by Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)
I have a story I'm going to share here. Please bear with me.
People that know me at work feel compelled to try and talk soccer with me. I'm not trying to be mean but I'd like to think I'm a well rounded person that I'm not so limited in talking points to just soccer, sports or numbers in general. But this was the painful conversation that was had.
Co-worker: "Denmark today, huh? I love those bright orange uniforms."
Me: *Wince* "Yep. They're a bit different."
Co-worker: "They did super well last year in the World Cup too, should be a tough match-up."
Within a span of a few sentences we covered a mishmash of a few different European countries none of which were actually Denmark. First confusing the Danes with the Netherlands, which was then confused for Switzerland.
Whatever. I'm not here to be a jerk and mock guys that get these details wrong. Actually it kind of makes my point. Outside of most soccer nerds a late loss to Denmark means relatively nothing except just that we lost, and did so in a manner that is becoming painfully redundant since the World Cup.
But, as you may hear quoted on our podcast this week, the US has circulated 43 different players over the last eight months after the World Cup. Without getting too granular into the call-ups we can simply acknowledge that they've used a lot of people. Add that to there were 41 substitutions being made during those eight matches played and I think it's fair to say that there is a bit of forming and maybe even some storming going on with this roster.
Because of all of this roster churn, I suggest bringing a bit of skepticism when looking through those numbers that the US has posted over the last eight months.
Matt Doyle, the MLS Armchair Analyst, wrote an article following the match on Wednesday where he mentioned the idea of Total Shot Ratio (TSR) being an example of why the US hasn't been good and linked a graphic displaying how poor USMNT has been since the World Cup.
Total Shot Ratio is simply used to give some insight into the performance of the team and convey how dominant they are in creating attempts on goal compared to their opponents. These numbers imply that matches leading up to the World Cup the US was really doing well. Like, super well.
But to give that some context, besides saying that .440 is similar to what Sunderland produces, the US had .705 shot ratio over 30 matches prior to the World Cup and leading back to the start of 2013 against Canada. No club team I could find currently boasts a .705 shot ratio. It's crazy high. The closest team in MLS is Columbus Crew SC with .672 and over the pond in EPL Manchester City reigns supreme with .647.
The primary issue with the US's high TSR is that it largely stems from their domination of the Gold Cup in 2013. That tournament is skewing the numbers in favor of the US which took 129 shots and limited their opponent to only 53 through six matches. If we remove that tournament it paints a bit of a more sober image.
Along with their TSR, PDO dropped some too. Implying that it was perhaps the right call to remove the Gold Cup because it removed some of the luck inference, which is what PDO is there to measure, thus giving us a better and more realistic outlook. Devin Pleuler once refered to PDO as a basic proxy for luck as the statistic typically regresses back to the mean. If the mean is 1000, and in this case it is, less than that is bad and more than that is favorable... depending on your perspective. It also questions the sustainability of performances.
The US, despite dropping so many goals in the last seconds, is seen as a team that tends to float "above the line". Mostly because of the amount of goals they've scored relative to the shots they've taken. It's also about the fact they've got great keepers and their save percentage (which is kind of stupid statistic anyways) tends to float above the norm.
So what does this TSR/PDO business all mean in the end? Simply, that things could still be worse but that there is some optimism for their performance to improve in the future.
The oddest thing about this whole thing is the disparity and complete drop-off of performance following the World Cup. I'm still waiting not convinced that we can take these numbers too serious until more research can be done about post-World Cup friendlies in general and identify some of the pitfalls of international roster churn in general.
Might I then suggest a new method for watching the game, and something that I'm going to attempt to put into practice myself, follow individual performances. I know this isn't revolutionary and I'm sure most do this anyways. But seriously watch. The following things are checklist items for myself.
- How many touches does Jozy Altidore get and how many become shots?
The fact is that I've been super unimpressed with how many shots he's actually creating. Looking strictly at the ones he taken, he's had nine shots in 646 minutes according to my home work. This is not good and he's not going to continue finishing shots like the one linked below, it's just not likely.
- Who is winning the duels on this team?
During the World Cup Jermaine Jones, like him, love him or hate him--with help of Kyle Beckerman--stole everything that was loose on the field. Who will be heirs to their thrown?
- Who is putting passes to boots and creating shots?
I already mentioned my heartburn with Jozy, but the thing is he doesn't have to do all the work. He just has to get into high leverage positions (which he does REALLY well) and then take the shot (which he doesn't do very well). The question is who gets him the ball in these positions. Who is putting passes into the box or running with the ball at their feet dribbling past defenders?
I mentioned last week that Clint Dempsey isn't going to be around much longer. I personally would be surprised if he's on the next World Cup roster. He's a phenomenal player but what makes him so great is that the US has no other player like him in the talent pool. He creates shots, he takes shots and he's an incorrigible enigma. We won't find another like him but we need to find a way to supplement those shots he's creates.
Looking at any of these three things none jump out as being "wow that's it!". Their all actually things people have problem commented about before and even prior to the World Cup. Whatever, I'm cool with not being unique. These items still matter.
Switzerland themselves is ranked 16th overall by Nate Silver's Soccer Power Index and sits just one spot above the USMNT in ELO ratings. Suffice to say this is a team that is pretty equal in quality at full strength. But the reality is that the US isn't at full strength, so what does it matter if Switzerland is or not either?
I dare you to suspend the idea of results for at least until the Gold Cup. They don't matter anyways. Let's just enjoy being indoctrinated to some young and exciting talent. If after the Gold Cup the US doesn't have an auto bid to the Confederations Cup, then I think we can become legitimately frustrated and/or a bit worried about the future of the national team.
But for now let's just enjoy this.