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World Cup qualifying and CONCACAF’s U-20 results

Mar 2, 2013, 5:46 PM EDT

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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.

  1. tylerbetts - Mar 2, 2013 at 6:19 PM

    Richard,

    It looks as if your assumption is that World Cup Qualification is the only thing that matters. That’s simply not the case. Yes, qualifying for the World Cup is important. But growth and development of the game as a whole is also hugely important. Part of that is getting your young players exposure and experience in these high-pressure situations with the U-20 and U-23 team.

    Just think back to London last Summer. Why did Roger Espinoza move to Wigan? In large part, because he showed so well in London against some very good teams. Don’t you think some of the US U-23′s would have benefited from that exposure and benefited from a move overseas? And doesn’t that help the development of soccer in the US?

    Especially as we look at the ambition of the US Soccer Federation. We should be beyond the point where qualifying for the World Cup is the goal. Not that we should take that for granted, but we should be aiming higher than that. And, getting our U-20s and U-23s is a big part of that.

    • Richard Farley - Mar 2, 2013 at 6:22 PM

      Nah, that’s not my assumption. I’m just testing a hypothesis: u-20 success leads to senior level results. I don’t make any claim to how important that is, if true.

  2. soonerfan237 - Mar 2, 2013 at 6:31 PM

    I agree that we sometimes over-value results at the youth level, but I think your analysis here is flawed. Your conclusion is that results at youth levels don’t correlate with results at the senior level – basically that it doesn’t really matter whether you win or lose at the youth level. But to prove that winning gives no benefit over losing, you have to compare the winning and losing teams. You can’t just analyze the data for the winning teams. Sure, only 50% of winning teams making the World Cup seems like a low number. But if only 2% of teams that don’t get to the finals eventually qualify for the World Cup, that would show that results are important. And I think you can see a little bit of that effect with just the data you analyzed. If you win the final, you have a 14% higher chance of qualifying for the World Cup vs teams that lose the final. That seems like a significant number to me.

    But again, this is only relevant for results over the long haul – not in individual cases. It’s never worth it to panic over poor results in isolated cases. In the case of the US U-23′s, not qualifying for the Olympics isn’t a huge deal. We didn’t make the Olympics because Sean Johnson made one mistake. That’s no reason to panic about the USMNT’s future as a whole. But, if the US starts consistently failing to win at the youth level, then yes, I do think it’s a reason for concern. Luckily, the USYNTs do win much more often than not.

  3. Richard Farley - Mar 2, 2013 at 6:44 PM

    Your conclusion is that results at youth levels don’t correlate with results at the senior level

    Not, it isn’t. This test is confined to CONCACAF U-20 tournaments only, relevant given the current tournament going on (and the discussion around it).

    • soonerfan237 - Mar 2, 2013 at 6:53 PM

      OK, fair enough. But just replace “youth levels” with “CONCACAF U-20 tournaments” in my post and my basic point still stands. If you are going to conclude that “It’s really difficult to see why winning these tournaments is so important” you need to compare winning vs. not winning to see if it is (or isn’t) important. And I think the data will show that winning the CONCACAF U-20 tournament does correlate with significantly higher rates of World Cup qualification at the senior level.

      • Richard Farley - Mar 2, 2013 at 6:59 PM

        If your basic issue is that the analysis is not sophisticated enough, I completely agree with you.

        From the post:

        Obviously, this isn’t scientific or exhaustive. It’s just a thing – a step, if you will.

        I hope somebody takes some time to do this right — somebody that knows R or has access to SPSS, etc. Just getting the ball rolling.

      • soonerfan237 - Mar 2, 2013 at 7:16 PM

        I guess I’m just saying the analysis isn’t testing for the question of whether or not winning at the CONCACAF U-20′s is important because it doesn’t include a comparison to the non-finals teams. But, that’s just the OCD science nerd in me coming out. I do agree that people freak out way too much about isolated losses at the CONCACAF U-20′s (and other youth tournaments). And thanks for the article. I can only imagine how much work it was to go through all that data. :)

      • Richard Farley - Mar 2, 2013 at 7:38 PM

        the analysis isn’t testing for the question of whether or not winning at the CONCACAF U-20′s is important

        There isn’t a way to test of “important” without defining what important is. While I use that word (and development) in the lede to the story, what the analysis part of this is trying to do is assess the link between U-20 results and World CUp qualifying. That is how the piece is implicitly defining importance.

        Inferentially, the piece is hypothesizing a level of conversion and comparing the actual results against it. The piece doesn’t explicitly state that level because it’s just a blog post, but it’s inferred by the conclusions that 33-50 percent conversion is too low to sustain the conclusion that U-20 results significantly relate to World Cup qualification …

        Which is what we implicitly defined as important.

        There’s no need to test against the non-results. Essentially, we’re doing a difference of means test.

        I think. It’s really just a blog post.

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