Keep Your Numbers, I’ll Keep The Beautiful Game

A good friend kept pointing me at fivethirtyeight.com for statistician extraordinaire Nate Silver’s (and team’s) views on the World Cup. In particular, he really thought I should read the following article (Why Isn’t the U.S. Men’s National Team Better at Soccer?) and that it would be interesting on an analytical level. So I did.

The problem was, I came in biased.  And that’s how I left.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Of course, it didn’t help that the silly title was followed by an opening paragraph that concluded with the idea that despite America’s riches and focus on sport it “can’t field a world-class men’s soccer team.”

I knew from there on I was going to struggle to maintain an open mind because I immediately formed a couple serious concerns.

First, this presumptions, misplaced opening premise starts the reader on the easy, but not particularly well-informed path that the USA isn’t good at this “foreign” sport.

Second, the desire to turn soccer into another statisticians dream the way Money Ball changed baseball frightens and dismays me.

Mr. Silver’s website has lots of new World Cup coverage, and I’m sure it’s all quite thorough. There are percentages on what teams will advance, what games will be ties and other statistical discussions that can make newbies to the game sound smart at a cocktail party or at the office water cooler.

I don’t find such soccer statistics a thing of beauty.  And I don’t really want them coloring my view of the beautiful game.

Fivethirtyeight.com knows that there are people who feel like I do, they even address it head-on.  The site even makes the very specific claim that “In soccer, data and aesthetics are not mutually exclusive, just as they aren’t in any other sport.”

I hope they are wrong.

And I love when it the numbers don’t tell the story.  Like today.

The site predicted only 19% change of a Germany/Ghana tie and thought Argentina vs. Iran would turn into a blowout victory for the South Americans.  Very logical.

What happened? A Germany/Ghana tie. And a last second goal by Lionel Messi to save Argentina from an unexpected scoreless tie.

The unpredictability of those results made the day much more fun.

The beauty of the game comes from the decisions that need to be made on the field, by players, in real-time. It’s a game of emotion.  Of momentum. And yes, of luck.

There are few plays to be run from a playbook. Limiting the number of plays where success or failure can be tracked.

Can you predict pulled hamstrings, goals that happen within the first 30 seconds, the humidity or field conditions?

Can you predict players getting broken noses or head-butting one another?

Can you predict a poor decision by a referee?

Maybe in aggregate all of these things can be calculated, predicted and analyzed.

I hope not, because there’s more to a fluid team sport than any of that.  Especially a team sport that leaves so much responsibility on the hands of the players.  Not play calling.

What variable/value is assigned to team spirit, exactly?  Not so easy.

Did the USA outplay Ghana in its first game of this World Cup? No. But did it display an unbelievable commitment to each other on the field?  Absolutely.

And that proved to be enough. On that day. On that field. In this competition.

I don’t think that this game is predictable. And I hope it never is.

Despite all of my internal rejection of the ‘numberization’ of my chosen sport, the article’s premise was just as troubling as the fact that it was searching for something to analyze.

The overly-Americanized and ridiculously presumptive title started me down a path that’s hard to recover from.

It asked: “Why Isn’t the U.S. Men’s National Team Better at Soccer?”

Wow.  What a question. How much better should the USA be exactly?

The game against Ghana was clearly more grit than beauty… and I do not think the USA is the World’s best team, but how much better are we talking about, specifically?

Germany, I presume, is considered way better that the USA. And today, they tied the team we beat a few days back.

One measure of being “better” means getting results in the World Cup, right?

The USA has qualified for every World Cup since 1990. (Yes, in 1994 we did not need to, as hosts.)  This success is disregarded, since people think that our region is easy to qualify from.

Really?

Mexico, of our region, just tied Brazil.  How good are they?  Yeah, we qualified ahead of them.

Costa Rica, of our region, has already qualified for the second round beating both South American and European foes.  Yeah, we qualified ahead of them too.

And for Euro-soccer Snobs that think our region is easy  to qualify from, I suggest they play some competitive matches in San Jose, Costa Rica, Tegucigalpa, Honduras or in Azteca Stadium in Mexico, and see what they think afterward.

Think it’s easy?  Read this.

But the article asks, why aren’t we “better.”  Perhaps that means we need to beat the best teams in competition.

However, in REAL competitions, we’ve beaten Argentina by 3 goals (Copa America), stopped Spain’s ridiculously long winning streak (Confederations Cup), beaten Mexico and Portugal in World Cup play. Is that not enough?

When, exactly, will we qualify as being good enough for the statisticians to go back to baseball.

I get that in some way statistics may help explain soccer.  But having some foundational knowledge and understanding of the game – and its frustrating intricacies – might help form some better hypotheses to begin with.

During World Cup coverage, when players leaving the field, ESPN (who’s coverage has been quite good, actually) shows me how much the player has run.  As if that’s a metric of success.

It’s not.

