The roster U.S. Soccer announced for the first USMNT game in 2020 consisted of 22 players. The roster was missing most of our players playing abroad, like Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams as well as some seasoned players like Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore in MLS. The roster was mainly made up of young players playing here at MLS.
The choice of a roster is definitely an objective process made by the head coach and staff, but also there will be a lot criticism for players not included as well as those selected. This is the nature of the beast. The young players go through layers of a selection and scouting process and definitely represent some of the best men's players of the country. It is very probable that selection and scouting process might miss some players who are as skillful and talented as the ones on the roster. Let us not forget that this is a huge country and the resources of the federation are limited. Also there are a big amount of players who do not register with U.S. Soccer due to various reasons.
The question is what are the various factors and dimensions that make up the best male players in our soccer landscape. Finding this out might help us with our selection and scouting processes. There had been two studies carried out in the USA, one regarding the socio-economic status of USMNT players and the other the geographic distribution of professional players who represent our resource for the USMNT.
The first one is a study by journalist Roger Bennett and University of Chicago economics professor Greg Kaplan of 2015 comparing the background of each U.S. men’s soccer national team member from 1993 to 2014 with every NBA All-Star and NFL Pro Bowl player over the same period. Socio-economic data from the players’ hometown zip codes were compared. The study found the soccer players came from communities that had higher incomes, education and employment rankings, and were whiter than the U.S. average. The NBA and NFL players came from communities that ranked lower than average on those same indicators. The USMNTs of 1993 through 2014 might be less diverse than the one in 2020 having more Latinos and African-Americans on the roster. Since Bennett and Kaplan’s report was never published, we do not know what rosters they took as the source for their study.
There is another more recent study (Jamie Hill February 2019). This study talks about the geographical distribution of elite male players namely players who were developed by the USA youth development system and play on professional clubs.
Although the geographical distribution of elite players is a good indicator where to look at for talent geographically, it also reflects the geographical areas and communities in which scouting takes place. It does not address the problem of where geographically the system might be missing talented players.
I decided to do a small and simple multi-dimensional analysis of the current USMNT roster. The table has eight columns associated with each player.
I had one more column named “parent” that I decided to remove later on. The fact that Cruyff (Johann / Jordi), Weah (George / Timothy), Hagi (Gheorghe / Ianis) and Reyna (Claudio / Gio) have talented sons playing or have played at a high level cannot be a coincidence. It cannot be purely explained by chromosomes. The list can be expanded easily. Both of Pulisic’s parents are soccer players and his father is also a soccer coach. I believe that although the genes might play an important role in these cases, being raised and immersed in a dense soccer environment is a very important factor in developing top-level soccer players. In other words, I believe in Tom Byer’s “soccer starts at home” philosophy. So I wanted to see what percentage of the parents of the players on the roster had a parent or parents who were involved personally with soccer. The data was inconclusive although I had three cases where the father was involved intensively with soccer; so I decided to remove the “parent” column.
We can start with the “plays for” column. All players play for MLS with the exception of three. Uly Llanez plays for the Wolfsburg U19s and Christian Cappis for Hobro IK playing in the Danish Super League. Bryang Kayo does not currently play for a professional team. He is expected to go to Wolfsburg when he turns 18.
Let us have a look at the age column. The average age of the roster is 23.59, which is less than the average of the youngest team in the 2018 World Cup, namely Nigeria, which has an average age of 24.9. Actually the average age of all teams that qualified for the World Cup in Russia was 27.4. The three goalkeepers who were on the roster have an average age of 29 –- higher than the average age of the roster - since goalkeeping is like wine -- it gets better with age. If we exclude the goalkeepers, the average age goes down to 22.72 which is very low for a MNT. The average age of 23.59 is very understandable since Gregg Berhalter is trying to create a new USMNT that will be competitive in the years to come. Actually, this is more like a U23 team with some experienced players. An eye on Olympic qualifying in March was an important factor in the selection of the team. Since this team represents the future of our MNT, it is worth analyzing the roster via other dimensions.
California heads up the “home state” column with six players followed by Texas with three players. Since California and Texas are the most populated state, this column has no surprises.
Seventeen players (77%) played on a DA team during their development. The five who did not play for a DA team have an average age of 28, which is considerably higher than the roster average age of 23.59. Since the DAs have been formed in 2007, the fact that older players are not DA products is not surprising.
It is obvious that the younger players are coming through the DA path. On the other hand, one can also claim that since most of the scouting is focused on the DA teams that is why we have such a high number of DA developed players on the roster. The question to ask is: Are we just scouting the DA games and are we leaving out any talent because they cannot or will not play for a DA team?
This roster is more diverse than comparable rosters of ten or more years ago. There are seven African-Americans (32%), six Latinos (27%) and nine Whites (41%) on the roster. Of the 13 African-Americans and Latinos, one of them is a first-generation immigrant (Jesus Ferreira) and 10 of them are second-generation immigrants (parents born abroad). Arriola’s grandparents immigrated from Mexico making him a third generation immigrant. Reggie Cannon is the only African-American on the roster who is not a recent immigrant. This is yet another proof that urban African-Americans do not play soccer or have the passion for the game as much as the African-Americans who are recent immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean Islands.
It is obvious that having parents who grew up immersed in a soccer culture bring another dimension to developing elite players. Especially the fathers who have a great passion and understanding of our game are very important factors in directing their sons into soccer.
If you now look at the column that is labeled “College Soccer,” you will see that 11 of the players on the roster (50%) never played college in college. After high school, they chose or have already chosen to become a pro soccer player. Only three finished four years of college (Aaron Long, Matt Turner and Chase Gasper). What is interesting is that five out of six Latinos chose not to play in college and the remaining one played for one year. There are pros and cons of playing college soccer, but it is clear that more and more players are opting not to play college soccer. This might be the subject of another article.
What results does our analysis provide us with in developing USMNT quality players in our soccer landscape?
I believe those are the three results that I derived from analyzing the various dimensions of our current MNT roster. You can do your own analysis and come out with your own results…. Numbers do not lie.
Ahmet Guvener (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former Secretary General and the Chief Soccer Officer of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Georgetown, TX.