USMNT Reverse Moneyball

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M'Baye Niang (left) and Mario Balotelli (right). (Photo: Icon Sport)
M’Baye Niang (left) and Mario Balotelli (right). (Photo: Icon Sport)

 

Throw the stats out the window because the United States Men’s National Team needs to start fielding the most talented and athletic players as soon as possible in order to close the gap with better soccer nations.

American soccer writers and fans need to adopt a Reverse Moneyball mentality, where statistics take a back seat to an examination of technical ability and athleticism.

Statistics, whether they are traditional statistics or newer and more revolutionary statistics, aren’t as important in soccer as they are in baseball.

In soccer, statistics don’t really show the following things very well: touch, ball control, vision, two-footed skill, quickness, speed, tackling ability, heading, recovery defense, crossing ability, mental toughness, coolness in front of the goal, and overall technical ability.

There are ways to calculate some of the criteria listed above, but this term, “Reverse Moneyball,” is a convenient way to describe placing a higher premium on the visual scouting of players’ technical ability and athleticism over statistics like club minutes and assists.

Reverse Moneyball is therefore the visual evaluation of the technical and athletic ability of players compared to the very best players in the world, and Reverse Moneyball is a somewhat incomplete simplification of what actual Moneyball or sabermetrics is.

If an American soccer player doesn’t display a soft first-touch, dexterity with both feet, good vision, competitive athleticism, and good overall technical ability, then that player shouldn’t be used by the USMNT because they won’t stand a chance against players such as Mario Balotelli, Neymar, Arturo Vidal, Marcelo, Thomas Müller, Paul Pogba, Thiago Silva, and Raphaël Varane.

Many of the best American soccer players play a brand of soccer that is above that which is present in MLS.

Most of the best American soccer players in MLS aren’t meshing well with teammates who want to play an inferior brand of soccer based on playing the ball wide and hitting crosses into the box, and this conflict affects the better players’ ability to succeed and play one-to-two touch soccer.

This MLS season, the ever-controversial Benny Feilhaber has once again been written off as an inconsistent player with poor statistics and even several games without playing time this season in MLS, which isn’t an elite league, thus making Feilhaber look even worse to his critics.

Nevertheless, Feilhaber’s MLS passing stats are quite good, which can be verified by looking at the Chalkboard feature on MLS’ official site.

This label of being inconsistent due to a lack of a certain number of assists and a low number of goals overlooks Feilhaber’s most important qualities: his ability to foster a rhythm of good passing amongst his teammates and his ability to unlock defenses with final balls.

When Feilhaber plays, he sets a tempo of one-to-two touch soccer, which causes his teammates to follow suit, and this quality has been on display in the 2007 Gold Cup, the 2007 Copa America, the 2009 Confederations Cup, and the 2010 World Cup.

A higher premium also needs to be placed on MLS players such as Juan Agudelo whose creativity, skill level, and athleticism is more along the lines of players like Clint Dempsey.

No statistic will even show a player’s ability to receive a ball in such a way as to turn away from the oncoming defender without being dispossessed, nor will any statistic ever show a player’s ability to calmly play the correct pass in fast-paced international games where the time that a player has on the ball is very limited.

Tossing the statistics out the window and really examining how American players’ technical ability and athleticism compares to the best players in the world is the first step to finding the best American players and throwing them into the international deep end, so the USMNT can start playing to win.

 

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