We now see team possession statistics that aren’t particularly useful either, in my view, since for some teams it is a strategy and for others it is a necessity that happens without any meaningful offensive moves.

We now see percentages of passes completed.  Interesting, but flawed. One beautiful pass can be worth ten simple ones.

And please, don’t ask why the USA “aren’t better” unless you are willing to describe what better looks like.  Because the USA can and should get better, but I don’t think our improvement will be driven by a calculator and an algorithm.

So please, keep your statistics off in a fantasy league corner.  If you haven’t noticed, the USA is developing a passion for the beautiful game.

Let’s not bury it in, largely meaningless, numbers.

I plan to remain with my head firmly in the sand.  Preferring emotion to calculation. And beauty to analysis.

Yes, in my soccer book collection I have (and enjoyed) Soccernomics, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski.

But my favorite will always be “Soccer in Sun and Shadow” by Eduardo Galeano.

Toward the end of this glorious text, he writes “The more the technocrats program it down to the smallest detail, the more the powerful manipulate it, soccer continues to be the art of the unforseeable.”

That’s what computes for me.

 

 

 

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Qualifying Perspective: USA vs. Antigua and Barbuda

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m having trouble finding the right mood after the USA’s 3-1 victory over Antigua and Barbuda. And, I sense I’m not alone.

A two goal victory gives the USA three points in our first qualifying game, I should be ecstatic, no? Then why aren’t I?

For me (and maybe for everyone), however, my discontent did not start with that result. US fans have ridden a roller-coaster of emotions recently following a tremendous victory (5-1 vs. Scotland), a frustrating loss (1-4 vs. Brazil) and a baffling scoreless draw (vs. Canada.)

And, as if those results weren’t enough to stir the restless fan, some out there had extra angst invoked by coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s post-game commentary after the Brazil loss. I am very much in the angst camp on this one.

I won’t delve too deeply into those comments here, since Paul Gardner has it exactly right and well covered in Soccer America, here. However, the idea that a US coach could utter nonsense about hurting the other team publicly, after a “FRIENDLY” and about the not-surprisingly-superior five-time World Champion Brazil without any significant backlash saddens me.

Yes, the USA might need to become (more) difficult to beat and play physically, but if you cannot get the attention of your team in the locker room, don’t leverage ridiculous comments in the press to try to get it done. From our most experienced coach, a most amateurish move.

With that off my chest, I’ll try to reestablish some perspective. In prior World Cup qualifying cycles, I’ve used a glass half full/empty analogy, and this seems like a fitting time to revisit it.

Glass Half Empty View

  • The USA looked listless in stretches of a game against a team of USL Pro players with a couple English league additions from a nation of ~90,000 people. Frankly, any MLS team (well, maybe not Toronto F.C.) would be expected to play better than the US Men’s National team did for large stretches against Antigua and Barbuda.
  • Klinsmann might have an interesting history and great accent, but is certainly not infallible. It’s fair to suggest that no team would carry three left-backs into camp, so he was dealt a tough hand of cards with the injuries to Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo, but the team’s motivation, organization and lineups are all worthy of scrutiny. Torres to left back was a gamble, but an understandable one. Others may have moved Bocanegra out left and trusted the other center backs on the roster against what were manageable forwards by International standards. Klinsmann didn’t. More baffling though is the mid-game insertion of Oguchi Onyewu, a player all US fans would love to have back at his best, but acknowledge that he is now where near that level. Why not use other center backs that haven’t shown such glaring errors recently? (Note to Geoff Cameron and Michael Parkhurst: if there’s anyway to hide MLS in your resume it might be a good idea for this coach.)
  • We have a coach with international pedigree, players that are playing at extremely high levels around the world and all the training and preparation a nation could ask for, yet we cannot solve a simple issue: so frequently playing to the level of our opponents. Maybe it’s time for some voodoo?
  • The injury to Jose Torres might rob of us a good possession-enhancing option for the critical game in Guatemala.  Time will tell what severity he’s dealing with.

Glass Half Full Perspective

  • The USA won its first World Cup qualifier despite horrendously rainy conditions and an opponent who was resolute in defense.  The objective was to win and get the three points, and that is what was done.
  • Jermaine Jones didn’t maim anyone.
  • Herculez Gomez saw his continued hard work and club-success pay off with the US Men’s National team and has clearly added much needed pressure to Jozy Altidore and other forward options to say at their sharpest. The battle for that second (if we play with two) forward position next to Clint Dempsey is clearly on.
  • Mexico, which it pains me to admit is the class of CONCACAF right now, showed they too are imperfect by “only” beating Guyana 3-1 in Mexico.

The challenge today is that the US fan base expects more than results.  There is an understanding that CONCACAF opponents and situations are challenging, but that is no longer enough to excuse lackluster performances.  What the US fans have delivered over the last 180 minutes was certainly lackluster.

