World Cup qualifying and CONCACAF’s U-20 results

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It’s been a theme throughout U.S.-centric coverage of the CONCACAF U-20 Championship, just as it was a theme during last year’s Olympic qualifying tournament: It’s important for the U.S. to do well in these tournaments. Winning games gives players a chance to gain valuable experience, whether it’s the London games (which the U-23s missed out on) or the U-20 World Cup (where the U.S. will compete this summer).

I’m not so sure. I don’t agree, and I don’t disagree. It just seems like the margins for error are so small in these tournaments. They represent such a tiny amount of their actual development time, I can see the argument that we make way too much out of U-level results.

Take the Olympic qualifying tournament, for example. Also consider the lead up to it. The U.S. beat Mexico 2-0 before the tournament and only lost one match under Caleb Porter. And while that match looks like an outlier in the nine-or-so matches the U-23 played, the timing of the loss meant they didn’t go to London. Instead, players spent July and August with their clubs.

I’m going to dig into this a little. As I write, I don’t know what I’ll find, but I’m going to go back through CONCACAF’s U-20 history and see if teams that finished in the top two of qualifying went on to make subsequent World Cups. The idea here it to try to look at whether U-level success matches senior level accomplishments.

Why the top two? Because there’s a large swatch of CONCACAF U-20 history where the region didn’t have a real tournament. Instead, there were two sub-tournaments that determined which teams qualified for the U-20 World Cup.

Obviously, this isn’t scientific or exhaustive. It’s just a thing – a step, if you will. For some teams, like Mexico, perpetual qualification for World Cups means we’ll learn little from their underage successes, but for other nations, we might see them suddenly start qualifying for World Cups after U-success. We may also see U-success mean absolutely nothing.

Here’s a huge chart showing what I found. Feel free to skip to the conclusions (italics – hosted World Cup, bold – qualified for a World Cup):

U-20 Championship Year Top Two Finishers Next World Cup World Cup after that
1962 1: Mexico
2: Guatemala
1966
MEX: Group stage
GUA: DNQ
1970
MEX: Quarters
GUA: DNQ
1964 1: El Salvador
2: Honduras
1966
ESA: DNQ
HON: DNQ
1970
ESA: Group stage
HON: DNQ
1970 1: Mexico
2: Cuba
1974
MEX: DNQ
CUB: DNQ
1978
MEX: Group stage
CUB: DNQ
1973 1: Mexico
2: Guatemala
1974
MEX: DNQ
GUA: DNQ
1978
MEX: Group stage
GUA: DNQ
1974 1: Mexico
2: Cuba
1978
MEX: Group stage
CUB: DNQ
1982
MEX: DNQ
CUB: DNQ
1976 1: Mexico
2: Honduras
1978
MEX: Group stage
HON: DNQ
1982
MEX: DNQ
GUA: DNQ
1978 1: Mexico
2: Canada
1982
MEX: DNQ
CAN: DNQ
1986
MEX: Quarters
CAN: Group stage
1980 1: Mexico
2: United States
1982
MEX: DNQ
USA: DNQ
1986
MEX: Quarters
USA: DNQ
1982 1: Honduras
2: United States
1986
HON: DNQ
USA: DNQ
1990
HON: DNQ
USA: Group stage
1984 1: Mexico
2: Canada
1986
MEX: Quarters
CAN: Group stage
1990
MEX: DQ
CAN: DNQ
1986 1: Canada
2: United States
1990
CAN: DNQ
USA: Group stage
1994
CAN: DNQ
USA: Second round
1988 1: Costa Rica
2: Mexico
1990
CRC: Second round
MEX: DQ
1994
CRC: DNQ
MEX: Second round
1990 1: Mexico
2: Trinidad and Tobago
1994
MEX: Second round
TT: DNQ
1998
MEX: Second round
TT: DNQ
1992 1: Mexico
2: United States
1994
MEX: Second round
USA: Second round
1998
MEX: Second round
USA: Group stage
1994 1: Honduras
2: Costa Rica
1998
HON: DNQ
CRC: DNQ
2002
HON: DNQ
CRC: Group stage
1996 1: Canada
2: Mexico
1998
CAN: DNQ
MEX: Second round
2002
CAN: DNQ
MEX: Second round
1998 A: United States
B: Mexico
2002
USA: Quarters
MEX: Second round
2006
USA: Group stage
MEX: Second round
2001 A: Costa Rica
B: Canada
2002
CRC: Group stage
CAN: DNQ
2006
CRC: Group stage
CAN: DNQ
2003 A: Panama
B: Canada
2006
PAN: DNQ
CAN: DNQ
2010
PAN: DNQ
CAN: DNQ
2005 A: United States
B: Canada
2006
USA: Group stage
CAN: DNQ
2010
USA: Second round
CAN: DNQ
2007 A: United States
B: Mexico
2010
USA: Second round
MEX: Second round
2009 1: Costa Rica
2: United States
2010
CRC: DNQ
USA: Second round
2011 1: Mexico
2: Costa Rica
2013 Mexico, United States

