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.


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