Tag Archives: USMNT

After my first glance analysis of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Draw on Monday, a friend told me about some other soccer rankings besides FIFA’s, namely the World Football Elo Ratings system, which like my friend is super terrific. There are other methods, such as least squares rankings (similar to football’s Pythagorean wins), or the FIFA Women’s ranking system1, or Nate Silver’s ESPN Soccer Power Index. But the Elo system is probably the best.

Dr. Arpad Elo developed the rating system used in the international chess federation, and in the 1990s Bob Runyan made some tweaks, adapting it to international soccer. It has since adapted further, incorporating the stakes of the match (a world cup match counts much more than a friendly), the relative strength of the opponent (if 233rd ranked Palau and second ranked Spain both defeat first ranked Brazil, Palau gets a much bigger boost), the margin of victory (winning 10-0 is better than winning 10-9), and home field advantage (a little more complicated, but not much: just read the formula yourself). My first impression was that Elo would be a little skewed by past results; after all, matches from the 1930s would be in there, but what does that have to do with how good a team is today? In fact that’s not the case. The relative strength of a team’s opponent firmly controls for more recent results, and if you start beating good teams (or losing to bad ones) on a regular basis, your rating starts to reflect that pretty quickly. It’s expected that after 30 games, the rating is accurate. Which is why Bosnia-Herzegovina, which after the dissolution of Yugoslavia played its first FIFA game in 1995, has been able to climb to 24th in the Elo Ratings since that time.

So, is Elo really the best? Yeah, pretty much. Its predictive power is measurably stronger than the other ranking systems in use. Jan Lasek, Zoltan Szlavik, and Sandjai Bhulai, mathematics and computer science students at various European universities, conclude that Elo is the best in their 2012 paper “The Predictive Power of Ranking Systems in Association Football”. Over all international FIFA Men’s matches played between 2006-2012, the Elo system was the best predictor of outcomes, closely followed by the FIFA Women’s system (which itself just uses different tweaks on a basic Elo model). Many other ranking systems were better than the FIFA Men’s system at predicting the outcome of matches.

So back to the results of the draw last Friday, this time armed with FIFA rankings, Elo ratings, and Nate Silver’s SPI because it wasn’t examined in that European study and Nate Silver is a pretty smart dude.

Remember when I said that Pot 3, consisting of Asia and North and Central American teams, clearly contained the worst teams, even after saying that FIFA rankings were silly? Well, that was silly of me, because the Elo system suggests it’s actually Pot 2, containing the non-seeded South American and all qualifying African nations, with an average Elo rating of 1,726 (average rank 32.1), to Pot 3’s average of 1,732 (avg. rank 29.8). That’s a very slight difference, while the Europeans in Pot 4 average is 1,856 (13.6), and the seeded European and South American teams in Pot 1 average is 1,961 (7.1). The best teams are in South America and Europe. The trouble is that the non-seeded South American teams go into Pot 2 with the African teams. Remember how Pots 2 and 3 had really similar average ratings? The standard deviation in Pot 3 is 55, while in Pot 2 it’s nearly twice that, 105, indicating much more variation among the quality of its members. In Pot 2 a seeded team could draw Algeria, Elo rating rank 59th, or Cameroon, 56th, but also Chile, 10th, or Ecuador, 16th. With five teams from Africa, but only four teams from Asia or North and Central America, it’s not as easy as switching them, but I suspect FIFA could do a little bit better.

As for the original question, which group is toughest? I called it a draw earlier between Group D (Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy) and Group G (Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA), but now I’m calling it Group D, straight-up like. The average Elo rating of teams in D is 1,852, behind G’s 1,877 and B’s (Spain, Holland, Chile, Australia) 1,916. But the standard deviation in D is only 78, while in G it’s 129 and in B 136. Two groups have lower standard deviations than D: E (Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras) with 74, and C (Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan) with 61. The teams in C & E aren’t as good though, as those groups rank in the lower half of average rating among the eight groups. Group D is the only one in the top half of quality (3rd best teams of any group) and equality (3rd most evenly matched).

Nate Silver’s algorithm strongly backs this up. Using his Soccer Power Index, teams in Group D combine for an average ranking of 14th in the world, ahead of G’s 15.3. Group D also has the lowest standard deviation, 6.6, while G has the second lowest, 7.2. So according to Silver’s numbers, D has the best teams and is the most evenly matched; G is a close second on both counts. I guess you could call Group G a group of death, but Group D is The Group of Death.

