Soccer player ratings are confusing, erratic, useless … and great.

The stadium scene.
Sept. 7 2011 12:26 PM

Lionel Messi Goes to 11

Soccer's player ratings are confusing, erratic, and useless. More sports should have them.

Jozy Altidore #17 of the United States advances the ball against Team Panama during the CONCACAF Gold Cup Match at Raymond James Stadium on June 11, 2011 in Tampa, Florida. Click image to expand.
Why is Jozy Altidore rated so differently among soccer analysts?

The U.S. men's soccer team lost 1-0 to Costa Rica last Friday, but the result masked some strong individual play from the Americans as the players tried to implement new coach Jurgen Klinsmann's ball-control strategy. But which players stood out? It depends whom you ask. ESPN's Jeff Carlisle rated Jozy Altidore one of the team's top performers on the night, giving him a 7 on soccer's 1-to-10 player-rating scale and noting his "excellent link play." SI.com's Steve Davis gave Altidore his lowest grade of the night, a 4, writing that the powerful forward never came close to scoring.

For Altidore to earn such vastly different ratings, you'd think he gave a truly confusing performance—perhaps he dribbled Maradona-like through the Costa Rican defense only to Ronny Rosenthal the ball off the crossbar. Or maybe he was an asset in the attacking run of play but a liability on defense and set pieces. But no—Altidore played a typically Altidorean game in which he often got to the right place at the right time but lacked the touch to finish off his chances.

Jozy Altidore's conflicting player ratings have less to do with the player than with the scale. The game of rating players from 1 to 10 is a subjective mess with no statistical value—a poor stand-in for real statistics in a game desperate for them. Despite its flaws, the scale seems to be growing in popularity.

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Player ratings first appeared in the late 1970s in England. To stand out from the glut of soccer magazines in the U.K., newcomer Match hired a London-based news agency called Hayters to provide in-depth statistics for every British match, all the way down to the Scottish Second Division. Each writer was tasked with compiling the Match Facts, which included an Entertainment Rating for each game, as well as the Player Ratings, in which the starters and substitutes were given a score between 1 and 10.

Match's readership took off, and the publication soon brought Match Facts in-house. The mag also began awarding a Matchman of the Month award to the player in each division with the highest average player rating, presenting the trophies at stadiums around the country. It was a great marketing tool, says then-editor Mel Bagnall, and the subjectivity of the ratings only added to their appeal. "Match [was] the currency for debate in playgrounds, on terraces and in the pubs," he says.

Other soccer rags, including Shoot and Football Weekly, soon started offering similar athlete appraisals. Over the ensuing decades, the practice has gone worldwide. Nowadays, every soccer game of consequence—and many of no consequence—is followed by sheets of 1-to-10 player ratings from reporters and bloggers.

These ratings wouldn't be so popular if soccer fans had more stats to bat around than goals and assists. While a few advanced statistics are slowly rolling out, soccermetrics are way behind those of baseball, basketball, and even (American) football. John Godfrey of the New York Times' Goal blog says that the current stats are both limited and misleading: "A striker might score two goals in a match, but one of them could be a sloppy deflected shot off a corner kick and the other could be through a penalty kick that another player earned." In that case, Godfrey says, the player ratings are a good way to add some context, and to give the players' teammates the plaudits they deserve.