Tag: Featured Content

Atlanta United: What Does its Success Mean for MLS and US Soccer?

By @k2thedubs

 

Atlanta United just completed the most successful inaugural season in MLS history. The team set league-wide attendance records, played attractive, attack-minded soccer (a rarity in MLS), and created the blueprint for MLS clubs to emulate.

Is Atlanta United’s success a cause for concern or celebration for MLS?

While the league rejoices and calls Atlanta United “the biggest story in pro sports”, I believe the opposite is true. I believe Atlanta United’s success is an indictment of MLS and the closed system of US soccer. In one year, they proved themselves to be one of the league’s best teams and achieved something that less than a handful of teams can assert – a clear identity and style of play. All in less than twelve months.

Imagine if Portland formed a baseball team and was contending for the World Series in year one. What does that say about the league and its model that a newcomer can supplant the incumbent competition in less than one year?

And the most troubling part – Atlanta is not unique. They followed a basic formula that is easily replicated. If there was a soccer team from scratch starter kit, they simply followed the manual. Find a wealthy owner willing to spend money. Check. Hire experienced soccer professionals to run the day-to-day operations. Check. Bring in a qualified manager. Check. Purchase young, high-quality South American players. Check. Fill in the roster with veterans with MLS experience. Check. Invest in youth development and facilities. Check. Create a captive fanbase with community outreach programs. Check.

There’s no fairy dust or magic potion involved. The recipe is straightforward and reproducible. My question is why were these stakeholders (players, coaching staff, administration, fans, etc…) deprived of this experience for twenty years? Absent a unilateral decision from MLS headquarters, none of Atlanta’s success exists. That is frightening. The system is backwards.

Shouldn’t any city be afforded this opportunity? Why are dozens and dozens of clubs (not to mention billions of dollars in investment) being denied the right to participate and compete? Why does MLS, under the permission of US Soccer, artificially stifle growth of soccer in this country? They treat soccer as if it is this fragile thing, incapable of withstanding any bumps or hiccups

But look at MLS’ progress over the past decade. I’d argue that nearly all the meaningful progress is attributable to expansion. Ten years ago, the following list of teams did not exist in America’s top division – Toronto FC, Seattle Sounders, Philadelphia Union, Vancouver Whitecaps, Portland Timbers, Montreal Impact, New York City FC, Orlando City, Minnesota United, and Atlanta United.

I think the brass at MLS headquarters are afraid of ceding control. Right now, they are the gatekeepers. Under an open system, they lose their power. They speak of protecting soccer in this country and growing at their determined pace, but, frankly, it’s a noose around the neck of soccer’s potential in America. There is no valid reason[1] for not formulating a plan to institute promotion and relegation outright within the next five years or so. The demand is there. The investment is there. The cities are there. There are kinks to be worked out, but they are manageable.

MLS believes it can help address US Soccer’s failures through mandating certain amounts of domestic players or youth players on its rosters. However, there is no substitute for organic growth. Soccer happens at the grassroots level and infuses itself as part of the culture. It is built from the bottom up; not from the top down. An open ecosystem is the environment that cultivates that growth. No amount of scouting networks or MLS directives will solve that.

There are so many underserved and untapped communities vying to join the party, but MLS shuts the door on them. Imagine the momentum soccer could build if every community (i.e. Stockade FC) who wants to form a team is allowed to do so. Nobody is asking for a handout. Clubs are willing to start from the bottom rung. They are just looking for a chance because the chance, no matter how remote, of glory is all it takes – it is the energy force that propels an ecosystem.

The spillover effects of an open system are massive. It takes only one example of success to fan the hopes of a nation. A kid in Des Moines, a coach in El Paso, and a fan in Hartford may each commit to the sport if they see the possibility of gain that a free market permits. Under the current’s system design, what is the incentive for them to devote their time, energy and support to soccer in America? Stockade FC is the exception, not the rule, in a closed system. In an open market, the playing field is leveled and anyone has the potential to rise to the top. Stockade FC’s would become the norm and pop up all over the country.

