US vs England – A Soccernomics Analysis

england v USA

Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski titled the American version of their new book Soccernomics (review is here), but their title for the release in the UK is Why England Lose.  In the book, Kuper and Syzmanski identified the US as a rising power in soccer and England as a permanent disappointment to their rabid fans.  With all the caveats that their analysis is designed to look at trends over time and not the outcome of one game, the June 12 match-up between the US and England in South Africa will be a mini-test case for their theory.

Kuper and Syzmanski believe that national team greatness is based on three factors – wealth, size and experience.  For purposes of this argument, England and the US are equally as wealthy.  The soccer playing male population over the age of 12 is probably a little larger in England, but the US is catching up fast and will probably surpass them any moment now.  However, it is in experience where, according to Kuper and Syzmanski, the US is outgunning England.

Kuper and Syzmanski define experience as the collective different types of soccer under which a team and its coaches have played.  For example, one of the main reasons for Brazil’s success, according to Kuper and Syzmanski, is that their players have played in a large variety of leagues all over Europe.  The Brazilian team is full of players who play in the EPL, La Liga, Serie A, and other great leagues in Europe.  When he was considered the best player in the world, Ronaldo was a one man soccer travel guide.  He had done a stint in Holland (PSV), two tours of Spain (Barca and Real Madrid) and two tours of Italy (Inter and AC Milan).  By experiencing these different leagues, and learning how to master them, Ronaldo made himself unstoppable.

Conversely, Kuper and Syzmanski believe that England always disappoints because the English players only master how to succeed in England.  English players rarely travel across the channel to gain experience anywhere else.  They play for English clubs, usually under English managers, against English opponents, and learn only how to beat other English teams.  Unfortunately, when it comes time to go to the World Cup or the Euro tournament, the team that they are best suited to beat (England) is the one team they will never oppose.  It is for this reason that England has not reached the final of a major tournament in over 40 years, and during that time did not qualify for either a Euro or World Cup Finals seven times.

If you project out the most likely team to line up against the US in South Africa, you see this problem in spades.  My projection of the starters and reserves England will field next June is a team that not only plays all its club soccer in England – it does not have a single player who has ever played for a non-English club team.  The only country in the World Cup Finals that can match England’s insularity is North Korea.

English Starters (Club Team Country)

  • David James – England
  • Ashley Cole – England
  • Rio Ferdinand – England
  • John Terry – England
  • Glen Johnson – England
  • Aaron Lennon – England

  • Frank Lampard – England
  • Steven Gerrard – England
  • Joe Cole – England
  • Wayne Rooney – England
  • Jermaine Defoe – England

English Reserves (Club Team Country)

  • Paul Robinson – England
  • Wayne Bridge – England
  • Mathew Upson – England
  • Theo Walcott – England
  • Gareth Barry – England
  • Michael Carrick – England
  • Darren Bent – England

Conversely, the US team is a tribute to diversity.  In my projected starting XI, nine different nations are represented in the players’ club history.  Add in the reserves, and you are adding in another two countries.

US Starters (Club Team Country)

  • Tim Howard – US/England
  • Jonathan Spector – England
  • Oguchi Onyewu – Belgium/Italy
  • Jay DeMerit – England
  • Carlos Bocanegra – US/England/France
  • Landon Donovan – Germany/US
  • Michael Bradley – US/Holland/Germany
  • Benny Feilhaber – Germany/England/Denmark
  • Stuart Holden – US
  • Clint Dempsey – US/England
  • Jozy Altidore – US/Spain/England

US Reserves (Club Team Country)

  • Brad Guzon – US/England
  • Steve Cherundelo – Germany
  • Jermaine Jones – Germany
  • Fernando Torres – Mexico
  • Maurice Edu – US/Scotland
  • Robbie Findley – US
  • Conor Casey – Germany/US

With Holden and possibly Donovan set to go to Europe in the January transfer window, this diversity of experience will continue.  With the US learning under different systems, playing against different types of players, and refining different skill sets, they are more apt to absorb the challenges of international tournament like the World Cup.

