field a world-class men’s soccer team.

Clearly, the U.S. women’s national team can say better. Since the advent of the Women’s World Cup, the United States has boasted the most successful women’s team on the planet, including two World Cup wins to go with one second-place and three third-place finishes. But global women’s soccer is quite young, relatively speaking,1 and one of the challenges for the men’s national team is that the rest of the world had a sizable head start on the men’s side.

Economists love to frame the U.S. men’s team’s problems by searching for correlations between other countries’ socioeconomic status and their athletic performance in international competitions. In a broad-based event like the Olympics, this approach works surprisingly well.2 But in a more specific sport like soccer, there isn’t as much of a link between a country’s vital statistics and its prospects of winning.

If you tried to find a relationship between national populations and the Soccer Power Index (SPI), you’d have very little to show for your effort. For every Brazil, which ranks fifth in population and first in soccer talent, there’s a China or an India — hugely populous countries that aren’t especially good at the world’s favorite sport. Likewise, the link between a country’s economic performance — as measured by per-capita gross domestic product — and its SPI is similarly weak. Rich countries like Norway and Qatar aren’t soccer powerhouses, while a disproportionate number of the world’s best national soccer teams belong to poor South American and African countries.

Total GDP, which combines population and per-head productivity, explains a somewhat larger proportion of a country’s SPI rating,3 but still doesn’t scratch the surface when it comes to clarifying why a country like the United States isn’t better at soccer despite its overwhelming wealth and large number of inhabitants. Money alone doesn’t seem to be able to buy success in international soccer (a fact that, as Max Ehrenfreund of The Washington Post notes, stands in sharp contrast to the widespread perception of soccer’s top club leagues).

There are other explanations for Americans’ soccer futility: Recent research suggests that the U.S. has been held back by historical inexperience playing at the highest level, and — traditionally speaking — its absence from the game’s most important competitive regions.

More successful models looking to explain countries’ soccer superiority include factors beyond GDP. At the far end of the spectrum, these studies add a dizzying array of supplementary variables, such as a country’s type of government, its level of political freedom, its colonial history and even its amount of oil production.4 But a simpler and more widely known model was developed by the economist Stefan Szymanski for his book (co-authored with journalist Simon Kuper) “Soccernomics.” Szymanski’s only additional variable was the number of matches a country’s senior national team had played, the effect of which dwarfed both population and GDP.

This “experience” factor measures how long a country has been playing soccer, and serves as a useful proxy for how much exposure it’s had to the international game. It begins to explain why the U.S. hasn’t yet caught up to the powerful national programs of Europe and South America, despite America’s built-in advantages. Counts vary depending on how matches are classified, but according to the database maintained by the Rec.Sport.Soccer Statistics Foundation,5 the U.S. Men’s National Team has played 618 international matches in its history. Almost all teams ranked ahead of the U.S. in SPI have played more frequently than that,6 and in many cases, it’s not close. France, Italy and the Netherlands have the U.S. beat by more than 100 historical games; Uruguay and Germany are ahead by more than 200; and England, Brazil and Argentina are up by more than 300. The U.S. comes out ahead of Colombia (509), Portugal (547) and Ecuador (464) on experience, but those are the outliers.

At first blush, the apparent importance of historical experience in international soccer seems to be a chicken-or-egg dilemma along the lines of Malcolm Gladwell’s famed 10,000-hour rule: Is a country good at soccer because it has a long history of playing the sport, or does it have a long history of playing soccer because it’s good?

Szymanski and Kuper sidestep this quandary in favor of a far more interesting discussion about what the experience factor means for the spread of information through interconnected knowledge networks. As they tell it, being isolated from the forefront of tactical innovation is one of the biggest handicaps a national soccer team can suffer. A lack of wealth and a small player pool matter, of course, but only to a point. For more developed countries — those that aren’t subject to malnutrition and extreme poverty — the things holding soccer back might be inadequate training and a sense of detachment from global soccer, whose networks allow innovation to spread.

The United States is a good example. Between 1950 and 1990, the U.S. didn’t qualify for a single World Cup, and played in fewer than half as many international matches as Brazil, Argentina, England, Italy, France or West Germany. Even Spain (held up by Kuper and Szymanski as an example of soccer isolationism under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco from 1939 to 1975), played nearly three times as many international games as the U.S. did during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Cut off from the rest of the soccer world, the U.S. missed decades of innovation, and is still playing catch-up. For years, the men’s national team was defined as unsophisticated — a tough, hustling team that ran a lot and relied on counterattacks, while the rest of the world played tactically advanced, attacking soccer.

There’s nothing the U.S. can do about those lost decades. But as Kuper and Szymanski note, there is a “shortcut” for new-world teams that lack experience: They can import it, bringing in coaches who can teach players the art of soccer as found in continental Europe, the central node in Kuper and Szymanski’s global soccer knowledge network.7 That’s effectively what the U.S. did when it hired the former Germany and Bayern Munich manager Jürgen Klinsmann as head coach in 2011. Klinsmann’s plan has often been described as one of de-Americanizing the men’s national team, bringing a European sensibility to it. The U.S. is hoping his personal experience in soccer’s most important information network can make up for an entire country’s lack thereof.

Visions of such a utopian future have come in fits and starts. The best American players are still nowhere near the level of the best in the world, and the demand for their services in the club leagues of Western Europe remains limited. In the run-up to the World Cup, Klinsmann repeatedly warned the media that expecting the U.S. to win this year’s tournament was “unrealistic.” Thanks in large part to a brutal draw, American soccer will likely take a step backward before it can move forward.8

At the same time, inroads are being made. Klinsmann has stressed the importance of American players securing loans in Europe, to place themselves in the center of the game’s most fiercely competitive, innovative battleground. And he’s also taken steps to rid the U.S. of its traditional playing style, adopting tactics more emulative of the possession-based scheme that correlates best with winning. The Klinsmann experiment is not a slight adjustment to American soccer — it’s a total overhaul.

Viewed this way, perhaps the United States isn’t underachieving at all, even after taking into account its economic resources. American soccer is making its way down an evolutionary path that other countries traversed decades earlier. The early growing pains of the U.S. men’s program under Klinsmann are part of a long process, one that someday may produce a team capable of legitimately competing for a World Cup.

Footnotes

  1. The first Women’s World Cup was staged in 1991; before that, the major international women’s scene consisted of prototype events and assorted unofficial tournaments.

  2. The correlation coefficient between the linked medal-count predictions and the actual totals from the 2012 Olympics was 0.987!

  3. The correlation coefficient was .233.

  4. I tend to be wary of such kitchen-sink models because of the risk of overfitting.

  5. That link has data only up to 2001, but I augmented it with data through 2011.

  6. Excluding former Soviet satellites.

  7. Where does South America fit into that network? After all, Brazil and Argentina have combined to win five of the last 11 World Cups. But even those countries’ biggest individual stars tend to play club football in Western Europe.

  8. Going into Monday, the U.S. had just a 32.9 percent chance of advancing out of the group stage, according to the FiveThirtyEight World Cup model.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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