Perhaps if an open ecosystem existed, sophisticated American soccer investors would not choose to invest in Europe over the United States. Steve Nash, Kyle Martino, and Stuart Holden invested, as part of an ownership group, in Mallorca, a second division side in Spain.  Martino, on his decision-making process, stated, “Stu and I sat for all of five seconds before we decided, ‘Yeah, we want to be involved in this’”.

Why such a quick decision? Why was it a no-brainer? It’s simple – the possibility of competition at the highest level. The irresistible allure of promotion to the first division and competing against the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid and fighting for a spot in the Champions League. Martino added, “this is a La Liga club that just, for whatever reason, in recent history hasn’t performed well. We saw that as an opportunity.”

Opportunity. Opportunity is everything. And equal opportunity is what it’s all about. In every other soccer-playing country in the world, promotion and relegation exists. Clubs compete on the field (not in the boardroom) to see who rises to the top and who falls to the bottom.

How many other Atlanta United’s are out there? MLS has been consistently surprised at expansion results, both positively and negatively. Why let them decide? They have neither the expertise nor wherewithal to do so (hint: no one can do this – that’s why we let the market decide). Why not open the system and allow the clubs to determine it on the field? How many opportunities are missed because of the limited opportunity set inherent in our closed structure? Think about what Atlanta United is going to do for soccer in Georgia. Now think of all the communities that are starved of this growth potential.

In closing, I ask the following. Please answer honestly. Is soccer better off under our current system where market access is restricted except for an arbitrary selection process or a free market system like the one Nash, Martino, and Holden chose to invest in?

[1] Re-reading this article is eye-opening. Every time Garber uses the word “very” is an attempt to mislead. His statements do not address any of the substance of promotion and relegation. He speaks as if this is some unproven concept that isn’t employed by every other soccer-playing country in the world.

 

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The State of US Soccer: A Report Card on the USSF based on an Analysis of the USMNT’s International Tournament Results from 1990 until Today

By @k2thedubs

 

In light of the USMNT’s dismal defeat to Trinidad & Tobago, which knocked them out of the World Cup and gave rise to a plethora of opinions on the state of the USMNT, I decided to perform a rigorous data-driven analysis of the USMNT’s results to crystallize my evaluation of the national team and the USSF.

I’ve undergone a painstaking process to analyze and catalog key data on match details, such as date, location, opponent, manager, line-up, result, and score, from the last 27 years of international tournament competition which included 144 matches across five competitions – World Cup, Confederations Cup, Copa America, Gold Cup, and the Olympics – to assess any trends, good, bad, or indifferent, in USMNT performance.

Without much further ado, let’s dive into the findings and lessons learned, which are as follows.

Many Key USMNT Players Participated in the Olympics and Confederations Cups

The 1999 Confederations Cup team, which finished 4th, featured 8 players who competed in the 2002 World Cup (Friedel, Keller, Agoos, Berhalter, Hejduk, Lewis, Stewart, McBride), and the 2000 Olympics team, which also finished 4th, featured 5 starters from the 2002 World Cup opening game win over Portugal (Friedel, Agoos, Hejduk, O’Brien, Donovan) in addition to Tim Howard and Josh Wolff who started on the bench.

The 2008 Olympics team, which did not advance from the group stages, featured many key players in the 2009 Confederations Cup (Guzan, Bradley, Feilhaber, Kljestan, Altidore, Davies) and 2010 World Cup (Guzan, Bradley, Feilhaber, Edu, Altidore). Moreover, the 2009 Confederations Cup team, which finished 2nd, featured 11 of 15 (73%) starters of 2010 World Cup games (Howard, DeMerit, Onyewu, Bocanegra, Bornstein, Bradley, Clark, Donovan, Torres, Dempsey, Altidore).

Look at those names. A majority of the key players from the 2002 and 2010 World Cup teams gained invaluable international experience in the Confederations Cup and the Olympics leading up to the World Cup.

Lesson Learned – It’s critically important to qualify for international tournaments (duh)!

No Discernible Difference in Manager Performance

The table below displays USMNT managerial performance by competition. As the table illustrates, there is startlingly little difference in results amongst the managers. With the exception of Arena’s second stint as manager (where his only international competition was the 2017 Gold Cup), the five most recent managers all won between 57% and 62% of their matches, lost between 29% and 33% of their matches (with the exception of Sampson who lost 44% of his matches as he did not tie any games), and tied between 10% and 12% of their matches.

