June 23, 2014

Making soccer worth watching

Every four years when the World Cup rolls around, American Exceptionalism once again rises to the fore as Americans by and large demonstrate their exceptional indifference to the world's most popular team sport.

To be sure, that's becoming less true by the year. Even Salt Lake City has a professional soccer club. And soccer is certainly a good way to get kids to run around outdoors without the risk of bodily injury from playing American football (and the huge cost).

The World Cup rings up respectable ratings in the U.S. simply by being rare enough and weird enough to draw in the curious. Thanks to its sheer excess and pageantry, the Olympics likewise gets millions to watch sporting events we never would otherwise.

Even so, most World Cup matches don't draw enough attention to escape the walled garden of ESPN. Meanwhile, NHK shuffles its schedule to broadcast World Cup matches (which, for licensing reasons, viewers of TV Japan are spared from viewing).

At times like this, I, who do not care that much about sports in general, am happy to care even less about soccer. But in the abstract, I am intrigued.

My international satellite TV package includes One World Sports. It reminds me of ESPN way back in the day when ESPN would carry any obscure athletic activity to fill 24 hours of programming. Stuff like cricket, snooker, badminton, and darts.

Plus lots of soccer.

So channel surfing around, now and then I'll end up watching five minutes here and there. At first, I was impressed by all the skillful passing going on. And then I realized it was mostly going on mid-field. And then I realized that nothing else was happening.

If the ball got anywhere near the goal, the defense simply fell back into the goalie box and turned the game into human bumper pool. Once everybody crowded in there, there was no "strategy," only a lot of randomly lunging and knocking the ball around.

And occasionally even knocking it into the net. A goal in soccer occasions such elation because it is such an unusual occurrence. As The Simpsons so aptly described the sport: "It's all here: fast-kickin', low scorin'. And ties? You bet!"

Then it struck me: soccer is what basketball would look like if goaltending was allowed. There was no shot clock. And the fast break was prohibited.

We'd be talking boring, low scoring games where the offense would somehow have to power through to the basket and slam the ball through the hoop without fouling anybody, or catch the defense so out of position it was incapable of blocking the shot.

Meaning that the most interesting games in soccer, paradoxically, are those when one team completely outclasses its opponent, or neither team has much of a defense (the very definition of a dull contest in football, basketball, or baseball).

But these are problems that can be easily fixed.

Getting rid of the offside rule is only the first step. The dumbest rule in all of sports, it's emblematic of a game absurdly weighted in favor of the defense (second dumbest: the secret time clock).

A physically bigger goal would help (in hockey too), twice as wide and arced (or make the blasted field smaller). That still wouldn't eliminate the bumper pool defense.

Here's what soccer really needs: basketball's 3-second and goaltending rules. In soccer, though, the 3-second rule would apply to the defense. Call it the "onside" rule:

Aside from the goalie, no defensive player shall remain inside the goalie box for more than 3 seconds unless the ball or an offensive player is also inside the goalie box.

Corner kicks would be like free throws. Nobody (except the goalie) could step into the goalie box until the ball was kicked.

These changes would make strategy and tactics a critical part of the equation. That is, setting up and executing specific plays with a high likelihood of producing desired results, rather than devolving into a life-sized illustration of Brownian motion.

During a corner kick, where would the offense position themselves? Would they group together or spread apart? Would the defense cover them man-to-man or attempt zone coverage? The kicker would need to signal where or to whom he would kick the ball.

A player dribbling the ball downfield would similarly need to decide whether to enter the goalie box, drawing the defense along with him, or pass to a teammate behind the defense but not in the goalie box, making possible a one-on-one fast break.

And while I'm at it, I'd allow hitting the ball with the hands, volleyball-style. Because deliberately hitting a fast-moving object with your head is really, really stupid.

Of course, one could counter that at some point, soccer would cease to be soccer. But consider how often the rules of basketball have changed over the past fifty years: the size of the key, the three-point shot, the zone defense, the shot clock, jump shots.

Come to think about it, basketball still favors the offense too much. Goaltending should be permitted if a defensive player jumps from outside the paint. That should make the game more interesting.

Not that I'd be likely to watch in any case (unless I was really bored and there was nothing else on).

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# posted by Anonymous Dan
6/24/2014 7:06 AM   
Scoring in both soccer and hockey is extremely hard except when it occurs as a result of a defensive blunder. But the hockey rink is a much more confined area so the skaters keep trying again and again to mount an attack. Consequently in hockey there are many more attempts to score goals even though few are successful.

Since the soccer field is so much larger and because of limits on substitutions soccer players are much more selective and strategic about their offensive approach. Consequently there is a good portion of a game where there is no offense. Rather the players just push the ball forward and then fall back into defense. Why exhaust oneself to score a goal when the odds are so steep against it happening?

But part of this is strategy. If you can lull the defense asleep then you can surprise with a quick attack. The US did this against Portugal to score its second goal. They spent 15 minutes doing nothing on offense and then out of the blue they sprinted on attack, beat the defense and got a pass to a player in front of the goal where the ball could be put into the net.

In this way soccer is like a game of baseball where the only way to score a run is via a triple. In such a baseball game there would be lots of activity but very little of it of consequence (Insert joke here about how baseball is exactly this way now!)

This is what fascinates me most about soccer. So much of what happens in the game is inconsequential and EVERYONE knows it. Thus the clock is marked to the minute. Not second, but the minute. The NBA marks time to the tenth of a second and soccer is the complete opposite - embracing time imprecision rather than time precision.

Soccer also allows for extremely imprecise refereeing, despite the fact that the consequences of a missed foul, or incorrectly assigned foul can be huge!

Soccer allows for a team to play shorthanded whether due to injury or to penalty, as if playing with 10 instead of 11 is no big deal.

Yet the act of scoring a goal in soccer demands a sequence of very precise maneuvers. Thus in a game where so much is assumed not to matter there is this element of scoring where precision and timeliness is everything.

And soccer fans like it this way. Of all sports fans they are the most stubborn to accept change. The NBA instituted the shot-clock to save itself. The NFL liberalized passing to save itself. MLB has tweaked various rules throughout its history (although it should do more). The NHL finally cracked down on fighting and liberalized passing rules to open up the game. But soccer? It takes offense at the suggestion its rules are archaic. So it will be very interesting if league officials ever modify the game.