One of the more esoteric aspects of US Soccer fandom is tracking the progress of players outside of MLS.  While it’s easier than ever to watch established US National Team members play in England or Germany, hundreds of Americans play in various leagues globally. Determining the level of competition of each league is often a subjective exercise, measured by player movement and subsequent performance, reputation, and stereotypes.

Debating the relative strength of a league, while amusing, also leads to an incomplete evaluation of a player’s situation.  I pulled the ELO scores for clubs from the Top 5 Euro leagues at the start of the 14/15 season, as well as the league average score.  I then looked at the shift in scores at the conclusion of the season. The initial ELO score is the Y-axis, and the change in ELO points is the X-axis. Good teams are at the top of the chart, and teams to the right improved the most last season.

ELO score change by clubs in Top 5 Leagues, Aug 2014 to June 2015

The league average ELO scores – a proxy for “league strength” – are shaded in color. Spain is a clear #1 with a score of 1763, followed by England and Germany just above 1700, and Italy and France around 1600.  On average, Italian clubs performed well and English clubs under-achieved, shifting those two leagues closer together by the end of the season.  However, these are more gradual shifts than post-match articles from European play would lead one to believe.

The nuance lost in the “best league” discussion is how sharply individual teams can rise or fall within the season. I’ve labeled outlier clubs on either end of the chart; a 50 point shift in ELO score is a significant change (one standard deviation for this group is around 49 points.)

At the top, Barcelona’s Champions League win cemented a +53 ELO season. Real Madrid and Bayern Munich dropped off from their stratospheric heights of last season, but all three teams remain among all-time greats. Anything over 1900 ELO is outstanding, and only a handful of clubs have exceeded 2000 points.

Moving further down, Dortmund and Liverpool fell harshly (losing Lewandowski and Suarez will do that to a team), but still rated among the top 30 teams in Europe.  Similarly, Everton also declined by more than 100 points.

On the far right corner of the chart, the statistical boot of Italy shows how the league flattened underneath Juventus. And here is the crux of the issue: a US player who spent the season earning minutes with Genoa (+114) instead of with Newcastle (-55) would have been in a better club situation, even though England technically had the stronger league. I prefer US players developing with high-performing teams, and transferring that confidence to the US.  Jozy Altidore’s performance in 2013 and 2014 is a recent example of how that situation benefits the national team.

Finally, performance from some US-notable teams (remember, a 50 point swing is significant):

Gladbach (Fabian Johnson) +68 to 1807
Roma (Michael Bradley) -3 to 1748
Stoke (Geoff Cameron) +8 to 1696
Frankfurt (Timmy Chandler) +11 to 1660
Hertha (John Brooks)  -31 to 1609
Sunderland (Jozy Altidore) -34 to 1603
Nantes (Alejandro Bedoya) -18 to 1536

Update (Dec 4): This post originated from a discussion about US players heading abroad.  I thought I’d provide some additional context for any international readers.

US players do not transfer to European leagues frequently, particularly from MLS.  This is in contrast to, say, the Dutch league, where players transferred to 20 different countries this past year.  As such, when there are rumors a player might move – the latest is Gyasi Zardes – speculation around the “best destination” escalates quickly.

However, that speculation usually consists of league-wide stereotypes, for better or worse.  Teams on the continent play a more sophisticated style.  The Italian league is great tactically.  A player will toughen up in England or Scotland.  Young players develop in Belgium or Holland.  There may be a hint of truth in these assessments, but it ignores the variance of team quality within a league.

Going back to Zardes, the three rumored clubs to express interest were Reading, Genk, and Porto.  To state that Zardes could either go to the Championship, Belgium, or Portugal is too broad.  Here’s where ELO helps immensely: today, even though those three leagues have similar average ELO scores, those three teams have scores of 1424, 1463, and 1799.

It’s a great demonstration of why club strength matters more than league strength.  Though the three leagues might be viewed holistically as equally strong, I want to see a US player put in the position to play a key role on a team.  Fabian Johnson provides another example.  He’s played in the Bundesliga for the past seven years, but during that time, he was a bit player on a strong Wolfsburg team, made his mark at mid-table Hoffenheim, and now starts regularly for Gladbach.  It’s the type of upward mobility that demonstrates a player can influence games for a national team.