Examining players used in World Cup qualifying cycles

The American roster for the World Cup has been named, and the intense discussion over Donovan’s exclusion (and that of Eddie Johnson before him) has begun to subside. This seems an opportune time to look back over how this World Cup cycle compares to the last few.
Players used in each World Cup and qualifying cycle, since MLS beganThe above chart (click the picture to get the full size version) lists every qualifier and World Cup game that the US has played going back to the 1998 tournament. I chose not to go back to the 1990 or 1994 tournament, in part because the US didn’t go through qualifying in 1994 as the host nation, but also because Major League Soccer didn’t begin play until the 1998 cycle – qualifying for France began at the end of the league’s inaugural season.

There are a few patterns that emerge from seeing the game rosters in this format. The role of certain stalwart players – Brian McBride, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey – stand out as more solid rows of red against the more sporadic appearances from players like Greg Vanney or even Frankie Hejduk.

You can also usually tell – for most cycles, at least – when the team has qualified for the next round. In the last few games of each stage, the inclusion of many new players – like for the sixth game of the 1998 semifinal group, when Steve Sampson gave debuts to Martin Vasquez, Frankie Hejduk and Jason Kreis. Similar patterns can be seen all the way through the 2010 semifinal stage.

Interestingly, that pattern is one thing that Klinsmann has not maintained – there was no flood of new players after qualification was assured against Mexico. Instead, Klinsmann turned to players from the past for the last few games: Sacha Kljestan, Brad Guzan, Kyle Beckerman, etc.

The current cycle also exhibits more turnover between qualifying and the World Cup itself. Most cycles have seen at least one newcomer introduced at this stage. The most famous example has been David Regis at the 1998 World Cup, although Chad Deering and arguably Brian Maisonneuve could be included that year. Pablo Mastroeni was added before the 2002 tournament, while the trio of Robbie Findley, Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez made the squad in South Africa four years ago.

For the 2014 tournament, however, Klinsmann named five players to the final roster who took no part in qualifying: John Anthony Brooks, Julian Green, Nick Rimando, Chris Wondolowski, and DeAndre Yedlin.

While these late additions have understandably been scrutinized, it should be noted that over the entire qualifying tournament Klinsmann has actually relied more heavily on existing players than did Bob Bradley – but less so than did Bruce Arena.

For the 2002 and 2006 qualifying cycles, Arena used players new to the process just under 40% of the time. This is calculated by counting the caps earned by players in their first cycle as a percentage of the total games played by the squad. For the 2002 cycle, for example, the class of players led by Chris Armas, John O’Brien and Carlos Llamosa earned 111 caps while holdovers from the 1998 cycle earned 179 – a breakdown of 38% / 62%.

During the 2010 cycle, Bob Bradley turned to new players 46% of the time (139 caps out of 302 earned). The lions share of these went to Michael Bradley (19) and Jozy Altidore (17), while Heath Pearce (10), Sacha Kljestan (10) and Benny Feilhaber (9) also featured prominently.

The 2014 numbers don’t yet include the final rosters, but thus far Klinsmann’s additions only account for 43% of the games played. The most consistently-used players include Jermaine Jones (12 games) but also Graham Zusi (12) and former MLS defender Geoff Cameron (13).

In addition to the high-resolution image at the top of this post, you can also download the original Excel spreadsheet here. I invite you to take a look, and let me know your thoughts.

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