When the United States roster for the September qualifiers was announced, there were a few people who weren't super happy about some of the names on that list. Ok, it was actually more than just a few people. One of the big criticisms was this idea that the team was chock full of old players. So, let's tease that out a bit. Is the USMNT getting to be a bit old?
Oh, you expected me to actually back that up with some data or something? Um, OK, then. Just be warned, there are graphs incoming.
I went ahead and decided to take a look at the ages of the players and figure out how they were distributed. What I did was take a player's age and, to simplify the process, drop their birthdate. As a result, the age distribution is approximate comparison. Indeed, by the time of publication, Jorge Villafana will have turned 28 (Happy Birthday!), with Christian Pulisic set to turn 19 on Monday. Nonetheless, this process should give us a general understanding of the age breakdown of the team. With this process, I found that, on average, the squad was 28.73 years old. The median age (middle point) was 29. That means that about half the squad is in their 30s. To visualize how the age range breaks down, I made this graph that shows the number of players at each respective age.
As you can see, there really is a lot of players in their 30s. We've got a few outliers out at 38, and then Pulisic at 18. The vast majority of the squad sits in a cluster between 27 and 35. The biggest peaks are at a couple of different ranges, with 22, 27, and 30 all sitting at 4 players.
So, OK, there really are a lot of old players. How did this happen? Well, it's useful to compare with the team that went to the World Cup. I took that squad (which only had 23 players), corrected the ages to September, and did the breakdown. That squad had an average age of 27.52, with a median of 27. I took the numbers and made the same graph and overlaid it in red over the graph from the present team so that we can see the differences.
With this set up, the graph can be a bit cluttered and tricky to tease out clear trends. So, instead of looking at the whole thing overall, let's focus on a few specific points. You can see that there were 2 players who were 35 in 2014, and 2 who are 38 today. Similarly, there were 4 players who were 27 three years ago, and 4 players who are 30 today. Two players who were 31, and, on this current team, 2 players who are 34. And with that, I am done being patronizing. The team is older because three years past and the squad has changed very little. The same players who were called up for the World Cup are still showing up on the national team. Indeed, there are only 9 players who were at the World Cup who got left off this 26 man roster: Timothy Chandler, DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks, Mix Diskerud, Jermaine Jones, Brad Davis, Kyle Beckerman, Julian Green, and Aron Jóhansson. Yedlin and Brooks almost certainly would have been on this team had they been healthy. Chandler misses out due to some combination of history of injury, aversion to flying, and a history of atrocious performances in a national team kit. Beckerman, Jones, and Davis got old(er) and appear to have been phased out of the team, with Davis retiring entirely.
Presumably, the ideal roster breakdown would feature mostly players who are 26-29, the age range where players are expected to be established professionals and at the peak of their playing prowess. As you move away from that core age, we should see fewer and fewer players, with only a handful of players in their early 20s being phased into the squad, and a handful in their mid 30s being phased out. So, why doesn't the US roster look like that?
Well, let's take the oldest two players. At 38, Tim Howard and Nick Rimando are reaching the end of their careers. Brad Guzan at 33, is also on the older side for the team. They are still with the national team for two reasons. To begin with, Klinsmann relied on Guzan, with Rimando as backup, while Howard was out on sabbatical. When Howard came back, the two split time. When Arena came in, he did essentially the same thing, only with a preference for Howard (Guzan still played in the last match v. Honduras.) Rimando, as the third keeper, feels like Arena reaching for another veteran to round out the squad. It's very obvious that the USMNT hasn't done what they need to do to integrate the next generation of keepers. It's very apparent that the team will have to resolve who steps up to the national team after the World Cup. The fact that the team is so old at goalkeeper actually pulls the average of the squad up. Without the keepers, the squad drops almost a whole year, down to 27.74.
That still leaves the rest of the team to sort out. Why are there so many players above 30, instead of in their late 20s? Let's start with coaching. After the World Cup, Klinsmann actually did rather little to shake up who was part of the team. Besler, Cameron, Bradley, and Dempsey, among others, stayed with the team, even as they got older. Arena, with his instincts/insistence towards veterans, did very little to mess with the squad, especially given the need to get qualifying results in such short time. Of the 23 players at the World Cup, 14 are on this 26-man roster. That's not a whole lot of change.
There's also an issue with the young players from 3 years ago. None of the World Cup players who were 23 or younger are with this squad. Of the five, Brooks and Yedlin are injured. But Green, Diskerud, and Jóhansson have not panned out. Those three players are 23, and 26 for the later two. If you might notice, there's only one player on the current roster who is between 23 and 26 years of age. And this doesn't just go for those three players. In general, that age group has not performed as well as we hoped. Here's a screenshot from the U-23 team's wikipedia page.
