In 2002 the United States Men's national team nearly made it to the semi-finals of the World Cup. Many across the world were surprised and many other non-Americans across the globe were appalled. So many said, how can a team with no soccer history play so well and compete? Many non-Americans and Americans alike were under the impression that the players on the field for the USA were mostly domestic flukes who just got lucky. In fact, one player on the German team was asked what he knew about the American team and he said: "They have that one guy who use to play at Wolfsburg." of course, he was speaking of Claudio Reyna aka "Captain America" as he was known in Scotland, Germany and finally Manchester City. The impression was that the US team was not a group of seasoned veterans of international club play who knew the ins-and-outs of world soccer-but a bunch of domestic players who plied there trade in the little respected MLS.
All those that made this generalization were wrong---and there were many on futbol blogs across the web. Fans of Euro clubs bashing the US Team as lucky and untalented. And we would always be that way, many would say, until more Americans played in Europe. But they were totally uninformed comments-as American teams had even had fair international club experience as far back as the 1998 and 1994 USA national teams as well. Likewise, the assumption that earlier modern US national teams were made up of mostly domestic players or players that would never play overseas was incorrect as well. Most of the players on all these earlier teams were veterans and regulars in international play, or were to be very soon.
WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY
The continuing belief is that American non-domestic/Euro club play has been building and increasing since the 90s, not decreasing--and that the American trend towards Europe and other leagues is a NEW phenomenon. While it is true that more Americans now play overseas than ever before, fewer Americans than ever play in the most relevant leagues than anytime in the modern era (since 1995). Contrary to popular belief, American representation, particular in field players (which we will look at here) showed a drop in US player representation in the best leagues in the world, even while it has increased in Scandinavia specifically. In career figures, the 1998 US WC team had more eventual, past and current big league/international club experience than the current probable roster for the 2010 US WC team. Let's look at some numbers:
USA players who in the past or eventually or currently played in the top four leagues--English, Spanish, Italian, German:
1994 Roster: 11
1998 Roster: 16
2002 Roster: 13
2006 Roster: 10
Current Roster: 9
This number trend is the same when you evaluate total international experience in general:
1994: 21 players
1998: 19 players
2002: 17 players
2006: 19 players
Current squad: 18 players
The numbers don't show a marked improvement in the number of American's playing non-domestically.
Another huge difference is the decrease in actual playing time on non-domestic clubs-so even when American's do play in foreign leagues currently, they are playing less, not more.
Total number of games played (career) by USMNT members in non-domestic leagues:
1994: 2624 appearances
1998: 3006 appearances
2002: 3169 appearances
2006: 3125 appearances
Current: 1721 appearances
One of the most poignant numbers above is the obvious: the 2002 USMNT had the most career non-domestic games played than any other US team before or after it. This might explain their success, confidence, and overall play. For the current US Roster to catch up with past US National team experience, they would have to double their output in play--and fast--something not likely to take place unless some trends change dramatically.
US PLAYERS ABROAD: QUALITY OF NON-DOMESTIC TEAMS HAS DROPPED
The other notable difference is the actual quality of the teams US players earned time with. The 1994 team had 5 players who were currently or would shortly go on to play with English teams, 3 Bundesliga teams, 1 Dutch team, 1 Spanish team, 1 Serie A team; the teams ranged from Wolfsburg, Schalke and Real Betis in Spain, to Padova in Italy and Everton in England. Brad Friedel would even play in Turkey with Galatasaray, and Frank Klopas played for the famed AEK Athens in Greece.
And then there was the unthinkable now: 3 Americans played or would eventually play in Mexico! One with Leon, another with the famed Cruz Azul, and the other at UNAM Pumas! And they didn't just ride the pine either-they actually played. And they were not named Torres or Gonzales either. They weren't Mexican-Americans. Cle Kooiman, Mike Sorber and Marcelo Balboa were all very visibly Anglo in appearance. The prejudice in Mexico against Anglo appearing American players had yet to catch fire and the MLS was yet to be birthed.
The amount of quality playing time many of these players got and the teams they played for indicate the quality and ability that the 1994 roster would eventually show for their club teams. The same quality was not necessarily evident in their World Cup play, as this was a team made up of many Americans who were new citizens like Thomas Dooley and Roy Wegerle, and many others who had gone their own way to make careers for themselves because there was no current domestic league. Unlike current US teams, these players hadn't played with one another since their youth-and it showed on the field. While probably better individual players than future US teams--with a USSF in tatters and with almost no youth program at all--the 1994 team was too quickly compiled and seemed strangers to one other.
Likewise, the 1998 team had 8 players who had played or would play shortly with English teams. Six were in the Bundesliga, one was in Holland, and one in La Liga and Serie A respectively. While the 2002 team dropped down to 13 players with "big 4" league experience from 1998's 16, the 2002 team had more total game experience on non-domestic teams than any time before or after. Again, this would account for their "best ever" American performance in a World Cup in the modern era.
THE 2010 USMNT
The upcoming 2010 World Cup doesn't bode well for the USMNT if you use the stats to determine success. Not only is the current probable roster down to only 9 players who play in the top 4 leagues, total playing time is down substantially from 3,169 game experience in 2002 to only 1,721 currently. Most of this can be attributed to the generation gap in American players, which I will explain more later. But in short, there was an eight year period where only 5 American national team players were developed for the current squad-thus the roster is mostly made up of very young players: an uncharacteristic trait for a successful World cup squad.
