Following the disaster in Couva, USMNT fans and pundits struggled with how it could happen. There was a sense that the team on the field was too MLS heavy. However, it had only 6 MLS players starting. High by historical standards, but not a number like 9 or 10. Further, the T&T team was so lacking in talent that it was hard to pin the blame on a talent gap. USSF leaders like Gulati and Arena chalked it up to bad luck. But I think the fans were on to something. While, any team should have been able to beat that T&T team and Arena set the game up in the worst possible way, there was also a drop in quality of player on the field, and throughout qualifying that cycle, for the USA. We needed USMNT Tier Improvements.
Drawing on the system for looking at player quality in my last article:
Where I explained that the attempt to gauge a player’s worth by trying to differentiate the levels of most teams in world football is a Fool’s Errand. Saying a player playing on a team at the bottom of the Bundesliga is a “Bundesliga player” and therefore must be better than a player playing for the top team in Portugal or a player dominating in MLS is impossible. Skip a few months ahead and that “Bundesliga player” and his team have been relegated to the 2.Bundesliga. Is he a vastly inferior player now? The MLS stand out has possibly moved to a Champions League team. Is he a vastly improved player now? That is why it is best to view players in increasingly large tiers in a pyramid of club situations.
If you don’t want to read the article, here is a quick summary of the three tiers relevant to the USMNT in 2020:
Tier 1: Perennial Champions League teams (i.e. Chelsea, Juventus, Leipzig), roughly the top 20 teams in the world
Tier 2: Perennial Europa League contending teams (i.e. Everton, Wolfsburg, Lille), roughly the next 30 teams.
Tier 3: Top league relegation threatened teams, Liga MX, MLS, Brazil, UEFA leagues 5-12 not in the above tiers.
Using that Tiered approach, the situation on the field in Couva becomes illuminating. What looks like a mix of MLS, LigaMX, EPL and Bundesliga players, which sounds pretty good, filters out to ten Tier 3 players and one Tier 1 player. Here is the lineup that night in terms of tiers:
That explains the perception of fans and pundits that the talent was just not good enough. Many of those Tier 3 players had never played at a higher level. A few had but were in serious decline and had not for multiple years. The one Tier 1 player, of course, was Pulisic, but he had only just turned 19. The other Bundesliga player was Bobby Wood, whose team was soon relegated to the 2.Bundesliga. The EPL player was Yedlin. I’m a big fan of Yedlin, but he has mostly started for relegation zone EPL teams.
All the subs that night were Tier 3 players. Again, the talent was better than what T&T fielded. But you can see how the USA talent was not overwhelming and poor tactics and personnel decisions by Arena could be decisive because of that fact. USMNT Tier Improvements were needed.
USMNT Tier Improvements
Now for the good part! What would a USMNT lineup look like today? Here is the best possible lineup in terms of player “tiers” the USA can field right now:
That is quite a change! Fans, again, sense this change and it is making the USMNT exciting again.
In the above example I’m using:
Tier 1: Steffan (1), Dest (5), Adams (6), McKennie (8), Reyna (10), Pulisic (7)
Steffan is not the starter, so you can ding him. But one hamstring pull or broken finger and he is. At worst, you can say he is Tier 2, which is probably where he would move to if City sold him. The others play for Barcelona, Leipzig, Juventus, Dortmund, and Chelsea. Obviously, some of the best clubs in world football and all have already played in the Champions League.
Tier 2: Brooks (3), Weah/Boyd (11)
Wolfsburg is in the Europa League this year and is usually within a few spots of 6th place in the Bundesliga. In the past, the best USMNT players have maxed out at this level. Weah and Boyd play for Lille and Besiktas. Lille is defintely Tier 2; Boyd’s club is a little iffy lately but has historically been a UCL/UEL club. If you think Morris is a better player; that is possible. If the coach picks a different player and leaves the Tier 2 player on the bench, is that really a problem for this kind of exercise?
Tier 3: Sargent/Altidore/Zardes/Etc (9), Long/Zimmerman/CCV/EPB/Miazga/McKenzie/Etc (4), A. Robinson/Vines/Gasper/Etc. (2).
Here is the beauty of the system that also shows its worth. I can name anyone in the USMNT player pool at the 9, 4, or 2 and it is a Tier 3 player. Fulham and Werder Bremen are just not good teams that are looking like relegation fodder. I would pick Robinson over the MLS options because he dominated the EFL Championship last year and was bought (but it fell through on a freak medical issue) by a Tier 2 team. Right now I might just pick Erik Palmer-Brown as the best option at RCB. Some would say, “but he plays in Austria”. But the Austrian Bundesliga is ranked, by UEFA, as on par with Holland and Portugal and Palmer-Brown is consistently making Team of the Week and dominating his games. Any striker option is also a Tier 3 option. Maybe Sargent leads Bremen back to mid-table, maybe not. I’d go with him based on potential. But it will depend on how Berhalter wants the 9 to play.
What’s Next for USMNT Tier Improvements
But does it really matter where these players play at? It does seem to. Empirical studies have shown that the national teams with the most Champions League players do the best, on average, at the World Cup. In 3 short years (ok, very long and grueling years for USMNT fans and just in general), the USA has gone from one Tier 1 player to six. If in three more years we can get to 12, and possibly 15 by 2026, we will have a legitimate shot at winning the World Cup as the home team.
The big wet blanket is that Covid-19 has cancelled every game this year. If we ever get to see this team play again, it is going to be fun! What do you think of the USMNT Tier Improvements?
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