State of US Soccer Image 1

I utilized another analysis to analyze managerial performance based on difficulty of opponent whereby I assigned each opponent a tier[1], rating 1-5, based upon the strength of the opponent. Tier 1 represents elite teams who regularly compete to win the World Cup (Top 8 teams: Brazil, Germany, Spain, etc…). Tier 2 represents teams that consistently make World Cups and expect to advance out of the group stages (Top 9 – 20 teams: The Netherlands, Uruguay, Portugal, etc…). Tier 3 represents teams that make World Cups but are not regularly expected to advance out of the group stages (Top 20-50 teams: Poland, Paraguay, Ghana, etc…). Tier 4 represents teams that rarely make the World Cup but are not complete push-overs (Top 50-100 teams: Honduras, Jamaica, Algeria). Tier 5 represents teams ranked outside of the top 100 and are very easy to defeat (Cuba, El Salvador, Grenada, etc…).

State of US Soccer Image 2

Several distinct trends stand out after reviewing this table. First, USMNT performance is strongly correlated with the level of the opponent. The USMNT winning percentage and losing percentage goes from 19% and 76% to 35% and 50% to 49% and 33% to 90% and 7% to 100% and 0% as we transition from tier 1 through tier 5. These metrics show that the US has feasted upon CONCACAF minnows who comprise most of its Tier 4 and Tier 5 opponents, played decently against similar caliber components in tier 3 as it has won approximately half of its matches, and played poorly against stronger teams from tier 2 and tier 1 where it was won approximately a third and a fifth of its matches against opponents from those respective tiers.

In assessing overall managerial performance, as mentioned above, there is no meaningful difference to discern between the managers, though there does appear to be a shifting trend in the composition of recent performance, as evidenced both by fewer wins against tier 1 and tier 2 teams and more losses and ties against tier 4 teams. Since 2007 when Bob Bradley became manager, the US has only won two games against tier 1 or 2 opponents with an overall record of 2-11-2. The two wins both came more than eight years ago with Bradley-helmed teams defeating Mexico in the 2007 Gold Cup Final and Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup Semi-Final. Offsetting this underperformance against stronger competition, the USMNT has outperformed against tier 3 opponents with Bradley, Klinsmann, and Arena performing better than their predecessors against this subset.

Lesson Learned – US Managers have performed roughly the same since 1990 based on overall results. Over the past ten years (with Bradley, Klinsmann, and Arena in charge), the USMNT’s underperformance against stronger opponents (tier 1 and tier 2) was offset by improved performance against similar quality opponents (tier 3).

USMNT Performance (and Quality) Has Been Slipping Against CONCACAF Foes

The table below displays Gold Cup results by decade and reveals a sobering trend.

State of US Soccer Image 3

As evidenced by the table above, the USMNT’s performance in the Gold Cup has declined over the past three decades. In the 1990’s, the USMNT won every match besides two finals defeats to Mexico and a semi-final loss to Brazil, none of which can be viewed as a bad result.

In the 2000’s, the USMNT fared well winning three Gold Cups (’02, ’05, and ’07) and 84% of its matches but started to show cracks against CONCACAF foes who previously could not earn a result against the US with ties against Costa Rica and Haiti.

In the 2010’s, the USMNT officially shed its veneer of invincibility against CONCACAF opponents. In a decade where the US faced no CONMEBOL teams in the Gold Cup, the USMNT performed its worse with its lowest winning percentage despite not facing any nations from South America who are more challenging than their CONCACAF counterparts. Additionally, the US struggled mightily with Panama, losing twice and tying twice, and lost to Jamaica.

Lesson Learned – The US is falling behind and losing ground to its CONCACAF opponents.

Some Stereotypes are True (Even Resoundingly So)

The following tables, while informative and revealing, do not demand in-depth analysis so I will keep my discussion brief.

State of US Soccer Image 4

Lesson Learned – Where games are played matter. The US performs best on its home continent (74% winning percentage) and wins less than half of its games on every other continent with particularly miserable results in Europe (7% winning percentage, 1-11-3 record) and South America (27% winning percentage).

