The U.S.’ showing in Mexico on Sunday disappointed me as a soccer fan. As an “analyst,” I’m willing to place some of the blame on tactics, broadly defined, but not quite as much as several journalists have (see Soccernet’s Marc Connolly) or Skip (see Monday’s post). Sports outcomes depend on labor (effort; ability) for a given set of players, technology (tactics; player combinations), and other production influences such as the environment with altitude foremost in this case. It appeared to me that all of these played a role that may have been decisive if holding the other factors constant.
As economists, our inclinations often steer away from physiological explanations toward those involving decision making. For instance, the effects of age on labor or managerial performance have received little attention among economists — a Southern Econ Journal article by Skip and a Review of Economics & Statistics article by Ray fair notwithstanding. The effects of altitude matter and matter a lot where the reduced air pressure may reduce oxygen uptake by 10 to 20 percent. For the 8 starting outfield players who flew in from Europe at the beginning of the week, a few days of training in Colorado Springs while suffering jet lag hardly acclimatized them for the 7500 feet of Mexico City. The record of other CONCACAF teams against Mexico offers evidence of altitude’s importance. (Side note: One of the ongoing challenges to the U.S. in CONCACAF road games is the variability of environment — tropical humidity and mud in central America, altitude in Mexico, chewed-up surfaces in the Carribbean.)
The U.S. pushed forward in the first 20 minutes with a surprising amount of possession. Soon after, the U.S.’ legs no longer won the 50-50 balls or marked Mexican players as they had early on, increasing space for attacking Mexican each trip down the field. By the 30-minute mark, a close-up of Claudio Renya clearly showed his struggle for air during a dead ball situation. When Mastroeni and Bocanegra came off midway in the second half, both looked gassed. The lack of playing time for many U.S. players also factors in. Only about half of the U.S. starters are currently logging significant minutes for their clubs (or have not been until the past game or two in Renya’s case).
The altitude and conditioning factor does not negate Arena’s decisions as contributors. Skip and and my main soccer advisor at WKU thought the tactics too passive. No doubt, the first half formation with Johnson alone up front, Donovan on the wing, and Beasley as a central attacker defies easy explanation. Playing for a tie might be the answer, but the statements of players and Arena before the game and the first 20 minutes don’t reconcile with it. Maybe Arena became overly concerned with the lack of possession against Mexico in past games and wanted to expand midfield play. If so, he played a strategy likely to be dominated against a team that can stand with any in the world in their midfield possession prowess.
Beyond the tactics, Arena’s player selections left some question marks. Berhalter is a solid defender especially against air-oriented opponents like Germany or Poland, but given Mexico’s quickness and proclivities, a more mobile player such as Cory Gibbs makes sense. Also, Arena has put Clint Mathis in the doghouse. Whatever one might say about Mathis’ sense and committment, it is in venues such as this one where he has shown the ability to pass, score, and compete in a way that escpapes the likes of Landon Donovan (see ESPN Soccernet article — The Golden Boy?). At leasting putting Mathis on the Bench and bringing him on at the beginning of the second half would make more sense than Ralston or Noonan, who are nice players but have never shown Mathis’ abilities against high-level competition.