The U-23 players who fell short for the 2012 World Cup would be between 26 and 28 at this point. The players who fell short for the 2016 World Cup (and aged out) would be 24-25. And that just so nicely explains the relative gap for the age groupings for 24-28, with only 7 players in there at all. Of that 2012 Olympic team, only Villafaña is on the full senior team at this point. The 2016 Olympic team is a bit younger, with more players with more senior experience, so there's a bit of hope there, yet. But the point still stands, the youth teams failed to provide a pipeline for senior talent.
The high age for the national team further seems to demonstrate the idea that it takes longer for players to go through college, be identified, find a place where they are effective on the field at the professional level, and solidify themselves as full club (and then international) starters. Two of the players in the 27 age group, Villafaña and Matt Hedges, only have a limited number of caps at this point. Jozy Altidore, who, in contrast, was integrated into the team as a teenager under Bob Bradley, has over 100 appearances over a 10-year national team career. Darlington Nagbe, the fourth name in the group, only became eligible for the team last year. There's a handful of names who are in that 24-27 group who could have some more national team appearances. Gyasi Zardes, Dom Dwyer, Juan Agudelo, Kelyn Rowe, Perry Kitchen, Sebastian Lletget, and Bill Hamid, will probably see more call ups. However, of the lot, only a few seem very likely to end up as starters. Lletget seems to have the most realistic opportunity, perhaps followed by Hamid. Everyone else is playing for a backup spot, which is concerning given that these are the players who are hitting their peaks.
By now, it feels like a bit of an after thought, but we still need to ask, is this a problem? Probably not.
What? That wasn't what you were expecting?
I did a comparison between the USMNT and Costa Rica (in bright red), which you can see graphed below. Costa Rica really is a bit younger, averaging at 26.5. That mean is a good 2 years below the USMNT, which is a meaningful difference. But their median age is 28, just a year below the US.
Costa Rica has a lot of players grouped into that 27-29 age range, that sort of sweet spot for players in their prime. But the actual difference doesn't actually seem to be that much. The US has 5 players that are older than the oldest Costa Rican player, but also 5 players younger than Costa Rica's youngest. The USMNT is a little tilted in the middle towards the 30s, but it doesn't seem to be a very convincingly large difference to me. The small difference in median age matches that. Now, this is just one example. I didn't take the time to look at what every national team looked like, simply because that would take a very, very long time. But still, the difference here doesn't seem that big.
In the short term, what we need to be concerned about is whether the players can play at a high level for the rest of qualifying and the World Cup. Getting older can mean that players lose a step, get injured easier, and have a hard time recovering. But the effects of age are going to be different for different players. In truth, some players don't necessarily decline very much until they get into their mid-30s.
In addition, certain positions tend to age better than others. Goalkeeper is the obvious one, but defenders, particularly center backs, also age rather gracefully. Looking particularly at Cameron, Besler, and Bradley, I think that set of player will be OK going forward. I get the impression the USMNT is also moving past Dempsey and Wondolowski. Wondo didn't get a single minute of play in the last round of qualifiers, while Dempsey has increasingly become a substitute. It's possible that some players could lose a bit too much of their dynamism ahead of the World Cup. Indeed, we've seen players like Jermaine Jones fall away from the national team for precisely this reason. But there's a good chance that the current crop will be able to perform well come next June.
Rosters also change. What we saw this past month won't be the same as what we see at the World Cup if we get through qualifying. Names like Wondo are likely not going to be there, simply because World Cup rosters allow 3 fewer players. Other depth players, chiefly Nick Rimando, will likely be swapped out for an up-and-comer. Players who do lose a step and need a break, most likely the ageless DeMarcus Beasley but possibly also Howard, will likely be replaced. The 6 months between the end of qualifying and the tournament is a lot of time to experiment and figure things out. That time span also includes one last January camp. In the meanwhile, players improve, find form, and challenge for spots. While some players, like Zusi and McCarty, may stay as depth pieces or Arena's security blankets, I think most will be there as genuinely the best the USMNT has right now. And, looking at the calibre of most of the expected players, I don't find that very disappointing.
In the long term, I'm also not particularly concerned. I mentioned how old our goalkeepers are earlier. Well, it seems there's a good half-dozen players getting playing time and growing, trying to break into the national team spot. It seems like the Home Grown Player rule is starting to produce high quality American talent. We can expect Kellyn Acosta, DeAndre Yedlin, Jordan Morris, and Cristian Roldan to be solid players for the national team going forward. You can add Matt Miazga and Paul Arrioloa to the list of promising players, as well. The youth players behind them also seem particularly strong. The U-20s just made a good run to the quarterfinals of this year's U-20 World Cup. If you take a look at the squad, you'll see most of them already have become professionals. Names like Luca de la Torre, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Erik Palmer-Brown, Tyler Adams, and Josh Sargent are pretty exciting and bode well for the future.
What do you think? Am I looking at the situation without enough cynicism? Do we really have a crisis on our hands? Drop down in the comments and leave a Happy Birthday message for Villafaña and Pulisic, and any other thoughts you may have.