State of US Soccer Image 5

Lesson Learned – The confederation of the opponent matters. Similar to playing in Europe or South America, the USMNT struggles tremendously against teams from UEFA (11% winning percentage, 3-15-9 record) and CONMEBOL (26% winning percentage). The US has performed well (though to a lesser extent recently) against CONCACAF (83% winning percentage). The US has a slight advantage in matches against African (5-3-2 record) and Asian (5-2-1) opponents, though the 4-0 Olympic record against Asian teams slightly distorts the record against Asia.

State of US Soccer Image 6

Lesson Learned – There is a stark contrast in performance relative to the level of competition. Said differently, the level of competition, rather than USMNT performance / quality, has been key determinant of results. The table displays a woeful record against tier 1 and tier 2 opponents in all competitions with the exception of tier 2 opponents in World Cups where the USMNT has defeated Colombia in 1994 and Portugal and Mexico in 2002 (more on that later). Overall, the USMT has a good record against tier 3-5 opponents besides tier 3 opponents in World Cups where the US has been dominated (mainly by UEFA teams as well Ghana, South Korea, and Iran) to a pitiful 1-9-3 record.

In terms of the competitions themselves, the US has performed approximately the same in Confederations Cups and Copa Americas, winning approximately 37% of matches, losing 57% of matches, and tying 6% of matches. In the World Cup, results are more dire. The US has won less than 20% of its matches and has lost nearly 60% of its matches. In addition, the US has won only 5 World Cup matches total and will have just 2 World Cup victories to show for the 20-year period following the 2002 World Cup leading up to the 2022 World Cup.

Now that we have discussed the data, let’s interpret the information and draw conclusions.

The Failure to Qualify for Recent Tournaments Prevented Vital Opportunities for Development and Experience

The failure to qualify for 3 of the last 4 Olympics (including 2 consecutive) and 3 of the last 4 Confederations Cup (including 2 consecutive) is an underdiscussed topic and a significant disappointment as many key players were deprived of invaluable tournament experience against international competition. Virtually every key player in the modern era of the USMNT benefited from participation in one or both of these tournaments. The list includes Keller, Friedel, Howard, Agoos, Lalas, Hejduk, Beasley, Reyna, Bradley, Harkes, Donovan, Dempsey, Stewart, McBride, and Altidore and encompasses each member of the top 27 all-time cap leaders.

Pay attention to the age of those players. Only Howard, Bradley, Dempsey, and Altidore have played in one of those tournaments since 2002. It’s no surprise that they have been the backbone of the USMNT over the past decade. There has been a notable void of key players in the shadow of these failures, and the USMNT has lost multiple generations of players through lack of qualification for these tournaments.

The evidence corroborates this conclusion. Besides the 2014 World Cup, the US qualified for the Olympics and experienced Confederations Cup success before each of the World Cups (’94, ’02, and ’10) it advanced out of the group stage. In contrast, with the exception of the 1996 Olympics, the US did not qualify for the Olympics or the Confederations Cup prior to each of the World Cups (’98, ’06, and ’18) it failed to advance out of the group stages.

Though Olympic qualification out of CONCACAF should be a slam dunk for the United States, it has demonstrated a repeated inability to do so, and while it is more difficult to qualify for the Confederations Cup, it is telling that the USMNT’s struggles in Confederations Cup qualification have coincided with declining performance during the same periods. I can’t help but wonder if the USMNT’s failure to qualify for World Cup 2018 would have occurred if they had the experience of playing in the 2017 Confederations Cup, which, lest we forget, was the result of two separate failures – losing the 2015 Gold Cup and losing the 2015 CONCACAF Cup playoff, each to Mexico. Missing these tournaments is a big deal and should not be taken lightly. The USMNT’s recurring failures in qualification illustrate the USSF’s systematic breakdowns in all facets of the game over many years.

The Player Pool Has Weakened Over Time

Contrary to popular opinion, I believe the findings of my analysis demonstrate that the player pool has weakened over time. I will concede that the pool has more depth (with more players in contention for roster spots), but the top 15 players has absolutely weakened. Please refer to the table below which shows the starters by positional group for matches at the 2002 World Cup, 2010 World Cup, 2014 World Cup, and 2017 World Cup qualification loss to Trinidad & Tobago.

