Central Winger: USMNT's chances for Group Stage advancement may not be as bad as you think
In preparation for the World Cup draw, Opta's team of analytics specialists constructed a World Cup simulator that could handle any possible World Cup draw permutation and determine probabilities and expectations for every team lucky enough to be competing next summer in Brazil. Using historical data collected from international matches dating back to the 2010 World Cup, the analysts created a model that weighs the strengths of any two teams against each other to determine the probabilities for each possible result.
In order to do this, the simulation calculates the number of goals each team is expected to score in a particular match and sets this as the mean number in a Poisson distribution. Then, using a random number, each team is awarded an actual number of goals for the match according to the probabilities set by their team-specific distribution. This process is repeated thousands of times until the probabilities of different results stabilize.
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For example, in a game where Team A is expected to score 1.7 goals and Team B is expected to score 1.3 goals, Team A is expected to win about 47 percent of the time, a draw is expected 29 percent of the time and Team B is expected to win 24 percent of the time. Check my (imperfect) online simulator here:
Just prior to Opta kicking off the volume of simulations, the United States was placed into an immensely difficult group featuring Germany, Portugal and Ghana. Despite the immediately grim response from US fans, Opta's simulator provided a surprising and encouraging 38.5 percent chance of advancing out of the group stage.
— OptaJack (@OptaJack) December 6, 2013
Here is Opta's current understanding of the likelihood of different group G teams advancing into the knockout stage.
As one of the pre-tournament favorites, there is little surprise that Germany has the greatest chance of advancing out of the group. With the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, who is arguably the best current soccer player on the planet, Portugal is also favored. But, because of a weak performance in the African Nations Cup as well as a handful of poor results in contested Friendly matches, this model suggests that Ghana isn't quite the same team that knocked the United States out of the 2010 World Cup.
The United States pre-tournament chance of 38.5 percent advancement from the group isn't quite as favorable as a flip of a coin, but the US can quickly eclipse the 50-percent mark with some favorable results.
For example, these are how the chances of advancement increase based on the result of the US - Ghana match in Natal:
... the US - Portugal match in Manaus:
... and the US - Germany match in Recife:
In other words, while group-stage victories for the United States might be difficult, those results would go a very long way toward paving a path to the knockout rounds. A win vs. Ghana in the US' opening match would increase their chances of advancing from 38.5 to 56.2 percent, while a loss would drop the US hopes of advancement to an overall chance of 29 percent – a 23.6-percent decrease.
Unlikely wins against Portugal or Germany would nearly double the US chances of advancement. No surprise there, they are the favorites. An upset will always drastically change the expected outcome.
But the wrench in the system is that a tie in the pivotal US - Portugal match would not greatly benefit the US's chances of advancement. With goal differential commonly being the final arbiter in group stage iterations that featured a draw between the US and Portugal, and the United States unlikely to unload a boat-load of goals in what will likely be a conservative and cagey opening match against Ghana, it is in the best interest of Jurgen Klinsmann and company to throw a speculatively attacking lineup out against Portugal.
No matter the result against Ghana, a draw against Portugal is unlikely to be good enough for advancement. Against Portugal, the United States will have to go big to avoid going home.