Saturday, August 7, 2021

America & Soccer: It's Complicated

I posted recently about soccer and some potential changes to the games, at least for Americans. That piece was a much longer article originally crafted around the time of the 2014 World Cup. I've recently revised and edited the piece for my column in The Villager. Here's the new version:

America will probably never love soccer the way the rest of the world does. Now that the Euro Cup is over, and once the Olympics begin to fade in our memories, most Americans will go back to basically ignoring futbol until the 2022 World Cup sparks interest again. Americans develop regular crushes on the “Beautiful Game” during events like the Euro Cup, the World Cup, and the Olympics. However, while thousands of American fans watch the early games, interest tends to wane once the national team is eliminated. In a country with so many different forms of entertainment, soccer will simply never be the favorite sport.

That said, soccer has made incredible strides in popularity since I first laced up my cleats in the mid-1970s. The early days of American soccer held great promise when international phenom Pele played in the now defunct North American Soccer League. Many young soccer players and fans of the show “Soccer Made in Germany” waited for soccer’s popularity to spread. Yet, after Pele’s career, national interest cratered. In the past twenty years, however, the sport has finally come into its own, and Major League Soccer is by some metrics as popular as the NHL. Of course, more American kids play soccer than any other sport. The problem is that only a small percentage of those youth soccer players stick with the game or become soccer fans into adulthood.

Of the many reasons Americans have never taken to the game en masse, some aspects of soccer simply inhibit widespread spectator interest in the United States. It’s not simply, as many non-fans argue, that soccer is boring or low scoring. There is arguably more continuous action in a soccer game than either football or baseball, and many Americans enjoy watching slow-paced games like golf. Baseball fans are as excited about a pitchers’ duel leading to a shutout, no-hitter, or perfect game as they are in a game that resembles the Home Run Derby. Thus, as a former futbol player and long-time fan, I’ve considered some ways the sport might appeal to a broader audience. Here are a few simple changes that could alter America's feelings about soccer:

No off-sides penalty: Off-sides is the most useless penalty in soccer, and it’s a primary reason games are low scoring and boring to non-aficionados of soccer. Watching goals waved off because of this frivolous rule is truly disheartening. Ending off-sides would lead to many more goals, not to mention exciting breakaways and one-on-one match-ups with the goalkeeper. Removing the off-sides threat would also require much more strategy on the part of defenses and coaches.

Injury Box: There is nothing more annoying to soccer fans than “flopping” as players writhe on the ground after supposedly being injured from phantom fouls. It’s become such a part of the culture that players will even give up an opportunity to advance the ball simply to “take a dive” in hopes of a penalty shot. Thus, if a player goes down with an injury and stays down long enough for a stoppage in play, he should be forced to leave the field – and be subbed for – for a period of five minutes. The “injury box” would allow for better evaluation of players with potential concussions and serious injuries. In fact, it would mandate prudent medical practice. Players would never risk five minutes off the field just to “flop” in hopes of a penalty kick. Referees could also stop play and send a player to the box to avoid injured players from worsening a true injury.

Continuous Subbing: Soccer’s limit on substitution – a total of three in a full professional game – is another useless rule that doesn’t enhance the game. It’s not conducive with the game so many kids grow up playing where substitutions are quite regular. Intentionally tiring players out is boring and does nothing to elevate the quality of the game being played. Soccer needs regularly fresh players like hockey to keep the action at a higher level. Frequent subbing would lead to greater emphasis on strategy from coaches, and it would increase the energy “on the pitch.”

Of course, soccer doesn’t really need to change, and I tend to be a traditionalist and opposed to most changes in sports. Yet, sports and organizations tend to evolve with the times, and if a few rules tweaks could bring more excitement and fans, I could be convinced.

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