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April 28, 2010

England, U.S. should advance

By Nate Silver
Special to ESPN.com
(Archive)

 

When the United States dramatically drew into England's group, it looked as though Group C might be the proverbial "group of death." But then came two middling teams, Slovenia and Algeria, which softened the group and left no ambiguity about which teams will be expected to advance.

In some sense, indeed, it was about the best draw the Americans could have hoped for. The game against England will attract huge amounts of attention and has huge upside for growing the footprint of the game in America. But it is hardly a must-win or even a must-draw. In fact, according to our simulations, the United States will still have a 42 percent chance of advancing even if it loses its opening match to England. On the other hand, its odds will shoot up to 62 percent if it manages a draw and 87 percent if it wins. So the United States has plenty to play for -- but it can afford to be loose and take chances.

Here are each team's chances to advance beyond Group C:

England (85 percent to advance, 60 percent to win group). If this were any other team, we'd say that it had little to worry about. Since failing to qualify for Euro 2008, the English have played nearly impeccable soccer, compiling a pristine 9-0-1 record and plus-28 goal differential in UEFA qualifying. Their home league is arguably the best in the world. They also drew into a relatively forgiving group and have the third-highest Soccer Power Index score behind only Brazil and Spain. But because this is England, and because its performance in recent World Cups is infamously spotty, some doubts will linger until it gets the job done on the field. The key is simply not to panic. Even if the unthinkable were to happen, and England were to drop its match to the United States, it still would have a 59 percent chance of advancing, according to our simulations.

United States (56 percent chance to advance, 22 percent to win group). The United States is one of the tougher teams to evaluate, statistically speaking. CONCACAF qualifying is frankly not all that demanding; nor is its continental tournament, the Gold Cup, which many North American teams do not consider a priority. There was the remarkable 2-0 victory over Spain in the Confederations Cup this past summer -- and the near win against Brazil -- but even that tournament was hardly an unqualified success for the Americans, as they lost more matches than they won.

The U.S. team's performance in recent friendlies has been flat, but friendlies can only tell you so much -- particularly with a roster that has been reshuffled because of injury. If the Americans were to advance to the quarterfinals or even further, it wouldn't qualify as an enormous surprise -- but neither would it be if their roster failed to cohere and they weren't able to advance from a group that, on paper, looks pretty favorable to them.

What SPI thinks is that, in contrast to American squads from the recent past that were best known for their goalkeeping, this one is more offense-minded; its attack rates ninth in the world, according to SPI, but its defense is just 34th. The United States should figure it needs two goals to defeat England, since a clean sheet is unlikely -- and it'll need to watch against conceding soft goals against Slovenia and Algeria.

Slovenia (37 percent chance to advance, 12 percent to win group). The Slovenians played fine soccer in World Cup qualifying -- including a playoff against Russia in which they advanced on the away-goals rule -- but they did so out of a relatively weak group and after having performed terribly in their last major competition, Euro '08, in which they failed to qualify and finished ahead of only Luxembourg in their group. Few of their players dot the rosters of the elite clubs in Europe. Slovenia has a fairly young roster and certainly seems to be on something of an upward trajectory -- but if it were to advance from the group, it would mean that England or the United States failed to live up to expectations.

Algeria (22 percent chance to advance, 6 percent to win group). After New Zealand and North Korea, this is one of the weaker sides to make it to South Africa, ranking just 62nd in the world, according to SPI. Algeria qualified by upsetting Egypt in a playoff but was outmatched by the Egyptians when the teams played again in the African Nations Cup, with Algeria losing 4-0. More recently, it lost badly to Serbia in a 3-0 home friendly in March.

Our program gives a bit of extra credit to the Algerians for having home-continent advantage, but even that is questionable, as they come from the other side of the continent and, with their Mediterranean and Islamic heritage, have little cultural affinity with Sub-Saharan Africa. Algeria has had a handful of good moments -- a 3-2 win over Ivory Coast in the African Nations Cup quarterfinals was one -- but for a team playing in its first World Cup since 1986, the odds against stringing together three consistent matches are fairly long.

Nate Silver is a renowned statistical analyst who was named one of "The World's 100 Most Influential People" by Time Magazine in 2009. He gained acclaim for outperforming the polls in the 2008 U.S. presidential elections and created baseball's popular predictive system, PECOTA.