And exhale.

Let me aggregate all that for you:

  • When a team wins CONCACAF’s U-20 tournament, they’ve appeared in the next World Cup 50 percent of the time. They appear in the World Cup after that 55 percent of the time. Exclude hosts that automatically qualified for World Cups (and Mexico’s 1990 disqualification), and those percentages go down to 48 and 50.
  • CONCACAF U-20 runner-ups have only qualified for the next World Cup 36 percent of the time. Forty percent of the time, however, they’ve made the World Cup that followed. Accounting for hosting duties (and Mexico in 1990), those percentages become 35 and 33.

It’s really difficult to see why winning these tournaments is so important. Of course, you want to win these competitions, but in so far as it’s a harbinger of your World Cup fate, there isn’t a conclusive trend.

Take Canada. The Canadians have not qualified for a World Cup since 1986, and given their finish at the 1984 championships, there was reason to think they had talent coming through that could get them there. But Canada has finished in the top two four times since, yet they haven’t been back to the show. Even if 1984 was a harbinger, it’s unclear their more general U-20 results tell us much.

We know that Mexico and the United States have been perpetual World Cup qualifiers in recent years, yet there are three instances since 1994 where they failed to finish in the top two. It hasn’t influenced their qualifying record.

In a way, this all makes sense. These players spend a dominant amount of their development time with their clubs, and while that doesn’t mean their quality won’t come through in their tournaments, it’s also possible that these small samples of games accumulated every one or two years just aren’t that important.

If you were picking CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers four-to-six years ahead of time, you’d probably be better served picking Mexico, the U.S., and Costa Rica every cycle rather than consider any U-20 results.

‘Nothing is impossible’: Bonucci brings hope to AC Milan

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MILAN (AP) Nothing is impossible. That’s AC Milan’s new unofficial slogan following Leonardo Bonucci’s surprise transfer from defending six-time Serie A champion Juventus.

[ MORE: Neymar reportedly tells Barca teammates he’s off to PSG ]

Presenting fans to Bonucci via Weibo on Friday, Milan CEO Marco Fassone recounted how Italy’s top defender moved to a rival club.

“It started by chance and it seemed impossible but Leo interrupted me right away and said, `Nothing is impossible. When there’s desire to do things you can get them done.”‘

Milan has been on a spending spree following the club’s sale to a Chinese-led consortium for $800 million in April, and Bonucci is the top acquisition, so far.

“Leo doesn’t require introductions,” Fassone said. “It’s an extraordinary reinforcement for us. … He completes a mosaic sought after by (Milan chief sport officer Massimiliano) Mirabelli – a mix of younger players and experienced leaders who will make the road ahead easier.”

Other recent signings by Milan included forward Andre Silva from FC Porto; midfielders Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti (Atalanta), Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen) and Lucas Biglia (Lazio); and defender Mateo Musacchio (Villarreal).

Bonucci thanked Kessie for letting him wear his preferred No. 19 shirt, and pointed to Milan’s seven European Cups and Champions League titles as a reference point for a club that did not even qualify for continental play the last three years and hasn’t won Serie A since 2011.

“Milan deserves to be among the elite again in Italy and Europe,” Bonucci said. “When you are united you win. The strength has to be that of the squad whereas singular players alone can do nothing. We can get back to the top and that’s what this club deserves.”

Bonucci’s transfer fee reportedly topped the 40 million euro ($45 million) mark, and the center back was signed to a five-year contract worth up to 10 million euros ($11 million) per season, including bonuses – making him the highest-paid player in Italy.

