THE ECONOMICS OF US SOCCER
PREVIEWS
EXTRA TIME
BRENT LATHAM - Friday, September 11, 2009
Well, it wasn't pretty, but the Americans got their six points. In fact they got even more than that, when El Salvador once again proved their fight and knocked off Costa Rica.

A quick aside - you have to love the Salvadorans. I for one am suddenly a big fan. I think we should send Clint Dempsey down there for the next month. He can play for FAS or Firpo or Metapan and learn what it means to fight for 90 minutes for the love of the game and the shirt, then we can all meet up again in Honduras.

In the end, this week's results mean that one point from the final game against Costa Rica will send the US directly to South Africa - but more on the implications of that later. Enough math for now. All of this ciphering has got me to thinking about something more interesting: the overlaps between economics and soccer.

Bear with me.

You see, economics is an interesting science in that, like life, sometimes you plan things one way, and they come out another, due to unexpected intervening variables. When that happens, you have to then adjust your theories to fit the new reality.

Where am I going with this, you ask?

Well, as it turns out, Sunil Gulati, head of the United States Soccer Federation, is an economist. And he finds himself at such a crossroads.

I've seen a lot of opinions to the contrary, but my own educational background prevents me from accepting the premise being lazily tossed around that Gulati, a lecturer at one of the country's finest universities, is some sort of idiot.

That's why I'll argue that, when he hired Bob Bradley, Gulati was making a rational decision based on the information he had at hand. Let's flip the script back to 2007 for a minute and think about this in economic terms.

The US has historically been resource poor vis a vis the playing talent of most other nations. That situation has begun to change slowly over the last decade, but in 2007 we were still at a relative deficit, and the retirements of some of our best players had left a somewhat bare bones player pool that included, on occasion, the likes of Drew Moor and all too frequently, Josh Wolf, among others, leaving some to speculate that our best years were at least temporarily behind us.

Bradley's hiring at that moment in time was a choice that, aside from being motivated by a lot of very important factors that had little to do with the men's national team itself (which we can debate at another time- or below if you prefer), reflected the history of soccer in America. Bradley clearly knew how to work the talent that was presumed to be at his disposal.

Making decisions based on observable history is a very rational way for an economist, or anyone else, to go about things. And so things would have remained. After all, choosing between John Wolyniec and Steve Ralston is a mundane exercise the result of which can hardly be expected to generate deep levels of emotion for a wide segment of the population.

But then something interesting started to happen. Things changed. The US reached a figurative flash point in the payoff of the development of American players. All the years of growth in the sport, and American youth players coming through systems abroad, was suddenly producing a player pool of talented young prospects worthy of consideration for the national team. All this as other, more mature players continued to develop.

Who could have known in early 2007 that this generation of players would develop so quickly into the best in American history? Who would have predicted the vast improvements of Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, and Jozy Altidore, or the emergence of young talents like Jose Francisco Torres, Michael Bradley, and Charlie Davies?

In the meantime, Coach Bradley has been doing the job he was hired to do, unfurling vanilla tactical plans to get the most out of poor, read MLS level, resources, with a couple benchwarmers from overseas sprinkled in, by placing them into a system and scrapping his way to ugly victory after victory.

Nowhere in his job description does it say that he should take risks and try out new players when it's unnecessary, or engage in tactics designed to do anymore than eke out home victories and try to steal a point on road trips in qualifying. Of course that's what fans would prefer to see, but to this point, it hasn't been necessary. That Coach Bradley has been slow to make modifications to keep up with the changes demanded by the emerging talent pool should be no surprise. His objective is first to qualify for the World Cup.

And there's the problem. Coach Bradley has done the job he was hired to do. But with changing circumstances, the definition of that job in the eyes of many has changed, though it's not clear that group includes anyone at the USSF.

But Gulati is a good economist, and after a busy year, as the qualifiers wind down, he has more data to analyze, so he should now be in the process of updating his theories and assumptions. Certainly he will have realized by now that the ceiling on reasonable expectations has gotten much higher than it was in 2007.

Taking all that under consideration, once the US qualifies for the World Cup, Gulati will need to reassess the ultimate goals for the national team. That will include new calculations about how to get the most out of the improved resources available on the field.

Bob Bradley will undoubtedly stay on with the team he qualified, but the federation chief needs to find a way (the technical adviser post has been thrown about) to give the coach tools he can use to manage a team full of skillful individuals playing in leagues bigger and more competitive than MLS. That's not so much a knock on Bradley as a realization that we all could use a little help to do our jobs better. If one of the world's better writers were willing to proof read my work, I'd be foolish not to agree.

At this point, some tactical input could only be a benefit. Just as the player pool has improved, tactical evolution is now a necessity for the Americans to reach their potential. With qualifying nearly in the rearview mirror, adjustments need to be made, and options explored, which could potentially make the US much more competitive come South Africa 2010.

Luckily, there is an abnormality fast approaching on the calendar that will give Bradley the chance to try some new wrinkles. The October 10th match at Honduras poses an anomalous situation in which a tie does the US very little good, leaving the Americans still likely needing a draw in their final match against Costa Rica, whereas a win qualifies them for South Africa and removes the pressure of getting a result on the final matchday.

Returning to our economic terms, a fully rational coach would take a bit more risk to up the offensive ante going for the much larger payoff of three points, perhaps by inserting Torres and trying out the likes of Edgar Castillo or Jermaine Jones, if he is cleared by FIFA by that time. Not that those decisions will all work out, but once again, the point is we'll never know how high the ceiling is if we don't test the limits.

