Monday, November 18, 2013

Trending upward

It appears I've landed in the UAE at an opportune time. As I've mentioned before, the national team is on something of a roll. How much of a roll? Since Mahdi Ali was promoted from Under-23 team coach to the senior team and lost his first match in charge 1-0 in a September 6, 2012, friendly at Japan, these are the UAE's results:
  • 09/11/12: Def. Kuwait 3-0 in Dubai (Friendly)
  • 10/12/12: Drew 2-2 with Uzbekistan in Dubai (Friendly)
  • 10/16/12: Def. Bahrain 6-2 in Dubai (Friendly)
  • 11/14/12: Def. Estonia 2-1 in Abu Dhabi (Friendly)
  • 12/25/12: Def. Yemen 2-0 in Doha (Friendly)
  • 01/05/13: Def. Qatar 3-1 in Isa Town (2013 Gulf Cup of Nations)
  • 01/08/13: Def. Bahrain 2-1 in Manama (2013 Gulf Cup of Nations)
  • 01/11/13: Def. Oman 2-0 in Isa Town (2013 Gulf Cup of Nations)
  • 01/15/13: Def. Kuwait 1-0 in Riffa (2013 Gulf Cup of Nations)
  • 01/18/13: Def. Iraq 2-1 (AET) in Riffa (2013 Gulf Cup of Nations)
  • 02/06/13: Def. Vietnam 2-1 in Hanoi (2015 Asian Cup qualifying)
  • 03/22/13: Def. Uzbekistan 2-1 in Abu Dhabi (2015 Asian Cup qualifying)
  • 09/05/13: Drew 3-3 (won 7-6 on PKs) with Trinidad & Tobago in Riyadh (2013 OSN Cup)
  • 09/09/13: Def. New Zealand 2-0 in Riyadh (2013 OSN Cup)
  • 10/05/13: Def. Laos 2-0 in Shenzhen, China (Friendly)
  • 10/09/13: Def. Malaysia 3-1 in Shenzhen (Friendly)
  • 10/15/13: Def. Hong Kong 4-0 in Hong Kong (2015 Asian Cup qualifying)
  • 11/11/13: Def. Philippines 4-0 in Abu Dhabi (Friendly)
  • 11/15/13: Def. Hong Kong 4-0 in Abu Dhabi (2015 Asian Cup qualifying)
That's 19 games unbeaten and six/17 (depending on how you count shootouts) consecutive victories. With Vietnam coming to town for their penultimate Asian Cup qualifier, there's a good chance that streak reaches 20 games unbeaten. Granted, the UAE's opponents during that stretch are hardly a murderer's row -- the highest-ranked foe is Uzbekistan, 55th in the world, and the average FIFA ranking is 117th -- but you can only play the teams in front of you, and winning is a good habit to develop at any level.

The UAE was 120th in the world and 15th in Asia at the start of the streak, and now it's 71st in the world and seventh in Asia (and the most recent rankings were released on October 17, so there are more points on the way). That's quite the rise in just over a year. It might have been even higher had the UAE not had such an awful time in the third round of World Cup qualifying -- they finished last in their group, with just one win and five losses. Bowing out at that stage left the Falcons having to fill their schedule with friendlies, which only count for one-third as many points as official matches in the FIFA rankings. That is important as fretting over the FIFA rankings is about more than just bragging rights -- Asia seeds its World Cup qualifying by those rankings, and if the UAE had its current ranking at the time the draw for 2014 qualifying was made, it would've been among the top five seeds instead of in the third pot and facing a much tougher draw. Fans now are hoping the Falcons haven't peaked at the wrong time -- too late for the 2014 World Cup, too soon for the next edition in Russia.

Just for purposes of comparison, how does the UAE's ongoing streak compare to the run of success the United States enjoyed this year?

