The USMNT will unfortunately not be participating in the 2018 World Cup, meaning they will not be participating in a major international tournament until the Summer of 2020. Besides the Gold Cup, that summer they also could potentially participate in the Tokyo Olympics, if they qualify.
Former Men’s National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann placed a huge emphasis on qualifying for the Olympics, and failed both times during his tenure. Part of his fall from glory and subsequent firing was due to these failures. He really wanted to qualify and made it abundantly clear to anyone who would listen. In order to make his dreams a reality, Klinsmann made the USMNT U-23 team more official by appointing his assistant Andi Herzog, one of his top lieutenants, as coach, while also making it a full time team for the first time in USMNT history.
That strategy failed, but now it inspired me to examine if qualifying for the Olympics actually helps the national team down the line. Based on Jurgen’s comments, one would think it would help, but according to my research it didn’t really have an effect on the future of the national team. Teams that didn’t qualify for the Olympics actually had a slightly higher Elo Rating in the future than those who did qualify. In fact, of the teams that did qualify, the ones who finished in higher places didn’t see a long term increase in Elo Rating either. I selected Elo Rating over FIFA’s ranking, and other statistics, as a statistic to measure national team success because it is the most accurate at predicting results, according to a study done by the University of Amsterdam. In addition, FIFA is converting to an Elo based systems, which highlights that Elo is a superior method of measuring national team success.
If most teams don’t see benefits from placing higher in the Olympics, is it worth the effort? That question is crucial to new General Manager Earnie Stewart because he would be forced to call players away from their club teams during qualifying, which could jeopardize their standing at that club and impede their development.
Olympic finish does not predict Elo rating
I selected the times when the players from the Olympics would have an effect on the national team. For instance, the Argentina team that took first place in the 2008 Olympics featured many of their current stars, like Leo Messi, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, and more.
The analysis starts in 1992 because that was the first Olympics where they had the under-23 rule in effect. There are 16 teams at every Olympics. One caveat to remember is not the best U23 players are at the tournament because they overlap with the Euros and Copa America. Also, during qualifying, players don’t have to be released for the tournament, so the deepest teams are the ones who qualify for the World Cup, not the top heavy ones. The 2016 Olympics was excluded for the data set because no World Cup has occurred since this tournament. Although, the champion of that tournament, Brazil, is also one of the favorites at the 2018 World Cup featuring players who appeared in the Olympics, like Neymar and Gabriel Jesus. This analysis will give us a solid idea of whether in the modern era.
These three scatter plots all show little to moderate correlation (R=.34, .41, .36) between the Elo Rating and Olympic Finish. The statistical measure of the relationship between a cause (independent variable) and an effect (dependent variable), called “R”. The plot with the highest correlation of the three is the 6 years after the Olympics, which makes sense because that is when the players from the Olympics would be in their prime.
The scatter plots also have low “R2” or “R Squared”. “R2” is a statistical measure of how often one variable changes when another variable varies. In this case, the R2 values were .12,.17, and .13 leaving almost 70%-80% of the change in the variable accounted for by other factors. In short, the Olympic Finish and Elo Rating later down the line, no matter the year, are statistically unrelated or have minimal connection, meaning at the Olympics finish isn’t a huge deal.
These statistical analyses are backed up by examining the changes in Elo Rating compared to the year of the Olympics as you move further and further from then. Theoretically, the teams that finish higher would have their players move on to the senior team and improve it. But, that isn’t really the case. The net change is all over the place and really depends on the team. If the team isn’t that good at the time, they usually improve it, but if it is already good the team’s Elo Rating usually decreases or stays the same. So, while one might assume that the higher placing teams at the Olympics improve their national team’s Elo ratings, that theory is mostly false.
Olympic qualification does not predict Elo rating either
In order to conduct this analysis, I created two data sets. The first data set was comprised of all the teams who made the Olympics since 1992, when the Olympics first implemented their U23 rules for soccer, and their national team Elo Ratings down the line. The 2016 Olympics were excluded for the data set because no World Cup has occurred since this tournament. The other data set was made up of all the teams who didn’t qualify for the Olympics who made it to the second to last round of qualifying, which averaged out to about 70 teams per year. Narrowing down the teams was done to ensure that the national teams who were part of the second data set were close to those who made it to the Olympics. In both cases, I compared the Elo Rating of the year they made, or didn’t make, the Olympics to their post-World Cup Elo Rating after 2 years, 6 years, and 10 years.
The Elo Ratings of the national teams who made the Olympics averaged about 1700, while the teams who did’t averaged about 1600. The standard deviation, used to measure the amount of variation, of both data sets was pretty high, meaning that the difference between the two data sets wasn’t huge. From those aforementioned 70 teams every year the Olympics occurred, 16 were selected randomly using a function in the computer program “R”, based on their region. For instance, in 1992 four UEFA teams made it to the Olympics, so four were selected for those who didn’t qualify.
In order to visualize the data, I used a box and whisker plot because those are good for large data sets, like in this situation. A box and whisker plot highlights five statistics: minimum, first quartile, median, third quartile, and maximum. For more on box and whisker plots, this article from Khan Academy is informative.
These graphs illustrate the negligible difference between the change in Elo Rating of teams who did qualify, and those who didn’t. For example, Spain didn’t make the 2004 Olympics and their net change, after 10 years Elo Rating was 27. In contrast, Italy made those same Olympics, taking home bronze medals, but their Elo Rating’s net change was -57. This minuscule difference could be for a variety of reasons. First, Olympic teams are composed of players who are mainly fringe players, not usually with the full national team or starters for big clubs. So, they probably won’t go on to make a huge impact for the national team. Second, youth development is hard. A lot of players aren’t going to make it and be stars because there are only a few players who have the right combination of talent, skill, and luck.
Even if the United States does end up qualifying for the Olympics, the evidence shows that finishing higher in the Olympics won’t necessarily improve their long-term success. The players who will help boost senior national team success, like Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie if they stay on track, will most certainly not be released for qualifying and may be needed with the senior team for the summer of 2020. Other ways to boost Elo Rating is winning matches on road, winning by a large matches, or beating good teams. All these are possible by having a deep and talented pool of players to choose from. This means the US will end up relying on fringe, domestic players who may never make a serious impact on the senior national team. That is totally fine, but it is important to be realistic about expectations of this tournament.
Jurgen Klinsmann wasn’t necessarily wrong to place emphasis on developing the 20-23 age group in the United States. The United States has trouble developing that age range. But the data seems to show us that the Olympics don’t really improve your team. What will really help that group is more investment in the lower leagues, where players can develop in a professional environment, or in college, where they can develop non-soccer skills. So, U.S. Soccer could grow the game by incentivizing expansion, while also giving more opportunities for people to watch and play professional soccer.