Do I expect Coach Bradley to follow such a plan as soon as the Honduras qualifier? Probably not, but with talent in the pool that could potentially turn this team from an also-ran in next year's World Cup into a competitor, and the current team on the margins of competitiveness, the only explanation for not trying some new things at some point soon would be irrationality. I don't want to believe an economist would allow that sort of behavior on his watch.
the truth
Tuesday September 15, 2009 2:08 pm
S1NC3P0NG-

does this article mention Europe even once? For all we know Brent could be suggesting a Mexican, Argentine, or another American (Preki sounds like a good idea). It's you who have assumed only a European could be doing the job, making you the one presuming Europe is better -
S1NC3P0NG
Monday September 14, 2009 9:03 pm
Managers and players from Europe are NOT magical. They don't manage football with magical pens, nor do their players play with magical boots. European football is a little overrated and entirely too full of itself. UEFA member nations and their clubs seem to have a permanent and inflexible idea that football and footballers from anywhere other than Europe are in some way inferior. This is, of course, complete and utter nonsense.

I debate whether a manager with extensive European experience would generate any more success for US Soccer than the managerial talent within the current system.

It is, in my opinion, debatable that continuous whinging about Bradley's percieved technical shortcomings as a manager constitute the best traditions of reporting and journalism.
dikranovich
Monday September 14, 2009 7:28 pm
preki is the answer for the job that was once held by peter nowak. we just have to hope that chivas bomb out of the playoffs in the first round and preki can get in there maybe just after the last qualifier. that would actually give him nine months on the job and he can put his mark on the team.
Nick
Monday September 14, 2009 2:50 pm
My previous comment stands for the 7 or so comments prior to my original one. The first 7 or comments appear to get what the purpose of this piece was.
Nick
Monday September 14, 2009 2:47 pm
I think most of you are missing the point of this article; it is not to take potshots at Bradley, but merely to assert the opinion that Bob Bradley's successes in the job that he has been hired to do need to be reevaluated as we're approaching the World Cup in 2010 (assuming we qualify). The primary item atop the list of things to reevaluate is how the US is playing, technically, tactically, and stylistically, especially given the competition in the region (in my opinion, much weaker).
TheTruth
Monday September 14, 2009 11:36 am
Ahh, but you forgot about one branch of economics: game theory. That is, doing the best you can possibly do given the actions of your competitor. A tie does nothing for Honduras either so they will go for the win. Why would the US not play w/ it's normal team and catch Honduras open in a counter attack?
Idahosa
Sunday September 13, 2009 11:30 pm
whoa you are a very smart writer...this made me think of the whole situation differently your very intelligent its not bashing bradley nor saying hes the best coast ever or something to that aspect but yea i totally agree we truely have the talent and technical skills in probably all of all players especially people like donovan,feilhaber, torres,adu etc but yes we need to put a tactical advisor is the staff somewhere cause we need the tactic..bradley has been doing his job all we need is a good tactical advisor and we will be good ome world cup 2010...also heres the 23 players i would take to the world cup

charlie davies, landon donovan, tim howard, freddy adu,jose francisco torres,jozy altidore,brad guzan, gooch, carlos bocanegra, jay demerit, edgar castillo,jermaine jones, stuart holden, ricardo clark, troy perkins, maurice edu, clerence goodson/chad marshall, jonathan spector, steve cherundolo,bradley jr,kenny cooper/brian ching
Matt
Sunday September 13, 2009 5:59 pm
Brent, well written commentary.

I generally feel your on point, but not here.

Project 2010 -- while maybe not producing the result next we hoped, gave every indication that the U.S. would have more talent at it's disposal in 2007.

Generation Adidas has the successes of Tim Howard and the aformentioned Clint.

The other part of the program in Bradentown, FL saw the graduation of Landon, and Gooch.

It also graduated Bradley's own son in 2003 and important to your argument above watched Altidore participte in the Spring of 2006.

As a fan of the USMNT, I can attest that we've watched the talent of US Soccer continually increase.

A 1-1 tie with Dempsey on the wing, Gooch in the back in 2006.

Probably most importnantly however was Fulham's record transfer for Dempsey at the end of 2006--that was a watershed movement.

I think the observations of Bradley are right on. He's a very defensive coach, who creates a good team atmosphere, but he has shortcomings on strategy and tactics.

I think that's a fair observation. However, to suggest that Bradley was a choice because the U.S. team wasn't progressing I think is inaccurate. It's the reason we're sitting here today expecting better play from the U.S. even though the wins are there.

The other part of the program in Bradentown
Coach Kev
Sunday September 13, 2009 12:24 am
Brent well written and well said. Pong I have to call nonsense on you. How do you think teams like England, Germany, Holland, Brazil, Spain, etc. would do in our group play? Aren't those the team we expect our nats to compete with? If the nats are supposed to be competitive in the WC like most of us feel they can be, they should be easily handling all of the CONCACAF teams. Its time for a quality manager. I hear there is a guy named Klinsman available. He steered my favorite team to a respectable 2nd place finish in the Bundesliga with no defense or goalie. All done with a deluded and dysfunctional front office.
JaLa
Saturday September 12, 2009 12:02 pm
Tom, I can't see how the Honduras game is a "throw away" We definitely need a point. There's a small chance that ES can beat Honduras at home, so it expands our chances of qualification even with a loss in the finale.
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