Just for fun, what is the worst that could have happened to the USA? According to the Elo system, it’s getting drawn by Brazil (Elo rank 1st), along with Netherlands (5th) and England (7th). According to Nate Silver, it’s getting drawn by Brazil (Silver’s rank 1st), along with Chile (5th) and France (7th). Of course, according to FIFA it’s Spain (1st), Portugal (5th), and Italy (7th). None of those groups happened, but they all could have, and were about as likely as the USA getting Belgium (Elo rank 18th), Algeria (59th), and Bosnia-Herzegovina (24th), their easiest possible group according to Elo.2

Last but not least, for which countries did the rankings diverge, and for which did they agree? Algeria was 59th in Elo, 69th in Silver’s, and 26th in FIFA, for a standard deviation of 18.4, easily the highest among all 32 teams. Here are the Top 5 most divisive teams (standard deviation of different world ranks in parentheses):

  • 1. Algeria (18.4)
  • 2. Australia (11.6)
  • 3. Japan (9.6)
  • 4. Cameroon & Korea Republic (7.1)

And here are the Top 5 teams the various ranking systems agreed on the most:

  • 1. Argentina, Germany, and Spain (0.8)
  • 4. Colombia (0.9)
  • 5. Uruguay (1.2)

Actually, the USA was the sixth most agreed upon, with a standard deviation of its various world rankings at only 1.7. And that’s with an average rank of 14.7. A reason for optimism come June? Maybe. No matter what, USA ALL THE WAY! WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Over and out.

  1. Yes, it’s different than the one they use for men. No, I don’t know why, and won’t be finding out today. Weird though. 
  2. If you’re enjoying this as much as I am, keep reading! Silver’s easiest group for the USA would be Switzerland, Algeria, and Croatia, while FIFA’s would be Belgium, Cameroon, and Russia. 

On Friday, a friend of mine on Facebook posted “Here’s to hoping my finals don’t go as poorly as the USMNT group draw.” “Oh sh*t!” I thought, and immediately checked the damage. My worst fears were confirmed. Well, some very bad fears, at least. The USA was in a certified “Group of Death”. With 184 days before the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, I’ve been wondering: just how bad is it?

Right now Googling “group of death” produces the headlines “World Cup 2014 Draw: Group G another Group of Death with Germany, Portugal, USA, Ghana” from SB Nation, “U.S. draws into ‘Group of Death’ for 2014 World Cup” from Yahoo Sports, and “U.S. drawn into World Cup ‘Group of Death’: Ghana, Portugal ” from USA Today. But also among the top hits are “Spain Have Nothing To Fear From Group Of Death” from, “Australia in World Cup ‘Group of Death’ after draw” from The Australian, and “World Cup 2014 draw: Spain and Holland in ‘group of death ” from The Guardian. Group G consists of Germany, Portugal, Ghana, and the USA while Group B features Spain, Netherlands, Chile, and Australia. There’s another group, Group D, with Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, and Italy, that reportedly has experts saying “like, yeah, that’s pretty messed up dude” as well.

In his article “World Cup 2014 Groups of Death: From Deadly to Deadliest” on Pro Soccer Talk at NBC, Nicholas Mendola ranks Group B deadly, D deadlier, and G deadliest, seemingly using the combined FIFA World Rankings as a proxy. That’s obviously not perfect, but a reasonable place to start. In his discussion of Group G, where the Americans landed, he points out that all four teams advanced out of their groups in South Africa four years ago. That’s intimidating (yikes!), but Group B features three teams who advanced last time, and Australia didn’t based on their insufficient goal differential, having the same record as Ghana in 2010’s Group D.1 Also Spain and Netherlands faced off in the 2010 Final, only to meet in their first match of the tournament this time around. So really, just how bad is it? Which groups are “easy”, which “deadly”, and which “deadliest”?

I looked at teams’ world rankings, prior world cup appearances, and prior appearances beyond the initial group stage. The method is a little more complicated than Mendola’s2, but not much. This is a question without an answer, especially until the tournament starts. Back in 2006 the USA also seemingly found itself in ‘the group of death’, but with all four teams still being ‘alive’ heading into their final group game, I recall commentator Tommy Smyth pointing out that really, it was the group of life! Of course it depends what you mean. ‘Group of death’ is a Wikipedia page (like, duh), which includes the following definition:

group of death in a multi-stage tournament is a group which is unusually competitive, because the number of strong competitors in the group is greater than the number of qualifying places available for the next phase of the tournament.

