Jürgen’s Europeans: America’s coach prefers European players. Maybe he should.

Three years ago, the United States hired a German to coach its national soccer team. Jürgen Klinsmann was tasked  to “advance” a squad that had not reached the semifinals of the World Cup since 1930, or won a cross-regional tournament in its entire history. Klinsmann might yet succeed, but he won’t arrive at even his first World Cup without controversy. Last week, he set off a firestorm when he omitted Landon Donovan from America’s final World Cup roster.

A former captain, Donovan is the übermensch of US soccer. He has more goals and assists than anyone to ever play and the second-most appearances. He is also the hero of previous World Cups, and the biggest star in America’s top league- the MLS.

The move is being fully dissected in the blogosphere. Matt Lichtenstadter compares it to decisions Klinsmann made as Germany’s coach. Alexi Lalas chalks it up to personal preference and not talent. At Slate, Stefan Fatsis channels Freud, concluding that Klinsmann’s ego is to blame for the omission.   The emerging narrative seems to be that this roster was forged out of either idiosyncrasy or pettiness. Klinsmann himself has been vague about his rationale.

What if Landongate was forged less out of personal taste than precept?  This piece considers that possibility: whether his choices were guided by a consistent principle, and whether that principle was sound. It does this  through a straightforward geographical analysis.

The Klinsmann Principle?

In January Klinsmann insisted that he wants US players to “play in the best clubs in the best leagues in the world” and that “obviously MLS is not there yet.” Is his roster consistent with this stated preference?

To explore this I compared the final selections to a roster of players who might reasonably have made the team US Men’s National Team (USMNT). The latter list contains every player who has played in an international game in the past 4 years, according to the USNSTPA. There are 105 players on the first roster and 23 on the second.

 Over the last four years, the USMNT has been dominated by players who currently play in the MLS. A full 68% are currently in the MLS, compared to 12% who play in a Top-4 European league (England, Spain, Germany or Italy’s top league).  Around 8% play elsewhere in Europe, 7% play in Mexico’s top league, and others currently play in lower division teams or do not have a club at all.

The team actually going to Brazil has significantly fewer US-based players. Less than half of the roster currently plays in the US, while more than 36% of the team plays in a Top-4 European league. There is also a higher percentage of players from lower-ranked European leagues, and a slightly lower percentage of Mexican League Players. While the clear majority of USMNT players play in the MLS, there are more European-based players on the final roster than MLS ones.

Donovan is one of 59 MLS players who helped the US qualify but did not make the team. Out of the 13 Top-4 players on the USMNT, more than half (7), made the final roster. Seen from this perspective, it is harder to argue that Jürgen Klinsmann hates Landon Donovan specifically. He actually seems to “hate” all MLS players!  

Smarts or Superego?

Klinsmann’s choices are consistent with his stated preference, but can this preference be defended empirically? Are teams with more players from Top-4 leagues actually better?

To get at this, I examined FIFA data for all 32 World Cup Teams. I attempted to predict the number of points a team has in FIFA’s soccer ranking system by using the percentage of Top-4 players on that team.

A few caveats are necessary. In this analysis I compared provisional (30-man) rosters, not final rosters for all teams, including the US.  Also, the FIFA rankings are traditionally poor indicators of World Cup success, but they are the best available continuous indicator of national team quality.

The results acquit Klinsmann a bit.  Generally, teams with more players in the EPL, Superliga, La Liga, and Bundesliga, also have a higher ranking. The perennial soccer powers, the Germanys and Spains and Brazil and Argentinas of the world all have more players from the best leagues. More than 40% of all variation in FIFA rankings is explained by this single measure.

Of course, this analysis doesn't show that teams are good because they have players in better leagues, or that Klinsmann should have omitted Donovan. It does establish a relationship between the type of leagues that players play in, and overall team quality. Klinsmann’s preference for European players seems to be about geography than ego, and his geographical instincts are defensible.

The preceding is probably of little comfort to Landon Donovan or his fans. It also won’t do Klinsmann much good if his team doesn't perform next month. It should, at least, give his armchair psychiatrists some pause. PW