This is the US national team's schedule after losing 4-2 to Belgium in a friendly in Cleveland. The run includes 12 straight wins and an overall mark of 15 wins, one draw (at Scotland) and one loss (at Costa Rica).
  • 06/02/13: Def. Germany 4-3 in Washington, DC (Friendly)
  • 06/07/13: Def. Jamaica 2-1 in Kingston, Jamaica (2014 World Cup qualifier)
  • 06/11/13: Def. Panama 2-0 in Seattle (2014 World Cup qualifier)
  • 06/18/13: Def. Honduras 1-0 in Salt Lake City (2014 World Cup qualifier)
  • 07/05/13: Def. Guatemala 6-0 in San Diego (Friendly)
  • 07/09/13: Def. Belize 6-1 in Portland (2013 Gold Cup)
  • 07/13/13: Def. Cuba 4-1 in Salt Lake City (2013 Gold Cup)
  • 07/16/13: Def. Costa Rica 1-0 in East Hartford, CT (2013 Gold Cup)
  • 07/21/13: Def. El Salvador 5-1 in Baltimore (2013 Gold Cup)
  • 07/24/13: Def. Honduras 3-1 in Dallas (2013 Gold Cup)
  • 07/28/13: Def. Panama 1-0 in Chicago (2013 Gold Cup)
  • 08/14/13: Def. Bosnia & Herzegovina 4-3 in Sarajevo (Friendly)
  • 09/06/13: Lost 3-1 to Costa Rica at San Jose (2014 World Cup qualifier)
  • 09/10/13: Def. Mexico 2-0 in Columbus, OH (2014 World Cup qualifier)
  • 10/11/13: Def. Jamaica 2-0 at Kansas City (2014 World Cup qualifier)
  • 10/15/13: Def. Panama 3-2 at Panama City (2014 World Cup qualifier)
  • 11/15/13: Drew 0-0 with Scotland at Glasgow (Friendly)
At the start of this run, the United States was 28th in the world and second in Concacaf (Mexico was 11 places higher), and in the most recent rankings the US is 13th in the world and first in Concacaf (Mexico slipped to 24th in the world). The United States' highest-ranked opponent was Germany (second) and the average FIFA ranking for its opponents was 53rd. Net gain during these two streaks -- 242 points for the United States (798 to 1040), 218 points for the UAE (278 to 496). Similar amounts of points gained, but the UAE climbed 49 places while the US made up just 15. It goes to show the difference between rising out of the lower reaches of the rankings and staying near the top of the heap.

One looming question for both countries is the sustainability of these improvements. This version of the US national team has often been dubbed the deepest ever in terms of talent, even if certain positions remain bothersome. Still, this team has experienced some of the highest of highs (winning in Mexico, beating Italy and Germany) in addition to the lowest of lows (collapsing in Honduras, first ever loss to Jamaica) in the Jurgen Klinsmann era. The United States has progressed to the point where it can feel fairly safe about qualifying from Concacaf and is firmly in the wide swath of teams whose World Cup fortunes depend largely on the draw. How long will that last, especially given the struggles of US teams at the U-17, U-20 and U-23 levels? The likes of Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard are on their last World Cup cycle, and it remains to be seen just how much talent is behind them.

As for the UAE, there is frequent (perhaps too much so) mention of this being the country's "golden generation" -- something of a loaded term these days. Thus far they have qualified for the Olympics and the Asian Cup. True, Spain is awash in international glory thanks to its considerable success in youth development, but how have the "golden generations" of England, the Ivory Coast or Portugal fared? Moreover, how much of the UAE's success is based on having all the best players close at hand as well as a consistent, local hand on the wheel instead of a succession of highly paid (and quickly fired) foreigners? It's worth remembering that while the UAE has more than 8 million people in it, only a little more than 1 million of them are actually Emiratis -- a population base closer to the likes of Trinidad & Tobago or East Timor. Can the UAE translate this success and all the resources that come with its vast wealth to build something sustainable, or will the team's arc be more akin to that of a meteor, briefly shining brightly before burning up when the atmosphere gets thicker?

These questions should become clearer over the next couple years. The United States likely will face a difficult draw in next year's World Cup, and it will get the best shot from all its Concacaf rivals when it defends its Gold Cup crown in 2015 (and with a Confederations Cup place as an added incentive). The UAE will defend its Gulf Cup title late next year, and it should get an idea of its true standing in Asia when it gets to the Asian Cup and starts playing teams of its own caliber (if not higher). Until then, fans of both teams would be well-advised to sit back and enjoy the ride.

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