So we’re looking for “strong competitors”. The spirit of the term suggests that they be evenly matched, despite Smyth’s humorous point that technically, a ‘group of death’ would be two good teams quickly eliminating two bad teams. So I looked at teams’ world rankings, world cup appearances, and appearances beyond the initial group stage to gauge strength, and the standard deviation of those measures within the group to determine parity. I would love, absolutely love to include player performance (probably via total club salaries earned by a national team’s players), but rosters aren’t set just yet, so we’ll keep it simple.

Strength of World Cup Groups by Averages (standard deviations in parentheses)

Group Avg FIFA World Ranking (Nov.) Avg Prior World Cup Appearances Avg Prior Times Advanced
A: BRA, CRO, MEX, CMR 24.25 (15.85) 10.5 (6.34) 6.25 (6.14)
B: ESP, HOL, CHI, AUS 21 (22.49) 8.25 (3.56) 5 (3.16)
C: COL, GRE, CIV, JPN 20.25 (16.68) 3 (1) 0.75 (0.83)
D: URU, CRC, ENG, ITA 14.25 (10.03) 11 (5.1) 7.75 (4.09)
E: SUI, ECU, FRA, HON 22.75 (11.88) 6.5 (4.72) 3 (2.55)
F: ARG, BIH, IRN, NGA 26.25 (15.93) 5.5 (5.68) 3.25 (4.55)
G: GER, POR, GHA, USA 11.25 (8.58) 8.25 (5.63) 6.25 (5.67)
H: BEL, ALG, RUS, KOR 28.25 (15.85) 7.75 (2.95) 3.25 (2.38)

Is Group G the group of death? Maybe. The average world ranking in Group D is only three lower, and historically teams in Group D have had the most success, averaging 11 appearances and 7.75 trips past the first round per team. Standard deviations of 5.1 and 4.09, respectively, indicate those results aren’t concentrated in just one or two teams. I think we can throw out Group B, with Australia decidedly weakening it. (Unless the Aussies should win some games come summer time, then forget I said anything.) The average world ranking of D is 21, but the standard deviation is an even greater 22; Chile ranks third highest in the group at 15th, but Australia is way down at 59th, the lowest ranked team in the tournament. If you add the rankings of all teams in Group G (47) or Group D (57), you get a lower number than Australia’s 59. So despite featuring last Cup’s final two teams, group B is out on parity. D and G both look mighty tough.

Which groups have less quality? Well the average ranking in Group H is the worst of any at a 28.25 (remember, it’s a 32 team tournament). Group H is also in the lower half of groups in historical measures. Group C has a high average rank of 20.25, third highest, but its teams have little historical success, with 12 prior appearances and three trips past the first round fairly evenly distributed among Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, and Japan. Let’s stop looking at groups as wholes and start looking at them from the perspective of just one team.

Who got off easy? Argentina, no question. In addition to being in their element in South America (theoretically), they drew a Bosnia-Herzegovina team playing in its first tournament as its own nation (being formerly part of Yugoslavia), ranked 21st, Nigeria, ranked 36th, and Iran, ranked 45th. Not bad when you’re in a 32 team tournament and face two teams outside the top 32 in the world in your group. Yeah, Argentina looks nearly as good in their group as Australia looks bad in theirs. Belgium, at 11th, and 11 ranks ahead of next best in their group Russia, and Switzerland, 8th, also 11 ranks ahead of next best in their group France, also appear to have relatively easy paths to the Round of 16.

Is there a worse collection of three teams the USA could be with? Certainly, yes. In a nutshell, the draw works as follows: the hosts Brazil, and the seven highest teams in the October world rankings (when qualifying ended) constitute Pot 1, and each get their own group. They each draw once from Pot 2, the remaining African and South American teams, Pot 3, the remaining Asian and North and Central American teams, and Pot 4, the remaining European teams.3 Here’s that same table from before, but for Pots instead of Groups:

Strength of World Cup Pots by Averages (standard deviations in parentheses)

Pots Avg FIFA World Ranking (Nov.) Avg Prior World Cup Appearances Avg Prior Times Advanced
1: BRA, ESP, COL, URU, SUI, ARG, GER, BEL 5.63 (3.5) 12.38 (4.44) 8.88 (4.99)
2: CMR, CHI, CIV, ECU, NGA, GHA, ALG 27.43 (11.5) 3.86 (2.17) 1.29 (1.03)
3: MEX, AUS, JPN, CRC, HON, IRN, USA, KOR 39 (14.98) 5.75 (3.93) 2.13 (2.2)
4: CRO, HOL, GRE, ENG, ITA, FRA, BIH, POR, RUS 13.78 (5.79) 7.89 (5.45) 5 (4.06)

