Why the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team Has Been on the Decline

A lesson from macroeconomics.

USA's Matt Besler sits on the field in dejection after losing to Trinidad and Tobago 2–1 in a qualifier match on Oct. 10.
USA’s Matt Besler sits on the field in dejection after losing to Trinidad and Tobago 2–1 in a qualifier match on Oct. 10. Annalicia Caruth/AFP/Getty Images

This piece is excerpted from the 2018 World Cup edition of Soccernomics: Why England Loses; Why Germany, Spain, and France Win; and Why One Day Japan, Iraq, and the United States Will Become Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, published by Nation Books.

For any self-respecting soccer nation, failure to qualify for the World Cup is a national disaster. Ask the Italians, the Dutch, the Ivorians, or the Chileans, all of whom will be missing in Russia. The fact that the failure of the U.S. men’s national team was similarly deemed a crisis for the national game, from the head of the federation who chose not to run for re-election to everyday fans on websites everywhere berating the team’s failure to score the needed goals in Trinidad and Tobago, is actually a sign that the U.S. has arrived. With a dominant women’s national team, a major league with 23 teams claiming the seventh-highest average attendance in the world and wall-to-wall soccer from across the globe on TV, the U.S. is now adopting a ritual familiar around the globe: wild expectations of World Cup success followed by sack-cloth and ashes when confronted with failure (only the ever successful Germans manage to avoid this fate).

The post-mortem since the 2–1 defeat on Oct. 10, 2017 has been largely premised on the belief that the U.S. always ought to qualify for the World Cup, and indeed they did for every edition from 1990 until 2014. A longer review of the record suggests that the USMNT made fairly steady progress in the world game from the 1960s onward. The nadir for “Team USA” was the post-war period up to 1960. This coincided with the peak of American dominance as a superpower. It might sound odd that the world’s mightiest country was such a mouse at soccer back then, but in fact for most of these years the U.S. felt little need to measure itself against other countries. It had its own games. Prewar, an American team staffed largely with recent immigrants had played fairly often against Europeans and South Americans, but after the war the number of games slumped.

The table below shows that from the 1970s, the U.S. grew more successful as it grew more interested in soccer. It reports the men’s national team’s win percentage, decade by decade (counting a tie as half a win). As the North American Soccer League took off, the national team began playing more often. Things kept getting better in the 1980s (when the U.S. started playing more against South Americans), and stayed stable in the 1990s when the country returned to World Cups. American soccer was coming out of isolation. It’s not that the U.S. started scoring more goals; rather, it gradually learned to concede fewer. Defense is always more mechanical than offence, so it appears that in these decades the U.S. was learning from the rest of the world, and from foreign coaches such as Bora Milutinovic. Yet when we calculated the world’s worst underachieving nations for the period 1980–2001, the U.S. still made our bottom 10 on earth. Given the country’s fabulous wealth and enormous population, it “should” have scored nearly three-quarters of a goal more per game than it did. Its win percentage in those 21 years (counting draws as half a win) was just 52 percent.

Then came the glory years. After losing all three games in the 1998 World Cup, the team leaped into the big time under coach Bruce Arena in the 2002 edition, making it to the quarterfinals and losing only 1–0 against the Germans. 2006 was more disappointing, but in the group stage the team did manage a 1–1 tie against Italy, who went on to win the trophy. Then in South Africa in 2010 Team USA topped its group ahead of England and went out to Ghana in a tight match. In 2014, the team made it out of a group of death including Germany, Portugal, and Ghana, and then lost 2–1 to an outstanding Belgian team. These heroics were reflected in all competitive games. In the 2000s the United States’ win percentage jumped to 66 percent, double what it was before 1960. Then from 2010 to 2016 the team declined somewhat even before that shock defeat to Trinidad and Tobago. The U.S. has never regained its peak FIFA ranking of No. 8 in 2005. The truth is that the U.S. has been experiencing a modest decline in performance for more than decade.

Chart: U.S. Men's National Soccer Team Record by Decade

Does the American experience fit into a broader pattern of developing soccer nations? Soccer was established as the principal sport of South American and European nations by the end of the First World War; most other nations only took to the game in earnest after the Second World War. Is it generally true of soccer’s developing nations that for a while they catch up, but then they stall before reaching the top? And if so, why?

