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The USA is part of the (slow) globalization of soccer power

Ever four years the World Cup gives the world a glimpse at how the soccer map is changing. Here's a look at what the 2014 version has told us.

The United States' effort to top Europe fell short but the progress is clear
The United States' effort to top Europe fell short but the progress is clear
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The world of international soccer shifts as slowly as a glacier. South America and Europe, specifically Western and Southern Europe, dominate the soccer landscape and have since the beginning of soccer time.

Becoming a soccer power and moving this glacier is no easy process either, mostly because greatness in soccer is inextricably linked to certain macro conditions. The most important conditions are having a large amount of soccer playing experience and a rabid soccer culture. After that the population size and the wealth of the nation are key factors.

But very slowly the epicenter of soccer riches is giving way to the rest of the world. The tactics and training regimens from the best nations are spreading to the rest of the world through the improved understanding of the game, the ease of global communication and the export of quality coaches. The United States is part of the movement that is absorbing that knowledge and slowly building a culture for success.

Every four years the World Cup allows the fans to take a picture of the state of soccer beyond the borders of the Confederations. It may seem unfair to look at the changing world when half the teams play just three matches but this is the only sample we get. We'll have to look across a number of decades to truly get a sense of any underlying trends.

Since the number of spots allocated to continents are fixed by FIFA, the best place to look for global progress is the round of 16. Consider these observations about the round of 16 that indicate the soccer powers of Europe and South America might be ceding control to the rest of the world:

  • Three CONCACAF teams advanced to round of 16 for the first time (United States, Mexico and Costa Rica)
  • Two African nations advanced to the round of 16 for the first time (Nigeria, Algeria), and were a late penalty kick away from having three teams advance.
  • Five total teams advanced from nations not in South America or Europe - the first time that ever happened on South American or European soil. The previous high was three teams in 2006.
  • Europe had fewer than 50% of their teams advance to the round of 16 for the second consecutive World Cup - the first and second time that ever happened. Their previous low since 1982 was 60% in 2002.
  • The United States advanced to the round of 16 in two consecutive World Cups for the first time.
  • The United States has made it to the knockout stages three of the last four World Cups. These are the only other teams that can make that claim: Argentina, Brazil, England, Germany, Netherlands, Mexico and Spain. Not bad company.
  • South America has actually been able to maintain their position through the round of 16. In five World Cup starting in 1978, South America advanced 15 of 19 entrants to the 2ndround, a 79 percent advance rate. In the following five World Cups ending in 2014, South America advanced 19 of 25 teams, a 76 percent rate.
Here's a table of how advancement to the round of 16 has changed over the last 10 World Cups.

Percent of teams advancing to World Cup 2nd Round
1978-1994 1998-2014
South America 79% 76%
Europe 69% 59%
Other Confederations 21% 32%

While there clearly appears to be a shift when it comes to the round of 16, the rest of the world has been unable to crack the quarterfinals. South America and Europe still rule. Costa Rica's run was very rare indeed.

To take a fair look at the trends in quarterfinals the first four World Cups need to be discarded. Only starting in 1954 did it take more than 1 win to reach what we would consider a quarterfinal today.

Consider these results from World Cup quarterfinals:

  • 132 teams have reached the quarterfinals since 1954. Only nine of them have come from teams outside of South America or Europe.
  • When the World Cup is hosted by a South American or European nation the results are worse for other countries. Only 3 of the 92 teams that have advanced to the quarterfinal are from outside those two continents.
  • Costa Rica joined Cameroon from 1990 and North Korea from 1966 as the only three countries not from South America or Europe to reach the quarterfinals hosted in a South American or European country.
  • Of the 40 remaining quarterfinal teams, just six have been from outside South America or Europe. The United States, South Korea (when the host), Mexico (twice when the host), Senegal and Ghana are the teams that accomplished the feat.
  • That's right. Outside of South American and European teams, only the United States (2002), Senegal, Cameroon, North Korea and now Costa Rica have reached the quarterfinals when playing outside of their home continent. That's one team every 3 World Cups or 12 years.

While the rest of the world seems to be making headway to the round of 16 at the expense of Europe, there is still a large gap in getting to the quarterfinal. The United States fell just short of this glory yet again.

Everyone knows the United States has the population and the wealth to compete with South America and Europe. What's missing is the experience and the soccer culture that drive so much success for the soccer powers. Jurgen Klinsmann knows this as he begins to prepare for the next cycle.

The good news is there are plenty of difficult tests and experiences on the horizon for the USMNT. Fans will not have to wait four years to measure progress.

Next summer will be the Gold Cup where a United States win can lock down a trip to the Confederations Cup in 2017.

The following summer the United States will be able to compare themselves with perhaps the world's strongest soccer continent as the Copa America will come to the U.S. in 2016. South America and some CONCACAF countries, including the United States and Mexico, will all compete for the elite trophy.

The United States will have another Gold Cup in 2017 and either a play-in tie or an invite to the Confederations Cup, where they could get one more global test.

And then hopefully the team qualifies for the World Cup and represents CONCACAF in Russia in 2018.

We've got four more years for soccer's global warming to melt the glacier that is global soccer. Enjoy the slow ride and pray to the soccer gods for warmer weather.