State of US Soccer Image 7

Let’s first evaluate each positional group before delving into discussion on the teams by vintage. In terms of goalkeeper, it’s mostly a wash as Friedel compares similarly to Howard in 2010 and Howard in 2014, though 2017 Howard is clearly the weakest of the bunch. In terms of defenders, there’s not a huge disparity amongst the four groups, though I’d contend there’s a declining trend from 2002 to 2017 (though it’s arguable that the 2014 group is superior to the 2010 group).

In terms of midfielders, the 2002 group is clearly the class of the bunch with Reyna in his prime, a healthy O’Brien and in-form Mastroeni, Stewart, Lewis, and Beasley.  The 2010, 2014, and 2017 renditions all feature players who epitomize the weakness of the top-end of the player pool. Clark, Torres, Edu, Davis, Zusi, and Arriola are all well below the standard internationally. Also, note the lack of quality wingers and 1-v-1 ability in the 2010, 2014, and 2017 (besides Pulisic) midfielder groups.

In terms of forwards, the 2002 group is once again the top group. McBride, Donovan, and Mathis formed a potent trio and provided three unique scoring threats with Wolff adding some verve off the bench.  The 2010 and 2014 groups are particularly dire. In hindsight, Findley and Gomez were nowhere near the level required for a World Cup, and Altidore was goalless in four starts in 2010. In 2014, Altidore was injured in game one and Dempsey was left as a lone forward, further illustrating the lack of reliable attacking options. 2017 Wood and Altidore were mercurial more than dependable but they comprise the second strongest group of forwards.

This analysis is quite revealing. The 2002 World Cup team is clearly the strongest, boasting the best group of forwards and midfielders with arguably the best goalkeeper and defenders of the bunch. Moreover, this group was far more balanced, well-rounded, and devoid of glaring weaknesses that beset the 2010, 2014, and 2017 teams. 2002 had strong center defenders, up-and-down outside backs, box-to-box midfielders, wide midfielders, and multiple forward options. The 2010 team lacked speed, width, and dynamism in attack. The 2014 team lacked creativity in the midfield and struggled to generate quality attacking chances. The 2017 team combined many of these flaws with the addition of overreliance on Pulisic to create and score goals.

Opportunism (Rather Than Any Material Uptick in Performance) is the Basis of Greatest Successes

I discussed in greater length here, but I will provide a quick overview of the opportunism that went the USMNT’s way in each of its greatest successes of the past 27 years.

1994 World Cup (Advanced to R16) – The US i) won 1 game (2-1 over Colombia), ii) played as the host nation, and iii) advanced despite finishing third place in its group.

2002 World Cup (Advanced to QF) – The US i) won 1 game (3-2 over Portugal, which nearly blew 3-0 lead) in the group stages and ii) laid an egg in its final game (1-3 loss to Poland, who was already eliminated from the tournament) only to be saved by a late South Korea goal vs Portugal.

2009 Confederations Cup (Runner-Up) – The US i) won 1 game (3-0 over Egypt) in the group stages, ii) lost twice badly in the group stages (1-3 to Italy and 0-3 to Brazil), and iii) advanced on the heels of an extremely favorable result (Brazil 3-0 over Italy).

2010 World Cup (Advanced to R16) – The US i) won 1 game (1-0 over Algeria with Donovan goal in stoppage time) and ii) secured a vital point vs England where a Dempsey shot from distance fell through the goalie’s hands.

2014 World Cup (Advanced to R16) – The US i) won 1 game (2-1 over Ghana) and ii) was thoroughly dominated in games against Germany and Belgium.

I wrote the following in the article linked above.

“It’s interesting to note that both highs (2002 World Cup and 2009 Confederations Cup) were only made possible by extremely fortuitous occurrences in the group stages. Had South Korea not beaten Portugal or had Brazil not beaten Italy 3-0, the United States’ two shining moments would never have occurred and the United States tournament results would appear quite bleak. “

“…the U.S. did not play two, let alone three, complete matches in any of the group stages of the five tournaments analyzed (World Cups in 1990, 1994, 1998, 2006, and 2010), proving two key points. One, these tournaments are tough, grueling affairs that are as much about survival as playing perfect soccer. It is rare for any team, aside from the superpowers, to play three complete games in the group stages of any major international tournament. Two, the U.S. has been nothing more than a slightly-above-average team, capable of beating great teams but equally capable of struggling against weaker teams.”

