By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 16, 2013) US Soccer Players - The United States National Team’s winning streak now stands at 12 straight, the latest victory a comeback effort over Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo on Wednesday. Before that, Jurgen Klinsmann’s side rattled off eleven straight wins, starting with a 4-2 triumph over Germany in a friendly and continuing through two home qualifiers and a Gold Cup title. The streak played a significant role in pushing the United States up the FIFA rankings, a notoriously imperfect system that rewards teams for wins regardless of the importance of the competition or the score line.
In the August rankings, the US sits 19th, one spot above regional rival Mexico. It’s the first time the Americans rank higher than El Tri in more than two years. FIFA’s system leans heavily on results over the course of years, not months, so while the American rise above Mexico is not surprising, it did take longer than one might think. Though the USA improved mightily during 2013 and Mexico scrambled to get points of any kind, FIFA’s system was slow to push the better-performing team over the underachieving one. Even then, the sides are neck and next, separated by that singled place.
It’s a function of the rankings formula that it took this long for the two teams to switch places, and further, that the United States remains ranked as low as 19th.
Meanwhile, the United States is burning up the charts in an alternative rankings system known as Elo. The Elo formula’s original purpose was to rank international chess players. Tweaked slightly for the purposes of soccer, many consider the Elo system as more illustrative of current national team strength than the official FIFA system. Thanks in part to the comeback win over Bosnia and Herzegovina, the United States is currently ranked 10th. Mexico sits 21st.
Over the course of the past year, the US jumped sixteen places in the Elo rankings. Whether one system or the other is a more accurate picture of the Americans’ relative quality to the rest of the world is a matter of debate. Whatever the slippery truth, the higher relative ranking given by the Elo formula in 2013 is interesting in light of the way the system treated higher FIFA-ranked US teams in years past. Not only have the USMNT and El Tri switched places (in both systems), but the Americans are now more highly regarded by Elo than when the team was somewhat ludicrously as high as fourth in the previous incarnation of the FIFA rankings.
In April 2006, FIFA ranked the United States number four in the world.
That number four ranking was the US FIFA high water mark and came just a few months before a disastrous World Cup in Germany. The Bruce Arena-led team crashed out in the group stage with just one point and one goal to its name. In the same month that the Americans cracked the top five per FIFA, Elo ratings put the USMNT at 14. Because Elo ratings update after every international match day, it’s possible to track the drop of the Americans through the tournament in that system. By the time the USA lost to Ghana to end a decidedly poor tournament, their ranking dropped to 28. The corresponding drop in the FIFA rankings moved them to 15. By the end of the calendar year, the Americans ranked 31st in the FIFA charts.
FIFA overhauled its ranking system for 2007, taking out many of the complicated calculations it used between 1999 and 2006. There’s still a lot of math involved, but the bottom line outcome for both the United States and their CONCACAF brethren Mexico was a return to rankings reality. El Tri, too, cracked the top five in the lead up to Germany 2006. After the switch in formula, Mexico mostly bounced between 15 and 30, with two notable moments when they briefly made the top ten. The United States took the shift even more on the chin, mostly sitting ranked in the 20s and 30s in the intervening years. A ranking of 11 represents the American best since 2006, which they attained in 2009 after beating Spain in the Confederations Cup.
The “advantages” the Elo system has over the FIFA formula mostly boil down to taking things like venue (home, away, neutral) and margin of victory into account. Criticisms of FIFA’s approach often point to a failure to properly rate the importance of matches, in addition to leaving out those things Elo considers. Yet, here we are, with the USA’s Elo ranking nine places better than that of FIFA. Since the simplification of the FIFA formula post-2006, the US ranking in the two systems mostly trended together. For whatever reason, the significant differences between the two put the Americans in essentially the same place among the world’s teams.
Until now, that is, with the Americans on a world’s best 12-game winning streak. The Elo system clearly values that recent form more highly than the FIFA system, notable through the American rise and Mexico’s FIFA-like ranking of 21.
Again, it’s important to remember that both systems are relative. The American rank is not just dependent on their own performance, but on those of others.
So what does it mean? Essentially nothing. The Elo ranking should be a point of pride for the USA, but in the end, it’s the FIFA rankings that matter more. Those rankings will play a part in seeding for the World Cup, as per FIFA’s track record on that process. While the US run bodes well for the future, it’s unlikely they can do enough between now and December (when FIFA typically holds the draw) to push themselves into a position to be seeded. There’s too much mediocre history hanging over their heads. Under the current FIFA system, greater consistency over time is required to be among the world’s top-ranked teams.
The United States Men’s National Team might be the 19th best team in the world. It might be the 10th. More likely, they’re somewhere in-between, with their ability to beat any other team hinging on a host of factors that have nothing to do with their ranking in either system. For the time being, it’s probably enough that they’re winning.
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