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Historical Perspective

Does Club Form Matter for U.S. World Cup Strikers?

Jurgen Klinsmann would love it if all of his attackers arrived in Brazil bursting with confidence from goalscoring binges with their clubs. But if that doesn't happen, will it matter? Blake Thomsen investigates.
BY Blake Thomsen Posted
March 30, 2014
9:08 PM
AS THE SCORING WOES of Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore persist, U.S. fans are becoming increasingly concerned about the pair’s prospects in Brazil.

It’s well known that both have struggled mightily for goals over the past year: Altidore has just two goals in 33 appearances for Sunderland this season, while Dempsey has managed just two goals in his last 21 appearances between the Seattle Sounders and Fulham.

On the other end of the spectrum is Aron Johannsson. The dynamic striker has lit up the Eredivisie for AZ Alkmaar, delivering a stunning brace earlier this month to take his tally to 25 goals in 46 appearances. Now, the Eredivisie is a much easier place to score goals than the Premier League, but Johannsson’s goal tally is still impressive.

Given their form, as well as the leagues they are playing in, what can we expect from Dempsey, Altidore, and Johannsson in the World Cup? Are Dempsey and Altidore destined for failure in Brazil? Should we expect big things from Johannsson?

Meanwhile, the MLS season is just beginning, bringing with it a mounting debate about whether the U.S. can be successful in the World Cup with so many regulars playing outside of Europe’s big four leagues. Will the “lesser” competition of MLS stunt the chances of U.S. players starring in the World Cup?

To address these questions, we decided to do some historical research. We started by compiling a list of all of the players who scored two or more goals in the past two World Cups. From there, we took a look at their goalscoring form for their clubs in the season leading up to the World Cup, as well as the clubs and leagues they played in.

Were the most successful goalscorers coming off big seasons for their clubs? Did those who played in big leagues fare better than those who played against lesser competition?

In looking at those who scored at least twice, we’re narrowing in on the select few players who had truly excellent World Cup performances in front of goal, with the aim of finding out whether it’s possible, or likely, for Americans to do similarly well this summer.

Finally, for the purpose of our study, we’ll disregard players from traditional powerhouses Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany, France, and Italy, as these countries almost always contribute several prolific World Cup goal scorers due to the sheer quality of the national teams.

We’re more interested in honing in on specific players who performed well in front of goal, independent of (or sometimes even in spite of) their team’s overall ability.

Here’s the list of players who scored multiple goals in the 2006 World Cup—excepting those from the aforementioned six countries—with their club form included.

A couple of interesting trends emerge. The most notable is the relative lack of club form of almost all of the players. Aside from 2004 Ballon d’Or winner Andriy Shevchenko, none of the players managed a scoring rate of even one goal every three games for their clubs. Steven Gerrard’s 10 in 32 for Liverpool was more than respectable for a midfielder, but the rest of the players on the list did not have particularly impressive seasons.

Once Gerrard and Shevchenko are removed, the remaining eight players averaged just six goals apiece over an entire season. From looking at the goal tallies, it’s clear that being in good goal scoring form heading into the World Cup was not a prerequisite for success in the tournament.

The next interesting factor is the leagues that these players competed in. Only four out of 12 played in “big four” leagues, while the leagues of Qatar, Poland, Ecuador, and Costa Rica were all represented. This would seem to suggest that when it comes to goal scoring at least, the legions of Americans in MLS—as well as Johannsson in the Eredivisie—are at no historical disadvantage compared to their Group G opponents, whose attackers almost exclusively play in big four leagues.

Here’s the data for the 2010 World Cup, again excluding players from the six traditional powers.

The multiple goalscorers of the 2010 World Cup represent a more mixed bag than those of 2006. Superstars Javier Hernandez, Arjen Robben, Diego Forlan, and Luis Suarez were in excellent scoring form heading into the World Cup, and they duly delivered in South Africa. Samuel Eto’o and Asamoah Gyan were also productive leading up to the World Cup.

But that wasn’t the case for everyone. Co-Golden Ball winner Wesley Sneijder scored more times in the World Cup than he did all year for Inter. After a dismal showing in Ligue 1, Slovakia’s Robert Vittek needed a move to the Turkish league that still left him with only six goals in 23 appearances— yet he managed four World Cup goals in just four games.

Lee Jung-Soo netted only six goals in 34 appearances in the Japan league, and Brett Holman scored almost 20 fewer goals for AZ than Aron Johannsson already has. Even Landon Donovan only had three goals in 19 pre-World Cup appearances in 2010, matching his goal total in South Africa alone. As in 2006, we see that good goalscoring form for club was by no means a necessity for prolific goalscoring in the World Cup.

2010 also varies slightly from 2006 in the leagues from which its top scorers came. Counting Donovan, seven of the 15 multi-goalscorers in the 2010 World Cup came from big four leagues. But bar Arjen Robben and Diego Forlan, the players from big four leagues failed to impress in front of goal for their clubs.

As Jozy Altidore continues to toil in the Premier League, he can certainly take heart from the fact that Sneijder, Tiago, and Lee Chung-Yong failed to manage even five league goals in their respective big four leagues. And though it’s unlikely that Aron Johannsson needs any more confidence, he can be encouraged by the fact that three of 15 players on the list came from the Eredivisie.

Is this an authoritative study or a predictive tool? Of course not.

But this brief analysis certainly shows that American players—no matter how out of form or what league they play in—are by no means a lock to struggle in Brazil. Only five of 25 players for whom stats were available scored more than 10 league goals leading up to the World Cup, while 14 of 25 did not play in big four leagues. With that in mind, the goal droughts of Altidore and Dempsey—as well as the limited number of American players who play in big four leagues—should not derail the Yanks’ confidence ahead of the World Cup.

How concerned are you about the dips in form of Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore? Will having so many MLS players damage the U.S.’s chances in Brazil? Let us know in the comments section.

Blake Thomsen is a frequent ASN contributor. You really ought to follow him on Twitter.

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