World Cup Analysis: Implications for the USMNT

By @k2thedubs


In light of the USMNT’s failure to reach the 2018 World Cup, I wrote my treatise, which was tweeted about by Landon Donovan (image below) and retweeted by Alexi Lalas, on the state of US soccer.

Image 1 - US Implications

In subsequent weeks, other nations faced similarly disappointing failures in their quest to reach Russia and a disturbing narrative began to emerge in which the USMNT’s failure was equated with those of global elites, such as Italy and the Netherlands. After digesting a superfluous amount of these takes, I decided to put this baseless argument to rest.

Building off the analyses from my World Cup white paper[1], let’s deconstruct the false equivalencies of Italy’s and the USMNT’s World Cup failures. Italy missed qualification by finishing second to Spain in their group and falling to an extremely reputable Sweden side (ranked 16th in my World Cup analysis and 20th by ELO’s current ranking). The USMNT, in contrast, finished fifth out of six teams in CONCACAF and failed to secure even a point in a life-or-death match against Trinidad & Tobago (ranked 101st by ELO’s current ranking), a country less than one hundredth its size and whose team consists primarily of lower division professional and semi-professional players.

The truth is the USMNT are falling behind the rest of the world. But, tragically, it’s a slow death that most are blind to. While there was some uproar in October after the loss to Trinidad & Tobago, most people quickly moved on and the harshest critics were cast aside as zealots or pariahs. Barring significant systemic reform enacted by Carlos Cordeiro and his administration, it seems highly probable that no meaningful change will arise and we will continue on the USSF / MLS rudderless ship.

After the initial primal screams concluded, the conversation quickly moved on to the “bright future” ahead. After reading countless 2022 roster predictions, most of which spoke glowingly of the strength of the player pool and the promise of emerging talents, I feel compelled to set the record straight. First off, I compiled some of the 2018 US roster predictions that followed the conclusion of the 2014 World Cup – please see here, here, here, and here.

The following players appeared on multiple roster prediction lists – Mix Diskerud, Luis Gil, Will Packwood, Benji Joya, Jose Villareal, Mario Rodriguez, Gedion Zelalem, and Junior Flores. Lest we not forget that Julian Green was once the future of US soccer, and it wasn’t long ago that Emerson Hyndman was anointed the next big thing for US soccer. So as much as we’d like to get our hopes up on these young talents, let’s temper our excitement. If history is any indication, most are nothing more than hype and few (if any) will be difference-makers at the international level.

This is an excerpt from Bleacher Report in July 2014 following that summer’s World Cup. Please read to see how noxious the Kool-Aid really is.

The question still remains, just how good will America be in the 2018 World Cup? Honestly, that is a loaded question, but it’s not totally impossible to imagine the USMNT having a major impact in 2018.

If players remain healthy and expectations are surpassed, the USMNT could be a very real World Cup competitor with the chance of lifting their first-ever trophy. If some things do go wrong, there is still hope.

America has the leadership and talent to continue their upward climb on the international stage. After a great run in Brazil, they will be looking to go even further in Russia.

The sky is the limit for U.S. soccer at this point, but the real work is just beginning.

Without belaboring the point, it’s difficult to stress how out of touch the general perception of soccer is in the United States, and it’s startling to consider its persistence despite repeated failures and evidence to the contrary.

The perception of the USMNT is inflated due to seven consecutive qualifying campaigns and reaching the knockout rounds four times. However, neither of these feats are anywhere near as impressive as they seem.

In terms of qualification, the USMNT has benefited from belonging to a weak confederation with a limited amount of competition. If the USMNT were in UEFA, CONMEBOL, or CAF, they would struggle mightily to qualify. For instance, there is no country with the USMNT’s World Cup record that consistently qualifies out of those more difficult regions. The most comparable country to the USMNT is South Korea who consistently qualifies out of a weak region but performs poorly at the World Cup.

In terms of reaching the knockout rounds, the USMNT has benefited from considerable luck and good fortune and was only a few bounces away from not reaching any knockout rounds.

The USMNT’s failure to qualify for the World Cup was not just a blip on the radar. The USMNT have been performing poorly and the evidence suggests a trend of deterioration, rather than progress, in performance. The following is a list of salient facts highlighting the USMNT’s weak track record.

  • Dismal World Cup record (30th out of 37 who have made 3+ of the last 7 World Cups)
    • 5 total wins at the World Cup
      • That’s a 5-15-6 record (19% winning percentage).
        • For reference, Mexico could lose their next 17 World Cup matches and still have a higher winning percentage.
        • Additionally, Costa Rica has the same number of wins in far fewer games with a much better record (5-6-4) and goal differential (-6).
    • The most losses (15) of any team over the past seven World Cups
    • 25 Goals For (less than 1.0 per game) and a -16 Goal Differential
  • Only 2 wins in the past 3 World Cups and failure to even qualify for the 2018 World Cup
  • Declining performance against top 20 teams in international tournaments
    • Only 2 wins[2] over top 20 teams in the world in the past 15 years (most recent in 2009)
  • Declining performance against CONCACAF teams
  • Repeated qualification failures
    • Missed 3 out of the last 4 Olympics (2 consecutive)
    • Missed 3 out of the last 4 Confederations Cup (2 consecutive)
    • Missed multiple youth World Cups[3] (2011 U-20, 2013 U-17)

Based on the country ranking analysis from my World Cup white paper, the USMNT trails countries like Ireland, Costa Rica, and South Korea and is sandwiched between Japan and South Africa. Moreover, they are barely better than Cameroon, Australia, and Greece. These are the USMNT’s peers. Let’s not kid ourselves and think otherwise. Hopefully this brings some back to reality with the understanding that the gap to the real soccer nations is vast. And it is growing, not shrinking.

Qualification is not getting any easier. In fact, it is becoming more difficult. Costa Rica, Panama, and Jamaica are all getting stronger. And the truly sad part is how low the bar has been set. Given a range of factors – socioeconomic, athletic, cultural, participatory – the USMNT should be endeavoring to compete for World Cups rather than simply qualify for them.

The question I ask is why the resistance to change? Why the complacency? Why is there satisfaction with these results and track record? I understand soccer has made progress in America, but it has been baby steps. The progress has barely scratched the surface of what this country is capable of, which is not surprising given the closed system that artificially stifles growth, innovation, and competition (certainly the antonyms of US soccer). The rest of the world is not standing still and every second continued down the current USSF / MLS path leads us further behind[4]. It’s time to take the training wheels off and make substantive changes to align ourselves with best practices and equip us to compete with the rest of the world.


ICYMI, please refer to my World Cup white paper that has been referenced throughout the article.


[1] The white paper is a comprehensive data analysis on the World Cup since 1990 that covers trends in performance by Confederation and Country, examines the impact of home field advantage, and explores how the various findings can be applied to forecast 2018 World Cup performance. To download the PDF document in full, click here – World Cup White Paper.

[2] Victory over Mexico in the 2007 Gold Cup final and victory over Spain in the 2009 Confederation Cup semi-final.

[3] Struggles at the youth World Cups are occurring on the women’s side as well

[4] Geoff Cameron’s piece on The Player’s Tribune hits on many of these issues.

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