USMNT: Is US Soccer's Winning Streak for Real, or Just a Mirage?

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USMNT: Is US Soccer's Winning Streak for Real, or Just a Mirage?
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Who imagined that a full international friendly against the Germans would be remembered for anything more than an entertaining 4-3 American victory?

U.S. Soccer kicked off its centennial celebration with a match against coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s fellow Deutschen—that game now marks the beginning of a remarkable run of form for the U.S. Men’s National Team.

No United States national team won more than seven consecutive games during the first 99 years of U.S. Soccer. In the summer of the 100th year, Klinsmann’s teams shattered that record and currently sit on 10 consecutive wins.

If the Nats hoist their fifth Gold Cup on Saturday, the 100-year record will increase to 11 games.

What makes this winning streak even more remarkable is that it comes immediately on the heels of a Sporting News story citing anonymous sources claiming that Klinsmann’s entire program was in disarray and nearing critical mass for a catastrophic meltdown.

As late as May 29th, four days before the win over Germany and the same day as the American’s last defeat against the Belgians, critics screeched about Klinsmann’s use of 26 different lineups in 26 different games.

Interestingly, Klinsmann used nine different lineups during the 10-game surge, running out the same lineups only for the Germany and Jamaica matches—one a “meaningless” friendly and the other a World Cup qualifier.

Former USMNT star turned expert critic Alexi Lalas piled his porn ‘tache on the dung heap when he told Big Lead Sports: "The jury is still out to whether he has changed anything to how this team plays. There’s a legitimate argument to whether the emperor has clothes or not."

Thankfully, it’s Lalas’ upper lip that’s naked now.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

 

Statistical Outlier

One thing is certain about the winning streak—it is a statistical anomaly, or what us stat geeks call an “outlier.”

Let’s assume that the USMNT will win 76 percent of its games against Gold Cup-level competition, which is the Nats’ win percentage over all 11 Gold Cup tournaments. Let us further assume that this is the probability of the USMNT winning any game it plays. This means that the probability of winning 10 games in a row is .76 raised to the tenth power, or 6.4 percent.  

Of course, the probability of the USMNT winning a World Cup qualifier is much lower than the probability of winning a Gold Cup game—60 percent in the 2009 Hex and 67 percent for Klinsmann in the current World Cup cycle.

If you factor in these odds, the probability of the USMNT winning four matches against World Cup-qualifying competition (throw the Germany friendly in here) and winning six matches against Gold Cup competition (including the Guatemala friendly), the probability of the 10-game winning streak falls to just under three percent.

Using past performance as a predictor of future performance, the Nats’ 10-game winning streak is, statistically speaking, a rare bird indeed.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

 

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Statistics, of course, can be used to tell stories in many different ways. Another way of looking at the recent success is to compare the stats of the current American squads to that of past national teams.

If the current Klinsmann squads are objectively better than past U.S. teams, this should be obvious in the team’s statistics. If the current team is simply benefitting from an inordinate number of game-changing events (i.e., “lucky breaks"), something that does happen in sports, then the current team’s statistics should be more similar to those of past teams.

In 55 previous Gold Cup games, the U.S. scored 102 goals while allowing 40, a ratio of 2.55 goals for to every goal against. Over the five recent Gold Cup games, the Nats scored 19 goals while allowing four, a ratio of 4.75 goals for to every goal against—a substantially significant difference.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Over the 10-game win streak, the U.S. is scoring at a rate 4.25 times greater than their opponents (34 GF, 8 GA). Prior to the Germany game, Klinsmann’s teams were only outscoring their opponents by a ratio of 1.23 to 1.0 (32 GF, 26 GA).

It’s not just the inflated numbers of the current Gold Cup squad that are substantively better. The roster that played Germany and three subsequent World Cup qualifiers posted a goals ratio of 2.25 to 1.0, a full goal per game better than past Klinsmann squads.

Squad Goals For Goals Against Ratio GF:GA
Win-Streak 34 8

4.25:1

Pre-Streak 32 26

1.23:1

Past Gold Cups 102 40

2.55:1

Current Gold Cup 19 4

4.75:1

Current WCQ 9 4 2.25:1

Goals do not tell the whole story. Klinsmann came into the job promising that he would introduce a more possession-oriented and attacking style of soccer. The current win-streak squads are possessing the ball 62 percent of the game and generating 17 shots, nearly eight of those on frame, per game.

In the 26 games prior to the current win streak, the U.S. averaged 55.5 percent possession and 11.5 shots with 3.5 on frame. These 26 games are a mixture of opponents, so if we just look at the CONCACAF teams, the U.S. was averaging 59.4 percent possession with 11 shots and 3.3 on target before the Germany game compared to 64.3 percent possession with 17 shots and 7.8 on target after that game.

Actually, if we really want to make sure we’re comparing Adidas to Nike, we can pull Mexico out of the CONCACAF data so that only non-Mexico CONCACAF opponents are in each set of data. In this case, the time of possession is similar (64.2 percent during the streak, 63.9 percent before), but the Americans are generating far more offense with that possession (17.1 shots/7.7 on target during the streak, 12.2 shots/3.5 on target before).

Squad Possession % Shots on Goal Shots on Target

Win-Streak

62 17 7.7

Pre-Win

55.5 11.5 3.5

CONCACAF

Win-Streak

64.3 17.1 7.8

CONCACAF

Pre-Win

59.4 11 3.3

Non-Mexico

CONCACAF

Pre-Win

63.4 12.2 3.5

Clearly, the Nats are performing objectively better during the current win streak, and that fact is not the result of a weaker schedule. More to the point, the U.S. is increasingly playing to the style that Klinsmann promised when he took the reins of the USMNT.

George Frey/Getty Images

 

Not a Mirage

So no, USMNT fans, the Nats current winning streak is not a mirage. You are not hallucinating and it is not the result of dumb luck.

It might be argued that nine of the 10 wins have come against weaker CONCACAF opponents, but the U.S. has been playing in CONCACAF since the federation’s inception in 1961 and have not put together a winning streak like this. In fact, USMNT fans should recall that the national team usually has a nasty habit of playing down to the level of its opponent, a custom blissfully absent over this run of games.

It may be this subjective observation more than any other argument that should convince us that these results are the real deal. The U.S. is consistently dominating the CONCACAF minnows with flair and finish rather than rumbling and stumbling through games and winning simply on physical domination.

This is what Klinsmann promised us and even his critics, including yours truly, must admit that the emperor is weaving himself a fine set of clothes.

Does Jurgen Klinsmann deserve credit for the USMNT 10-game winning streak?

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