Ten of the 23 players on the United States roster for the 2014 World Cup ply their club soccer in Major League Soccer. Working under the assumption MLS is sub-par compared to the rarefied air of European club soccer, this seems like a terrible development going against a “Group of Death” filled with star players in those top leagues. It might not the worst development, though, and could even give the team a slight edge heading into the tropical climes of Brazil with three games over 10 days.
Ahead of kickoff we’ve seen countless star players ruled out of the tournament through injury: Germany’s Marco Reus, France’s Franck Ribery and Colombia’s Falcao to name a few. The status of stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Diego Costa, and Luis Suarez remains a state secret for their respective national teams. Others, such as German midfielders Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger, should play but will be far from 100 percent.
Is it possible the brutal, 11-month grind of the European club season is at partial blame for the influx of injuries by the time the World Cup pops up on the calendar? Not to pull a Lou Brown from Major League, but even tough guys get sprains. Star players such as Ribery and Ronaldo play at mega-clubs Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Beyond a simple 36 or 38-game domestic league season, these players are also in the Champions League in the midweek, as well as other cup competitions, in addition to random international commitments — all concurrently. Oh right, there’s always those game-grabbing global tours in the summer, adding more mileage on weary bodies.
Let’s use Ronaldo as an example and put the Portguese star under the microscope.
- 2013-14 game log: 59 games played (all starts); 31 in La Liga, 11 in the Champions League, 9 in Spanish Cup competitions and 8 for Portugal.
Ronaldo might be an outlier since Portugal needed a two-leg playoff to qualify for the World Cup last November and Real Madrid won the Champions League, but it’s no surprise the status of his tired legs are in question ahead of the World Cup.
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Suarez needed “minor” knee surgery in May after his season with Liverpool wrapped up. The Uruguayan star still racked up 61 games for club and country despite serving a suspension to start the Premier League season for biting Branislav Ivanovic. Liverpool didn’t participate in the Champions League or Europa League, either, which makes his high total surprising — although it’s also a testament to his durability.
Going through some prominent European-based players games logs on ESPNFC revealed some startling numbers. Here’s a sampling of their most recent season totals for club and country:
- Oscar (Brazil/Chelsea, 71);
- Andries Iniesta (Spain/Barcelona, 68);
- Angel Di Maria (Argentina/Real Madrid, 67);
- Cesc Fabregas (Spain/Barcelona, 67);
- Neymar (Brazil/Barcelona, 66);
- Eden Hazard (Belgium/Chelsea, 66);
- Edin Dzeko (Bosnia/Manchester City, 64);
- Gary Cahill (England/Chelsea, 63);
- Luka Modric (Croatia/Real Madrid, 62);
- Kwadwo Asamoah (Ghana/Juventus, 59);
- Dante (Brazil/Bayern Munich, 58);
- Yaya Toure (Ivory Coast/Manchester City, 57);
- Philipp Lahm (Germany/Bayern Munich, 55);
- Thiago Silva (Brazil/PSG, 55);
- Arjen Robben (Netherlands/Bayern, 55);
- Lionel Messi (Argentina/Barcelona, 52).
On the other end of the spectrum, how about a player like Giorgos Karagounis, who at 37-years-old will captain Greece in Brazil. Although he was hardly a regular for relegated Fulham, he still managed to appear in 32 matches over the year. Sejad Salihovic, a starter for Bosnia and TSG Hoffenheim in the German Bundesliga, as another less-high profile example, enters the World Cup having played 39 games the previous year.
Ultimately, given the variances in soccer league’s around the world, it’s difficult to come up with a mean figure for how many games the average player will log. There isn’t the uniform 16-game NFL season or 82-game season for the NHL or NBA. Let’s assume the standard league is somewhere in the range the 34-38 games played and add 6-8 for cups/friendlies and then 4-5 for international duty. There are few Cal Ripkens in soccer, who turn out for every match — even keepers. Arbitrarily around 40 games played over a calendar year seems reasonable figure for a World Cup-caliber player.
Whatever the figure, by the time the World Cup pops up in June most marquee players have piled up lots of miles on the internal odometer. (Odd thought: if the 2022 is held in Qatar, in the winter, players might enter the tournament at the peak of their physical powers.)
More practically we can compare those game log totals to American players. Despite a miserable season at Sunderland, Jozy Altidore still racked up 59 appearances over the course of 2013-14 — 15 as a sub — for club and country. Geoff Cameron logged the same number at Stoke City and U.S. duty.
Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley — arguably the two most-important veterans for the USMNT — made highly-publicized moves from Europe back to MLS and in turn it cut down on their games played significantly. Dempsey featured in 32 games for Fulham, the Seattle Sounders and the U.S. in 2013-2014 and an additional eight in the new MLS season. Michael Bradley is barely at 30 games since last June between Roma, Toronto FC and U.S. duty. Even with the amount of cross-country travel involved in MLS, these two players should be a little fresher than some of their former European-based colleagues.
European club competitions have expanded over the last two decades, with more top clubs participating in Champion’s League matches and an expanded group stage. For a historic comparison, look at Diego Maradona and Michel Platini, the two biggest European-based stars before the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, another tournament that was to be played in very warm conditions. Maradona (Napoli) and Platini (Juventus) participated in 29 and 30 Serie A games, respectively, in the 1985-86 season. Neither of their clubs played more than 2 games in the Coppa Italia. Napoli had not qualified for Europe yet after Maradona’s arrival; Juventus played 6 matches in the UEFA Cup as defending champions, eliminated by Barcelona in March. Maradona had played in 6 matches with Argentina in the previous calendar year; Platini in 5 for France.
All told, Maradona had played in fewer than 40 matches leading into that World Cup in Mexico, and Platini in 43. While we cannot know for certain how much fresher legs played a role in two historically great individual performances, today’s stars certainly have been stretched more leading into the tournament.
In practical terms, as good as a player like Suarez — or anyone carrying a mild knock into the tournament — might be, expecting them to play three World Cup games spread over 10 games in the Group Stage is asking a lot. Fitness concerns will only be exaggerated in the knockout rounds with managers only given three substitutions over a potentially 120 minute game. In the Champions League final Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone started Diego Costa and he lasted under 15 minutes, wasting a sub. Atletico led 1-0 and almost won, if not for a late goal by Sergio Ramos to send it into extra time, where it was subsequently routed by Ronaldo & Co, losing 4-1.
As the tired cliché goes, talent tends to win out over time. The cream rises to the top and such. Given the tired legs playing in the heat on Brazil, along with all the travel involved getting around logistically during the World Cup in Brazil, where travel will be more expansive than any World Cup going back to USA ’94, the fresher, fitter teams might have at least one advantage.
In the end, the United States isn’t going to defeat, let alone get results, against Ghana, Portugal and Germany merely because its players have less games played over the last year and are fresher since some ply their trade in MLS. It probably can’t hurt, though, can it? U.S. National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s been knocked in the past, especially when he was in charge of Germany and Bayern Munich, for spending more time on fitness than tactics. At this particular World Cup, that approach might yield dividends given the confluence of factors.