Tuesday night in Guatemala will be a difficult game in a difficult venue, so US fans might cut the team some slack.  But with the fan base continuing to hear that the team is a work in progress, learning a new system, with a new first-eleven and new coach, it needs to see just that.  Progress.

After that progress is achieved, please show us something that won’t necessitate most post-game headlines include the idea of “winning ugly.”

We’ve had quite enough of that.

Dear USMNT: Listen to Larry

World Cup qualifying is getting real and some serious games are at the ready for this weekend.

Grant Wahl has written about how Argentina and Portugal are both on the precipice of World Cup qualifying failure, which could deny fans of two of the best players in the world, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.   That would be a shame, and should make for an extra-exciting Argentina vs. Brazil game this weekend (that I won’t see), but in reality…

I don’t care.

I do care if the USA goes to Salt Lake City, and shows El Salvador and the world that they are for real.    And then does it again a few days later against Trinidad and Tobago.

Will it happen?

I hope so, but I also expected a lot more out of them when they were in Costa Rica and El Salvador.

There are no more excuses.

We are at home, we are in season, and we have some players grabbing roles in Europe.  There are no batteries or bags of bodily fluids flying at you.  And I cannot imagine there are rowdy away fans waking you up tonight at 3AM with a fire-alarm.

Of course, there ARE excuses like a decimated back line (Onyewu on suspension, DeMerit appears hurt), and H1N1 (who now?)…   Heck, Soccer America has us all doubting if we’ve filled the key holes left by Reyna, Pope and McBride from prior qualifying teams.  Good question.   We have some hopes… Feilhaber, Onyewu/DeMerit and Davies/Altidore… but not enough proof to be near an answer.

Well, here are two games that are should-wins, nearly must-wins.   Boys, go stake a claim to the holes that Soccer America worries remain unfilled.   It is time to get on the field against a team that we are seventy-some positions higher in the (admittedly sketchy) FIFA rankings . . . and show the world why that’s the case.

In other words . . . you are back in the good old USA, so get out there and Git-R-Done.

USA Dispossessed of Azteca Dream

I am a US Soccer fan.   I can be both biased and irrational and at game time I am often both.

Today, “my” US team lost to Mexico in the fabled Azteca stadium.  Again.   And that makes me pretty angry.

Now, a few hours later, as I step away from my biases and irrationality I can admit that this result is no surprise.   The US National Team is neither as good as casual fans thought we were after the Confederations Cup results, nor as bad as the 0-5 result in the Gold Cup Final that had the diehards worrying we were.

We could argue this (isn’t that what ‘we’ do?), but to me it is clear.   We’ve seen the “A” team do everything from get embarrassed in Costa Rica to shine for 135 minutes against Spain and Brazil.    We’ve watched the “B” team dispatch with local rivals with grit and guile and then crumble like a house of cards with 70,000 fans leaning on it against Mexico in the Gold Cup final.

So keeping World Cup qualifying against Mexico in perspective, we split the home/away series with Mexico just the way you’d expect.   Does that make me happy?  No.   Does it sound about representative of where we are?  More or less, yes.

The US was not embarrassed and they battled admirably.  Many will point to Mexico’s “luck” – a “wonder strike” from Israel Castro, a bounce that fell exactly right to Miguel Sabah – and maybe there was some of that.   But while the early US goal had emotions raised, we were again unable to possess the ball and would be chasing the game at altitude, in the smog and with that, the writing was on the wall.

So we may not be either as good or bad as we sometimes obsess about, but lacking a solid possession game that allows us to manage a match will always be a ceiling above which we’ll struggle to climb.  When is the last time – outside of beating up on the mighty soccer power of Grenada (who didn’t even have a fit Shalrie Joseph) – that the USA has held the ball, passed it with purpose for long stretches and imposed their will on a game?   I am having trouble naming too many recent examples.

I’m not invited into the US locker room for pre-game preparations, but I can imagine Bob Bradley said something like “stay compact, move as a team, don’t chase and get caught out of position” and MY PERSONAL FAVORITE “when you get the ball, keep possession as much as possible, pick your chances and be smart to conserve some energy.”   OK, I cannot guarantee those were his words, but I can guarantee the advice didn’t include “boot the ball frantically up-field, or to a Mexican, or wherever, just don’t keep it.”

So the question is: how is that where we ended up?  How is it that we end up there so frequently?    I wish I had an answer other than:  we simply aren’t capable of playing possession soccer against better teams.   Why?   History of our development has always favored athleticism over skills, a history whose imprint we are still trying to shake.   When the best teams hold the ball, your athleticism becomes pretty unimportant.  (“Wow, look how fast he is running around over there without the ball. He must have a great 40 time and an unreal vertical leap.”)

Transitioning to a more skillful game won’t be easy, but if we are to be a true contender in world soccer we best push for it sooner rather than later.    Tactics, players, development, mentality… it is all affected, and will provide reasons to blog, argue, bitch and moan about for the foreseeable future.