Does this mean the US will win the game on June 12?  There is no crystal ball for that.  The only statistical theory that Kuper and Syzmanski could say about that game is that the team that scores the most goals will come out ahead.  However, according to Kuper and Syzmanski, the US is coming on fast and England is a stagnant, creaking soccer power.  Over time, if this trend continues, the US will certainly overtake England on the world stage.  The question is whether that Rubicon is crossed on June 12 in Rustenberg or sometime a little further down the road.

28 thoughts on “US vs England – A Soccernomics Analysis”

  1. I think you’re being over-analytical here. The EPL is one of the strongest leagues in the world, so all of England’s players being based there is a non-issue. Yes there are different styles of football around the world, but most of England’s top players have played in European competitions (Europa League, Champs League, previous Euros and World Cups), so are able to adapt to these styles. As well as the US are doing I can’t see them beating England or winning the World Cup, because comparing the two teams its apparent that England have better players and a better manager. Now I’m not saying England will win anything either…

  2. Either over-analytical, or over-simplistic. Off the top of my head, both Germany and Italy have relatively insular squads as well — in fact, I think Italy won the World Cup 3 years ago with a 100% home-based squad (or very very close to it). Clearly both these countries are among the favorites for next summer, along with England (if you believe the bookies).

    1. The difference there is the level of tactical management and sophistication in the German and Italian leagues was far superior to the EPL until recently. So Italy and Germany had players who were exposed to everything tactically before World Cups and Euros, unlike the majority of English players. But now, the case may be different with so many non English/Scottish/Welsh managers in the English game.

  3. “Conversely, Kuper and Syzmanski believe that England always disappoints because the English players only master how to succeed in England.”

    If you start with a false premise you can “prove” anything you want.

    Here’s mine: Put any 11 players together with a dufus coach and what do you get? Squat.

  4. Agree with the other commenters. The premise is both simplistic and false. In addition to the points above, it could be held that Brazil was strongest at a time when all its players were Brazil-based (1950-70).

    Sounds like another extension of the demonstrably false “diversity” argument.

  5. A few differences in 2009-2010 to the past. For one, the EPL consists of players from all over the world and is a diverse league, so it’s not like English players are playing only English players all the time.

    Also, it would be one thing if the US team had players starting in all of these leagues around the globe, but it’s hard to count Donovan’s limited experience in Germany or Onyewu’s experience in Italy as being meaningul. Or DeMarcus Beasley sitting on a bench in Scotland.

  6. There are a lot of assumptions being made above, and most are faulty.

    The one that sticks out the most is the concept that the English players only learn how to beat other English players. What?

    These guys have friendlies on a regular basis against other countries around the world. On top of that, a lot of foreign talent have taken up management of Premiership clubs, bringing the systems and philosophies of their own with them (Wenger, Mourinho, etc.).

    This argument needs a LOT more support to hold any weight, I think.

  7. A lot of good points made. However, it may come down to who has the most desire to win this game and the World Cup. The U.S. are the underdogs and don’t have as much to lose. England will be heavily scrutinized by the press and the fans. Just take a look how well the U.S. did at the Confederations Cup. They obviously had the most desire and heart of any team in the tournament. We’ll see what happens . . .

  8. What about the CL? What about the players that the English players are surrounded by? What about the top 4 managers in the EPL? What about Peter Crouch? All these questions and more…

    1. You wouldn’t be English, would you, Richard? :-)

      If the trend continues, there is a country of 300 million people, representing races/ethnicities/cultures/etc. from all over the planet developing more and more “football” players at younger and younger ages. Even if their premise is faulty (and I agree that it’s weak), sheer numbers would say that the U.S. will overtake England.

      Watch college sports in U.S. for a while, and then realize that out of all those thousands of talented young athletes, only a very few are big enough to make it into the NBA or NFL. That’s an awful lot of athletic talent waiting to make a splash in another sport.

      1. Unfortunately, I don’t think it will ever happen. Our schools are our feeder programs to college and the pros. As a former middle school soccer coach I can tell you that soccer can not even begin to get the attention of the best athletes in middle school and high school and it never will. Realism notwithstanding, the draw of the NFL, NBA & MLB is just too strong.