Almost exactly the same question has long been asked about developing countries in a different context: national income. Is the gap between rich and poor countries narrowing or expanding? This research is often associated with the pioneering work of Robert Barro (of Harvard) and Pep Guardiola’s friend Xavier Sala-i-Martin (Columbia, and treasurer of FC Barcelona from 2004 to 2010). They reasoned that it’s easier for a poor country like Vietnam to grow its economy than a rich one like the U.S. That’s because much of what Vietnam has to do in the early stages is simply copy: If it imports the kind of computers and other machines that are already being used in the U.S., then its offices and factories will quickly become more productive.

By contrast, if the U.S. wants to grow it has to do new things, which is more difficult. Investors, knowing that, will be keener to invest their capital in Vietnam than in the U.S. All things being equal, Vietnam’s economy will then grow faster than that of the U.S. That’s catch-up—at least for countries going from poverty to middle-income.

There are possibly only two topics in this world about which we can gather data for every country over an extended period. Luckily, those topics happen to be national income and national soccer teams’ results. When a country becomes independent it joins the United Nations, sets up a central bank, collects taxes, and starts reporting national income accounts. It also joins FIFA to create a national soccer team. And if we want to study convergence, arguably soccer data is better, since we know the score for every game played, while measurements of national income are notoriously unreliable.

So what do the data tell us? On national income, there is evidence of convergence of incomes across many part of the world, notably Europe, Asia, and North America. This is good news since we want poorer countries to catch up and enjoy the same standards of living as rich countries. The bad news is that the global economic picture is extremely patchy. For much of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, African countries in particular actually fell further behind the developed world. War, political instability, underinvestment in health and education, and bad infrastructure held them back.

The picture for soccer convergence is different. Stefan, together with Melanie Krause from the University of Hamburg, looked for convergence in two national team statistics: average goal difference and average win percentage (counting draws as half a win) from 1950 to 2014, averaged over four-year World Cup cycles.

Soccernomics book cover
Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski

Their main finding: If your national team started off underperforming, it was likely to get better, regardless of when and where you were in the world. Standards across the world have slowly converged for many years. The poorest countries have improved fastest. FIFA deserves some credit for this. Just by staging World Cups in all age ranges, and running a regulated transfer market, it has helped the weak catch up. Of course, FIFA could have done so much more if only it had put all the billions it earned from World Cups into building facilities in poor countries.

Catch-up seems to be simpler in soccer than in macroeconomics. A developing country can improve its soccer just by copying the training and tactics used in the best countries. That’s easier when much of the know-how you need is broadcast worldwide every evening on TV. Migrant coaches also help do the copying. By contrast, copying whole economic systems is much harder and requires extraordinary coordination.

It probably also matters that so many people care deeply about their national soccer teams’ results, and that outcomes are highly visible. Meeting a clear target is often much simpler than meeting a complex one. A bad economy can always be blamed on someone else, but the national team is more accountable.

And whereas governments can nationalize or steal foreign investments, they can’t easily steal the returns on the skills of soccer players. (Some officials do try, as witness the quarrels between African federations and players over unpaid World Cup bonuses.) If a country’s soccer is dysfunctional, the best players will simply go abroad and learn new skills there.

But why do developing soccer nations stall before entirely catching up with the best countries? Melanie and Stefan have scoured the wider convergence literature for an explanation, and they think they have found a good candidate: the middle-income trap. The idea is that convergence from a low level of income is relatively simple: Invest, invest, invest. You just import or copy capital (machines) from more advanced countries. Capital makes people more productive. Almost regardless of the wider economic system, this prescription will work.

However, it only works up to a point. Once a certain minimum of catch-up has been achieved you need to become innovative. The greatest wealth ultimately goes to innovators (in today’s world, think Apple, Google, Facebook). A nation’s mindset therefore needs to change as national income increases. We see this today in many Asian economies where governments are encouraging more individualism in order to promote a more innovative economy. But it’s a hard shift to make.

The same argument applies in soccer. Teams from Africa, Asia, and North America have in recent decades managed to replicate some of the basic patterns of play developed in Europe and South America. In particular, the weak have gotten fit and learned to defend. They no longer lose 10–0. Yet they now appear caught in soccer’s equivalent of the middle-income trap. They play organized soccer, but the creative stars and the exciting new tactics (think of German forward pressing or Spanish tiki-taka) still come from the established nations.

Copyright 2018 by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski. From the 2018 World Cup edition of Soccernomics: Why England Loses; Why Germany, Spain, and France Win; and Why One Day Japan, Iraq, and the United States Will Become Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, published by Nation Books.