The United States finished third in 2004’s Olympic basketball tournament. The United States did not make the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic this past spring. We don’t even have the world’s best hot dog eater.
Given this data, is anyone really surprised that Team USA scored only one goal for itself?
Maybe we should be. After all, the US did make it to the quarterfinals in the last World Cup, but considering that we finished without a point in 1998, 2002 seems like a fluke.
The more interesting question though why America hasn’t embraced the world’s favorite sport. This is going to be a three part discussion: (A) Why America doesn’t like soccer, (B) why America might grow to like soccer, and (C) what would facilitate the process.
Why America doesn’t like soccer:
Ties. We detest ties. If there’s no winner, then what’s the point? We even convinced hockey to get rid of ties. Pro football is the only sport in which a tie is still possible, but those are extremely rare and could be fixed by just eliminating the clock in overtime.
PKs shootout. I consider this more aggregious than allowing a game to end in a tie. The outcome of a game should be decided by playing more of the game, not by how well a goalkeeper can guess right or left. Someone told me this was it was dramatic. I think it’s ridiculous.
No sudden death. In a sport where scoring events are rare, what’s the point of continuing to play after a team scores in overtime, especially considering that they will go into a defensive shell anyway.
Diving. There are far too many occurances of players flopping and diving to draw a foul call from the ref. The fact that a player can be removed from the game entirely without substitution only encourages this behavior. Furthermore, all of the talk about sportsmanship in the game is negated by this cheap tactic.
Scoring. Good luck getting Americans to to watch guys run after a ball for 90 minutes with no guarantee that anyone will score.
Injury time. Americans want to know how much time is left in the game. Telling the crowd how long injury time will be is a big improvement though.
History/Competition from other sports. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think soccer is the world’s sport. It’s the sport of Europe (primarily England) and was dispersed to the rest of the world via colonialization. At the same time soccer was being codified, organized, and engrained into the culture of those countries, baseball came to prominence in the US, followed by football. There are only so many sports one can dedicated their free time to, and most Americans have already decided that baseball gets the spring and summer, football gets the fall, and basketball and hockey occupy the interim.
Media coverage. Soccer doesn’t have convenient commercial breaks, so TV networks are not enthusiastic to show them. But should we really expect networks to put on programming that they don’t think anyone cares about?
Team USA’s lack of success. Team USA has never been consistently successful, so the expectations are low, and we’re not going to waste our time watching a loser.
What does soccer have in its favor, and why might America grow to love it:
Simple rules. There’s no learning curve to watching a soccer game. Everyone understands what the objective is.
Scoring. The goals, when scored, actually mean something. This is a key feature of baseball, football, and hockey.
Immigrant population. We’re a nation of immigrants, and the majority is from soccer loving nations. TV networks may start to cater to them. If there’s going to be a soccer explosion in the US, it’s their kids who will drive it.
Spectacular plays. Americans love SportsCenter, and while there may not be a lot of scoring in soccer, the goals are often amazing and fit perfectly into highlight shows.
Extensive leagues for kids. Soccer is probably only second to baseball in terms of organized sports for kids. I’m surprised that more people don’t maintain their interest in the sport.
Notice that I did not include the fact that the World Cup is the biggest sporting event in the world as something working in soccer’s favor. I think we’ve proven that on every level, America doesn’t care what the rest of the world thinks.
Changes that would foster Americans’ interest in soccer:
Officiating. What I find most frustrating about watching a soccer game are the flops and dives all over the place to draw the whistle of the ref. The game should be decided by the skill of the players, not their acting ablilty or the whim of the referee. One suggestion I saw was to assign the cards after the game is over. At the least, the officials should be discouraged from calling fouls and there should be real consequences for acting.
Add scoring. The way to do away with all these problems of ties, sudden death, and shootouts, is to add scoring. Oh, and people will be more interested in watching a game with more than one or two scores. Widen the goals or tweak the offsides rule somehow.
Add stoppages/substitutions. One commentator actually said that pretending to be injured was good strategy so that the players could get a rest. If the players need to rest, then it should be part of the game structure, not some acting job. Timeouts would be unwieldy and disrupt the fluidity too much, but maybe they should play the game in quarters. Networks would appreciate the advertising time also. Additional substitutions could be allowed as well.
Media coverage. One major change that should be made in media coverage is the commentators. Don’t treat us like fools. Explain the intricacies of the game, not how stoppage time and cards work for the 85th time. Americans want to second guess decisions and feel like they’re experts. After watching about 10 games from this World Cup, I haven’t learned anything about the strategy of the game. As far as getting the game on the airwaves, FOX has a channel devoted to soccer. Spanish-language channel Univision often features soccer. If Americans want to see soccer on TV, I’m sure the networks will work out the advertising, and ESPN was actually happy with the ratings from World Cup’s first weekend.
Granted, these are the suggestions of a casual fan who only watches soccer every four years, but FIFA is a tweaking organization. The overtime format has changed often, and the ball seems to change every World Cup. The card system was implemented in the 1970’s. Soccer has been changed before and should evolve again.