        We are doomed to an eternity of being able to field some good teams, but never a great one….unless someone can get hell to freeze over.

        1. Well, this is where professional soccer in the U.S. needs to step up. While there a few athletes like Darren Sproles, Steve Nash, etc., the fact of the matter is that athletes that size are just not going to get the opportunities at the professional level in the NBA or NFL (and maybe even MLB). There needs to be scouting and recruiting of young players, so that 5′ 10″ 180# running back has an opportunity to put his athletic gifts to use as a professional.

          As a crude example: If your father is 5′ 9″, you’re probably not going to make it to the pros as a basketball or football player. If an MLS youth league can recruit this kind of athlete, get him into the system to train and evaluate him, there’s a chance that some fantastic talent can be found.

          I see some amazingly talented and dedicated young men (Tim Tebow is a good example) who are never going to make it to the top-level, even as a bench-warmer/special-teamer. There needs to be a viable option for them in soccer in order to expand the talent pool.

  9. Perhaps a useful analysis, but if the argument is for experience in other footballing environments, I would wager the English players have actually played more games against other European opposition than the majority of US players you mention. All had very fleeting looks at those European leagues, often as subs.

    Whereas players like Gerrard, Lampard, Ferdinand have so much CL and international experience that they’ve probably amassed a higher total number of minutes on the pitch in Europe than their US counterparts.

    In the end the match will be like all football matches – come down to a few crucial moments which will swing it one way or the other.

  10. “In the end the match will be like all football matches – come down to a few crucial moments which will swing it one way or the other. ”

    We’ll be listening to months and months of B.S. about this match, but I think this gentleman has summed it all up pretty well right here!

    This is probably the most intelligent and insightful thing that will be said about it.

  11. I love the whole idea behind this article. I just finished Soccernomics and I believe this is the best book about football that I’ve ever read. Seriously – I loved the entire book. Highly recommended.

    Also, I agree that the US will most likely (at the very least) be on the same level as England in my lifetime.

    As a lot of people are saying, however, there are a lot of things in here that I don’t really agree with.

    “My projection of the starters and reserves England will field next June is a team that not only plays all its club soccer in England – it does not have a single player who has ever played for a non-English club team.”

    You could argue that US players play in more countries that English players (and thus gain more experience) but you have to use common sense here and take the type of experience into consideration.

    On the one hand, you have US players playing in a few more leagues than the English. However, are they sitting on the bench (I’m looking at you Onyewu and Edu) or in a league or team that really isn’t going to push them at all (I’m looking at you… everyone that plays in the MLS)? Does that experience really matter?

    Playing in the EPL is the equivalent of playing in a World Soccer League. You get to experience all of Europe and a decent amount of Latin America and Africa all in one league. The other players aren’t English (I’m not sure of the exact number but it’s well over 50%) and most of the coaches aren’t English. If you play in the EPL, you are basically playing against everyone that will be at the World Cup. Why would English players go anywhere else?

    1. To be fair, over half of the Premier League managers are English. If you want to include the Scottish, Welsh, and Irish (most of whom have been in England their entire career, both playing and managing), 14 of the 20 Premier League managers are from the British Isles.

  12. The EPL brought the diversity of the world to its league, as did La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga, etc. If the EPL fielded only English nationals, then that’s a different story, but that’s not the case. For one reason or another England have lacked the cohessiveness to play as a team among all its individual stars. This is a coaching issue and there have been times where players fell short of expectations, but nevertheless England has much more potential for victory than the US. The US players in Europe don’t see much playing time and their manager Bob Bradley is mediocre at best.

    1. You’re right, Bradley only stuffed Spain and almost beat Brazil in an international tournament, and had the USA among the first teams to qualify, winning their region.

      Pure mediocrity.

      If Bradley were more than mediocre, he obviously would have figured out how to beat Brazil, not just the push-over Spaniards.

