THE ECONOMICS OF US SOCCER
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.