With the benefit of hindsight, I’d like to revise and clarify the aforementioned statements. Related to the first paragraph, I think it’s vital to emphasize that the USMNT’s two shining moments would never have happened if not for two extremely fortuitous results outside of the USMNT’s control. Related to the second paragraph, I would revise slightly above-average team to average team and reframe the closing point. The USMNT can beat a great team (in the sense that it has happened occasionally in the past) but there is no evidence to support the notion that the USMNT is capable of consistently competing with the best teams or is making up ground against the top 20 teams in the world.

In contrast, the evidence points more convincingly in the other direction. The US has yet to play an international tournament where it has single-handedly earned advancement. Let that sink in. Sure, the US has advanced in past tournaments but it’s entirely plausible (as outlined above) that the US could stand in 2017 with never having advanced from the group stages of an international tournament if not for a few surprising (to say the least), fortuitous results and one or two lucky bounces.

Takeaway / Parting Thoughts

While I have limited my discussion in the preceding sections to the empirical evidence, my findings, and conclusions drawn, I will allow myself to editorialize in my closing paragraphs.

The consensus punditry and media opinion that the US is improving is specious and divorced from reality. The USMNT has yet to play three complete performances in the group stages of any international tournament in the modern era. Given the sample size, this is not a fluke. This is a pattern. This is indicative of the quality of US soccer and an indictment of the program and the notion of “progress”. I think this is unacceptable. We should not be content with the past 27 years of results and the current path the ship of US soccer is on. The potential in our country is enormous and it is being squandered by the USSF.

While I recognize the loss to Trinidad & Tobago and failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup has served as a wakeup call for the common fan, in reality, the writing has been on the wall for years. The underlying issues have persisted under the reign of multiple managers and scores of different players so the common denominator is the powers to be at the USSF.

Based on the findings, the USSF deserves significant criticism. The USMNT has failed to qualify for the most recent World Cup, 3 of the last 4 Confederations Cups, 3 of the last 4 Olympics, and multiple youth national team tournaments in the past decade and a half. Furthermore, the USMNT has only beaten two top 20 teams in the world in a competitive tournament in the past fifteen years and has demonstrated a deterioration in performance against regional opponents in the Gold Cup. This article and these damning statistics focus solely on the results and do not delve into the style of play, which can best be characterized as pragmatic, rudimentary, and unimaginative, or the inability to produce international-caliber players.

For a country of our size, resources, and interest in soccer, these results are indefensible, especially when considering the strength (or lack thereof) of our region relative to the rest of the world. For Gulati and the USSF to claim growth and progress is inaccurate (our growth trails the rest of the world so by growing more slowly we are falling behind) and misses the big picture.

The potential in this country is immense and has been artificially stifled by the monopoly that is the USSF who are denying and turning away billions of dollars (literally!) of investment to preserve the exclusionary, closed system that has stifled any meaningful progress relative to the rest of the world.

We have often been told to “build a better mousetrap” (here and here). Without dwelling on the inauthenticity or disingenuousness of that remark, I’d respond no. The USSF has monopolized soccer in this country for too long and actively prohibits someone from building a better mousetrap. We need to open the soccer ecosystem (yes this means promotion and relegation) in this country. Exponential growth will only come from opening the soccer pyramid where billions of dollars of investment and true market incentives will spur actual change. We should demand so much more from our country. We should demand more than a fluke ability to defeat top teams. We should demand an equitable market that allows access to everyone and permits the cream to rise to the top.

[1] The full breakdown of opponents by tier is available and can be provided if requested. Moreover, I put in a significant amount of time compiling this data and am happy to share with anyone who would like to use it. This information is all factual, and, frankly, the dialogue surrounding the USMNT and the USSF can be enhanced if more people are exposed to and digest the data.

 

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