So stop hating FIFA, because they did an okay job. It’s impossible (with one exception; check out footnote three) for teams in the same pot to be in the same group, and the pots are tiered fairly well by region and skill. Pot 1 is clearly the best teams, 4 the second best, 2 the third, and Pot 3 contains the weakest teams. There’s much more variation in Pot 3, but to eliminate that FIFA would have to break up the regions. It would be silly if after playing Honduras multiple times in qualifying, we went to Brazil and played them again in the first round of the tournament. It’s a bummer to get a tough group, but it would be pretty lame, worse I think, to have a group consisting of two good European teams and two bad European teams. FIFA’s current system is fine.

Within that system, what’s the worst that could have happened to the USA? Going off world rankings, it’s getting drawn by Spain (1st in the world) along with Chile (15th) and Portugal (5th). The odds of that happening were roughly 0.19%, or nineteen in every ten thousand. Given that the USA is the highest ranked team in Pot 3, theoretically that’s the toughest possible group all around. In reality the USA did get Portugal, and Germany is in fact second in the world, but Ghana is 24th. In fact, three teams in Pot 2 rank higher than Ghana.4 Of course, say you thought Brazil is the toughest in Pot 1, as they’re 10th in the world, are the host country, and they’re %@#%ing Brazil. It is possible the USA (or some other poor team in Pot 3) could have got Brazil, Portugal (5th in the world), and Italy (7th). Goodness me that is terrifying. Good thing the odds of that happening were roughly 0.04%, or four in every ten thousand. I’m certainly glad it didn’t happen.

What did happen is the USA ended up with Germany (2nd), Portugal (5th), and Ghana (24th, 31 total), no slouches any of ’em. But hey, from Germany’s perspective, they’re probably not too happy either seeing as they drew the highest ranked team in two of the three pots.5 Or consider how Costa Rica feels, being with Uruguay (6th), Italy (7th), and England (13th, 26 total)! In fact, Costa Rica might have it even harder-er, with Uruguay’s presumed familiarity with the continental atmosphere. At least the USA didn’t get any South American nations.

The bottom line is: I don’t hear Costa Rica complaining. Well, I’m not really listening. They probably are. But no, the bottom line is: NO WHINING American soccer fans! I whined along with everyone else in 2006, and look where it got us: an early exit with one draw and two losses. In 2002 we shocked Portugal 3-2, and played our best game of the tournament in a 1-0 loss to Germany in the quarterfinals. (Also, our head coach is German, and coached them to third as hosts in 2006.) In 2006 and 2010 we’ve played Ghana competitively, despite losing. We’re due. We should be ready. Buck the f$%^ up. And always remember the wise words of the late, great German player and coach Sepp Herberger:

The ball is round. The game lasts 90 minutes. Everything else is pure theory.

Oh yeah, and sometimes the game lasts more than 90 minutes. USA!!! USA!!! USA!!! I can’t wait.

  1. Germany was also in that group. Curious. 
  2. I’m not a big believer in FIFA World Rankings, and don’t think most people are. In 2006, the USA was also in the ‘group of death’, drawing Italy, the Czech Republic, and Ghana. Just before the tournament, the Czech Republic was ranked 3rd, the USA tied for 5th, Italy 13th, and Ghana 48th. Ghana actually beat the Czechs 2-0, Italy and Ghana advanced, and Italy (whom the USA tied, despite losing to the others) eventually won it all. Only an anecdote, but the rankings… meh. 
  3. Like many things, the truth is a little more complicated. A group can’t have more than two European teams, so that’s a thing they have to deal with. FIFA drew a European team from Pot 4 and put it into Pot 2; then the four non-European teams from Pot 1 drew to see who among them would get the only European team in Pot 2, and consequently two European teams in their group. Uruguay won lost, and got England and Italy. Ouch. For more on how FIFA does it, click here
  4. Chile 15th, Ivory Coast 17th, and Ecuador 23rd. 
  5. Yeah, I said FIFA World Rankings were pretty lacking and then proceeded to use them throughout the article. They’re just so convenient! And there’s a method, and it’s a thing sort of. Once I have a better idea of what the rosters are I’ll be back with upgraded analysis. 
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