That's the way the ball bounces

How Luck Explains the U.S. National Team

Was the loss to Costa Rica poor play, bad luck, or a little of both? And how can the American squad alter their play to prevent the same type of outcome against Mexico? Noah Davis investigates.
BY Noah Davis Posted
September 09, 2013
9:58 AM
COLUMBUS, Ohio—One of the major takeaways from David Sally and Chris Anderson's excellent book The Numbers Game is that luck plays a bigger role in soccer than it does in other sports. The authors present a compelling case that it is responsible for around 50 percent of the outcome of a game.

The reason is straightforward. While soccer is a complex equation with 22 independent actors, the only thing that really matters as far as wins and losses go is goals. Those come few and far between. It's easier for a worse team to get lucky and sneak out a 1-0 win than to prevail in a 5-4 baseball game or a 100-90 basketball game.

The goal of a squad is to minimize the negative effect luck can have, that's the constant process talk you hear from members of the American team, but there's only so much the players can do.

Take, for example, Michael Bradley's fluke injury. That's the embodiment of bad luck.

But it works both ways. During the 12-game win streak, the red, white, and blue won a few games they probably shouldn't have. "We've been playing unbelievable the last four or five months. We've dug out some results we shouldn't have," Tim Howard said, which is another way of saying, "yeah, we've been good, but we've also been lucky."

In the press conference after Tuesday's 3-1 defeat to Costa Rica, Jurgen Klinsmann answered a few questions with the same bemused smile he frequently wears. The U.S. manager has spent enough time on the soccer field to know sometimes it bounces your way, other times it doesn't. Forces far greater than the whims of a simple coach play a massive role.

His team played poorly against their CONCACAF rival. But they also suffered at the hands of fate. Watch Costa Rica's third goal. Since the start of the second half, the Americans had been continually pressuring the Ticos defense and found some success creating chances. But in the 75th minute, Jozy Altidore ripped a shot that was blocked and fell fortuitously to substitute Jose Miguel Cubero, who blindly booted it up the field.

We know what happens next: Joel Campbell outpaced Matt Besler to the ball, five-holed Howard, and Costa Rica had a two-goal advantage once again. It was, all things considered, a rather lucky goal, one that came decidedly against the run of play. Klinsmann said as much.

But, as we learned in Liviu Bird's excellent tactical breakdown, it was also the result of a positioning error. The U.S. center backs allowed Campbell to get behind them. As a result, the forward was on the receiving end of Cubero's the wild clearance.

In other words, the U.S. gave bad luck an opportunity to play a part. And they paid for the momentary lapse.

Before training on Sunday, the American head coach addressed the issue. "You're going to teach the back line how to stagger, which we for a second forgot on the third goal," he said. "Matt Besler was caught on the outside instead of the inside. Omar would have needed to step back a little bit."

In preparation for Mexico, Klinsmann will teach. Then, he'll sit back, hope, and hold the German equivalent of a rabbit's foot.

Noah Davis is ASN's deputy editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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