Exercise in Futility: Soccer Player Grades

March 28th, 2013

By Leander Schaerlaeckens

On the press bus to the Estadio Azteca on Tuesday, a half-dozen or so American soccer writers had a lively discussion about postgame player grades. Also partaking was US Soccer’s Senior Manager of Communications Neil Buethe, who pointed out that the grades were typically all over the map. This underscored once more the senselessness of the entire exercise.

Mercifully, when I joined FOX Soccer, I was no longer required to do them, because as my editor Jamie Trecker puts it: “Player ratings are the bane of the soccer world. They are the rhetorical equivalent of giving every kid who shows up a trophy.”

Well said.

While I understand the utility of grades – they drive traffic, fill comment sections and give you a tool to superimpose a quasi-box score on a fluid sport – they remain highly unscientific and, to my belief, are prone to erode a writer’s credibility.

My issues with it:

1.      There is no universal scale, this much we discovered on the bus. Some guys consider a 5 a passing grade, others a 6. Some would never give a player a 10, because this signifies an unattainable perfection; others argue that if the scale is 1-10, then a 10 should be a possibility. The band of possible grades also differs widely. While some writers only have the best and worst players two grade points apart, others put a 6-point gap between them. (I was especially guilty of this, I think. I once gave Jonathan Bornstein a 1.5. Not really fair, since he was surely more than a quarter as good as his teammates. Sorry, Johnny.)

2.      Accounting for context is problematic. Do you grade a player according to his own ability, or to that of his opponent, or do you apply a unified scale? If Michael Bradley and Kyle Beckerman play the exact the same game, do they get the same grade? Because by Bradley’s standard and ability, he would probably have had a mediocre game, while Beckerman would have played out of his skin. And if Jozy Altidore scores three goals at home in a friendly against Belize, does he get a higher grade than if he scores one game-winning goal at the Azteca in a World Cup qualifier against Mexico?

3.      Is overall team performance a factor? If the team wins, does the collective grading curve rise? If it loses, does it fall? This makes no logical sense, as a player can excel in losses or stink it up in a win.

4.      There are logistical roadblocks to grading. Editors typically require the grades from the writers within a few minutes of the final whistle, to fill the void until the full game report comes in. That means they spend the last 15 minutes (at least) of the games writing. It’s hard to pay attention to what’s happening on the field when you’re writing. This means whatever happens late in the game usually goes unaccounted for in the grades, and the contributions of late substitutions is scarcely noticed. Writers also have to make snap judgments. To do it properly, you would need a few hours to re-watch the game in its entirety. But that luxury is a utopia. Instead, they have seconds to affix a grade to a player’s 90-odd-minute body of work. You get one wrong and you get burned for days in the comment section.

5.      It’s a fluid sport. All measurement of performance is entirely subjective. There is never a disclaimer to point this out, however.

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