The United States had not qualified for the World Cup since 1950 when Paul Caliguiri scored an all-important goal in Port of Spain to defeat Trinidad & Tobago and secure a U.S. berth to the 1990 World Cup in Italy. In each of the past six World Cups (1990 through 2010), the performance of the U.S. team has exhibited an obvious if not especially meaningful pattern: the team falters at the group stage in every other World Cup (1990, 1998, and 2006) and advances at least past the group stage in the subsequent tournament (1994, 2002, and 2010).
Will the 2014 U.S. team follow this pattern and suffer elimination at the group stage in Brazil? Unfortunately, this U.S. team bears several eerie similarities to the 1998 team, which finished the tournament dead last with three losses and a goal difference of -4, rather than say, the 2002 U.S. team, which genuinely outplayed the Germans in the quarterfinals and missed out on a trip to the semifinals because of a blatant handball on the goal line. While mostly inconsequential, the similarities between the 2014 team and the 1998 team are striking enough to be a bit disconcerting:
- Controversy surrounding the inclusion of dual citizens in the squad late in the World Cup cycle – As in the 1998 tournament when coach Steve Sampson added French-American David Regis, Jurgen Klinsmann has opted to include several dual nationals. Most controversially, Klinsmann named 18-year-old, German-American Julian Green to the roster whose first-team experience at the time of the decision was limited to a 58th-minute substitute appearance for the U.S. in a friendly vs. Mexico and an 87th-minute substitute appearance for Bayern Munich in the Champions League. In other words, Klinsmann included a player on the roster who had just over a half an hour of cumulative first-team experience for club and country.
- Controversy surrounding the exclusion of a marquee player – Again, like 1998 when then captain John Harkes was surprisingly omitted from the roster, Klinsmann unceremoniously cut Landon Donovan—arguably the best player in U.S. soccer history—when the U.S. coach pared the roster down from 30 to 23. While the circumstances surrounding the dismissal of Harkes turned out to be quite salacious (details of an affair between Harkes and Wynalda’s wife surfaced over a decade after that World Cup), Donovan’s exclusion seems to be the end product of a tumultuous relationship with Klinsmann rather than a relationship with a teammate’s wife.
- Deployment of relatively unique tactics – In 1998, Steve Sampson utilized a 3-6-1 formation, which Matthew Doyle generously describes as “the first (and to date, only) truly revolutionary tactical innovation to come from American soccer.” Doyle’s description of the formation is wildly hyperbolic, as the formation is more aptly described as a fleeting tactical experiment that failed to yield success. While far less unorthodox than a 3-6-1, Klinsmann will likely field a diamond midfield rather than a 4-2-3-1 formation, which is expected to be the formation for many (if not most) of the sides in the 2014 World Cup.
- A difficult group that contains Germany – In 1998, the U.S., Germany, Yugoslavia, and Iran were drawn into Group F, and the 2014 U.S. team faces Germany, Portugal, and Ghana in Group G. While the 2014 group draw is likely more difficult than the 1998 draw, Germany and Yugoslavia were heavily favored to advance in 1998 just as Germany and Portugal are favored to advance in 2014. That said, the U.S. had a moderately difficult group in 2002 that included Portugal, and the U.S. managed to defeat Portugal and advance.
Are the similarities between the 2014 and 1998 teams cause for pessimism? Other than the difficulty of the group, I would argue probably not. I disagree with some of the roster decisions, especially Donovan’s omission, but, Michael Bradley aside, few individuals in the U.S. player pool stand out from one another. A diamond midfield, while interesting, isn’t particularly bizarre like a 3-6-1, and the U.S. team has looked steady in the formation in warm-up matches.
In the event of an exit at the group stage, the media will almost surely form a narrative about chemistry problems within the team based on conjecture and interviews with disgruntled players. For instance, after a short string of disappointing results during World Cup qualification, several players anonymously complained about “flagging faith in Klinsmann, his staff and his methods, along with the squad’s absence of harmony.” Of course, almost immediately after that article’s publication, Klinsmann’s disharmonious squad defeated Costa Rica in snowy conditions in Colorado and drew with Mexico at the intimidating Estadio Azteca. For the remainder of the 2013 calendar year, the U.S. team posted an impressive 16-3-2 record.
FiveThirtyEight gives the U.S. about a 35-percent chance of advancing past the group stage, while betting markets give the U.S. about a 27-percent chance. This is not to say that things within the control of the manager like tactics and personnel decisions don’t matter, but these decisions have somewhat limited influence on outcomes. If the U.S. team fails to advance past the group, the most likely, but more boring, explanation is simply that the U.S. is a good but not great team in an extremely difficult group.