  13. On a different note, UEFA needs to mind its own damn business and quit sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong. UEFA complained to FIFA that CONCACAF teams are playing in CONMEBOL tournaments. Well if they are invited, why shouldn’t they be able to play? What the hell does UEFA care about who plays who in the Americas? If UEFA considers itself superior to all other confederations then what’s the problem. I think that UEFA is getting scared of the improvement in teams in the Americas and wants to limit the experience players obtain from competing on a national level.

  14. More than anything else, UEFA needs a major enema.

    I hadn’t heard that they were complaining about happenings across the pond, but I find it very interesting.

    It would be fun to see a CONCACAF team show up to the World Cup, Confederations Cup, or whatever and slap a UEFA team silly. The wringing of hands from UEFA brass down to the footie fan on the street would be hilarious.

  15. Nice to see something written about Soccernomics, but there are a lot of problems with how Mr. Altschule has attempted to apply the concepts that lie within this fine book to the upcoming showdown between the USA and England.

    Yes, the authors postulate that size, wealth, and experience are all factors in the success of international sides. A central theme of their book is figuring out whether teams are playing above or below their potential when compared with the kind of success these factors usually dictate. The USA and England are indeed about equally wealthy in terms of per capita GDP, so the author of this post gets it right with this statistic. But when we turn to considering the size and experience of the USA and England, the author is misrepresenting how Soccernomics looks at the data.

    The USA happens has 300 million inhabitants versus England’s 60 million, giving the USA a huge advantage in terms of population. Kuper and Syzmanski use total population in their analysis, not the number of soccer playing males over 12. Many residents of England might be shocked to learn that soccer is in fact the MOST popular sport amongst young people in the USA, so the claim that England has more young players then the USA is also pretty dubious.

    And when it comes to “experience”, I am really wondering if Mr. Altschule read Soccernomics. Kuper and Syzmanski use total number of international matches as the statistical basis for “experience”. Implying that the English side lacks experience because the players do not play outside of the EPL is an interesting thing to consider, but it is not an argument that Soccernomics makes. England is in fact one of the most experienced nations, and has a huge advantage over the United States in that regard.

    I suggest Mr. Altschule reread a few parts of the book so he can get it right next time around.

  16. “…soccer is in fact the MOST popular sport amongst young people in the USA,…”

    As a bare, factual statement this is probably correct. We have literally millions of boys and girls playing rec league soccer. Unfortunately, once these same youngsters reach middle school (11-12 years old), where our formal sports programs take over, the lure of football, basketball and baseball drains away our best athletes. Soccer coaches are, for the most part, left fielding teams of very mixed abilities and talents. Most of the cream has been skimmed off the top.

    As a nation we lack the passion for the sport that exists in other parts of the world. I don’t see anything that will ever change that. However, that does not preclude us from improving on the international level. It will just always be an uphill battle.

    1. The “lure” of basketball, baseball, and football that you speak about is strong. Being able to watch the very best players and leagues on television has fueled this phenomena, with aspiring athletes dreaming of being the next Peyton Manning, Kobe Bryant, or Derek Jeter.

      When I was a kid playing the beautiful game in the early 1980s my only access to top-flight competition was reading the league table in the New York Times. Actually being able to watch a European match? I cannot remember being able to find anything other then various Mexican professional games on Spanish-language channels. The closest I got was seeing Maradona play at Giants Stadium in a friendly against the New York Cosmos (thanks Dad!). But we now live in the era of Fox Soccer Channel and GolTV, and millions of Americans (who are just as passionate as any other fans, in my humble opinion) are watching the very best players in the world on a weekly basis.

      The US clearly has the resources (money and people), and now with this access I think it is really only a matter of time.

  17. did you guys hear Setanta’s Paul Dempsey forecasting the long term rise of soccer in the US ? That guy knows what he’s talking about and hey, he believes in us !

  18. Hi!
    I live in a smaller Upper-Midwestern city…kind of cold, and not conducive to soccer. We have about 25,000 youth from the ages of 5-18 playing in organized leagues here in our city ALONE!
    Soccer is growing and improving, and will only get better here in the US.
    lome, togo
    PS-I am not very good in soccer, but I am an excellent keeper.

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