Meanwhile, Juventus is reportedly near to signing prized winger Federico Bernardeschi from Fiorentina for a reported fee of 40 million euros ($45 million). The Gazzetta dello Sport reported Juventus will sign the 23-year-old Bernardeschi to five-year contract worth 4 million euros ($4.6 million) per season.

Vertonghen: “We need to level up” like rest of PL contenders

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Tottenham put up a heck of a title fight in 2016/17 as the club attempted to chase down Premier League champions Chelsea, but Spurs have been inactive this summer as Mauricio Pochettino‘s group gears up for next month.

[ MORE: Striker Morata signs five-year contract with Chelsea ]

The London side finished second in the PL a season ago — a record-high for the club during the modern Premier League Era.

[ VIDEO: History of the North London Derby ]

However, Pochettino and Co. have made no moves in the transfer market this summer, while its competitors — Chelsea, Manchester United, etc. — have all made significant roster additions to bolster their lineups.

Defender Jan Vertonghen says that Spurs must compete with the rest of the PL’s elite in the transfer market if the club is to finally realize its goal of finishing atop England’s top flight.

“The way our rivals are strengthening this season, we need to be aware of that and we need to level up as well,” Vertonghen told ESPN FC.

“I’m not saying with new players, but we need to take our levels up and I think we can. I’m the oldest outfield player in the team and I feel very fit. The younger guys can improve even more. It can definitely be our year and we want it to be our year.

“Luckily we almost kept everyone from this year. Obviously the window is not closed yet but if we can keep these guys, we can do the same thing again. It’ll be a bit harder because we play at Wembley! [The pitch] is a lot bigger but the training pitches have already been adapted.

While Spurs certainly benefit from having one of the strongest young groups of players in England, the club’s lack of spending is a bit concerning, especially after its recent loss of Kyle Walker — who joined Manchester City for a record fee.

Zouma signs new Chelsea contract, is immediately loaned to Stoke City

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Kurt Zouma‘s long-term future is secure at Chelsea, but his short-term future will be away from Stamford Bridge.

The France international centerback signed a new six-year contract with Chelsea and was promptly sent out on a season-long loan to Stoke City. Zouma made just three starts and nine total appearances last season as he came back from a torn ACL suffered in February 2016.

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“It is fantastic Kurt has chosen to commit his future to Chelsea,” Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo said in a statement. “He has shown his talent since joining us three years ago, and has returned from a serious injury with a fantastic attitude.

“Now he has the opportunity to play regularly in the Premier League and we will be monitoring his progress closely while he is at Stoke.”

The move to Stoke will give Zouma a new experience, playing for a mid-table side in the Premier League, and it will be interesting to see where he fits in at centerback, battling with American Geoff Cameron and Englishman Ryan Shawcross.

Even with John Terry leaving the club, Zouma was likely to be second-choice in the back three for Chelsea and if he wants to make France’s squad for the 2018 World Cup, he’ll have to play regularly.

Morata signs five-year contract at Chelsea

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Chelsea FC will have another Spanish international leading the front line, with Diego Costa likely on his way out of town.

The club announced that Alvaro Morata has completed a transfer from Real Madrid, signing a five-year contract at Stamford Bridge. The BBC reports the transfer fee at nearly $78 million.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

“I am so happy to be here,” Morata said in a statement. “It’s an incredible emotion to be part of this big club. I am looking to work hard, score as many goals as I can and to win as many trophies as possible.”

Morata emerged as an option to replace Costa after Romelu Lukaku decided on joining Manchester United over his former club Chelsea. Morata, who was a Manchester United target at first, then turned his sights on London after becoming disillusioned in Madrid, playing second-fiddle to Karim Benzema.

Despite not being first-choice up top, Morata scored 15 goals in 26 La Liga games and another three in the UEFA Champions League, which Real Madrid went on to win over Morata’s former club Juventus. Morata started for Juventus the last time the club had been in the Champions League final.

Despite being just 24, Morata is emerging as one of the world’s top forwards. He has nine goals in 19 games for the Spanish National Team and now is the right time for him to experience the challenge of the Premier League, where the games come thick and fast and the pace of the game is a step up from what he’s experienced in Spain and Italy.

However, the tactical knowledge he’s learned in both places should help him in England, where he can position himself between the opposing centerbacks.