The 2006 winners, Italy, had an average age of 28.8--a group of experienced veterans sprinkled with a few youngsters. The probable 2010 US national team will drop from the 2002 roster average age of around 28 down to 25. Those three years make a big difference. Very few teams with an average age at 25 or below make it out of the group stage. If you take out probable keepers Hahnemann and Howard, the average age of US field players drops even further to 23.7.
I keep mentioning the "probable" roster for 2010, so let me just list them out here. Of course, this list can be debated, but it won't change the outcomes and stats in general for the 2010 squad. The list doesn't differ much from a recent SI article published on these very pages: Howard, Guzan, Bocanegra, Onyewu, Spector, Cherundolo, Mastroeni, Bradley, Beasley, Dempsey, Donovan, Altidore, Conrad, Davies, Edu, Hejduk, Pearce, Adu, Hahnemann or Wynne, Cooper, Johnson, Clark, and Kljestan.
While there will be subtle changes from this line-up based on injury and current form, this is a fairly realistic list of the USMNT roster for the 2010 World Cup. A good part of the US experience in non-domestic leagues will come from Howard and Hahnemann, even though most of Hahnemann's experience comes from the Championship in England, not the EPL. Outside of Cherudolo, Onyewu, and Bocanegra, there are no American field players on this probable roster with more than 100 games played in non-domestic leagues. The 2002 team had 8 players with 100 or more games played. The 1998 team had 9 players with 100 or more games played; and even the 2006 team would eventually have 11. With the current team only having 5 players over 100 games played in non-domestic leagues, the future of American futbol may have to wait until 2014 to have the kind of performances we all hope for.
THE AGE FACTOR
The current US probable 2010 WC line-up shows us a critical and unfortunate reality known as the "Dry Years" in USSF field player development. The current team has 16 players between the ages of 19 and 26. Only 6 players fall within the "veteran" category of 27 to 34 years of age if you assume Hahnemann makes the team. This points out the calamity of the eight years where the USSF development programs only fostered the growth of 6 "veteran" futbollers playing on the current USMNT. If you take out the probable keepers, only Bocanegra, Mastroeni, Jimmy Conrad and Frankie Hejduk fit into the veteran status, and only one of these players are likely to start based on Bradley's line-ups when more Euro based players are available. The loss of players like John O'brien to injury have significantly reduced what would have been a much more "veteran" field-player line-up.
In comparison, not only was the 2002 team older and more seasoned, it only had 8 players in the 19-26 age range, with the majority of those being between the ages of 24 and 26. There were no 19 year olds on the team at all and only two 20 year olds: Beasley and Donovan. Players in the 27-34 age group made up the bulk of the veteran experience and the heart and soul of the team: Friedel, Jeff Agoos, Cobi Jones, Carlos Llamosa, Hejduk, Joe Max-Moore, Reyna, Pope, McBride, and Tony Sanneh all made important contributions to the success of the team. It would be much to ask Conrad, Bocanegra, Mastroeni or Hejduk to do the same in 2010 being much fewer in number, and being less likely as a whole (outside of Bocanegra) to play much at all.
To provide more contrast, the 2006 Italian squad that won the World Cup over a veteran French team had 18 players in the 27-34 age range and only 4 between the ages of 19 and 26. The current USMNT for 2010 will be the opposite. Any gauge of success in a World Cup tournament says we have the wrong age formula-whether by chance or lack of USSF youth player development from 1991 to 1998.
THE "DRY YEARS"
One can assume that for many of those years (1991-1998) the USSF and the USMNT hoped the MLS would eventually do the job in player development that they needed so desperately to do themselves. And with the domestic league up and running, American players no longer had to go overseas to learn their trade and become quality players. They could just stay at home in the USA and ply their trade-not facing the same challenges, quality players, and picking up the skills that players like Harkes and Tab Ramos did trying to prove themselves overseas.
In retrospect, in many ways, the MLS contributed to the lack of progress made by US players during that eight year period that eventually led to the "Dry Years" and fewer veteran players available for the current USMNT. Only by 1997-98 did the USSF realize that this lull in player development was occurring and make steps to correct it by forming the Bradenton Academy and Project 40.
Unfortunately, since its first graduating class with Onyewu, Donovan, Convey and Beasley, the following Bradenton (now IMG) classes have not lived up to the original. Likewise, the list of Project-40 graduates consists of a majority of players who never amounted to anything successful or players you've never heard of and never will. While developing many reliable athletes, both programs over the past 12 years have failed to produce a single "superstar" futbol success overseas. Perhaps one of the most successful US field players currently was not a Bradenton/Project-40 graduate at all, but a product of collegiate soccer and the old attitude that self-belief, confidence, hard work and challenging oneself with bigger hurdles is more important than any training academy: Clint Dempsey. Dempsey is a throwback to the the self-made generation of McBride, Reyna, Harkes, Tab Ramos, Alexi Lalas, Joe Max-Moore and many others who were forced to prove themselves non-domestically while the MLS was still a thought or in its early years development. To their credit, later on, all of these players returned to the USA to help assure the success of the MLS even when they were offered contracts to play overseas.
CONSEQUENCES AND CONCLUSIONS
Looking at the likely starters for the 2010 campaign, it is very possible that USMNT will field one of the youngest teams in the tournament-and in USMNT World Cup history. While such a young line-up might get the US past the CONCACAF qualifiers, it doesn't bode well for group play in the World Cup itself. Until the current 22-26 year old players become 24-30 year old players in 2014, the statistics tell us that the USMNT doesn't have much of a chance to make it out of group play in the 2010 World Cup-providing they qualify in the first place.