I want to like soccer--honestly, I really do. The entire world gets excited about their quadrennial ritual and I want to join in. I want to get excited about every turnover, shot on goal, and save. I want to love soccer, but I can't.
Soccer, as its advocates will readily admit, is fluid and graceful, with smooth transitions between offense and defense that should provide a welcome contrast to the play-and-pause of football and baseball. Unfortunately they don't, and soccer is boring--not because there's no scoring but because nothing else happens either. In soccer goals are the only measurement of success. Baseball has runs, bases, outs, strikes, and balls. The game might be tied, but loaded bases let you know to perk up. Football has multiple ways to score plus field position, down, and distance. Even hockey has the penalty box, the offensive zone, and offsides
These systems aren't just complicated rules; they create a narrative that helps fans to appreciate a game by providing a framework that turns a sequence of events into a story. You wouldn't describe a baseball game by listing how many runs were scored in each inning; instead, you'd start by saying it was a pitching dual then describe the key strike outs, double plays, and over-the-fence grabs. These tangible, memorable events become anchor points in the story. Similarly, a football game could be a battle of field position fought in the trenches or a wild west shootout.
What is soccer's narrative? For 90-ish minutes the ball goes back and forth. The game often ends nil-nil. Lame. Without an intermediate measure of success soccer has no narrative. Things may happen while the seconds tick away on a secret clock but because they rarely result in a tangible objective--much less a goal--the events are meaningless. A good game has build-up and catharsis tied to the story. Without a narrative to drive an emotional ebb and flow, soccer fans have one of two choices: remain detached (enter America), or artificially amp up their excitement and stay crazed the entire game (enter everyone else).
Soccer also has a nasty habit of stopping suddenly. Just as a player makes a run a foul is called or the keeper grabs the ball, throwing a wet towel on any building excitement. Even a corner kick usually results in a goal kick or another corner. Staying excited for two hours about nothing of importance hardly seems worth the effort.
Until soccer is willing to experiment with ways to improve itself, it will never woo the American fan. Who knows what suggestions might actually help, but soccer's enormous following is quite the laboratory to experiment with. I think several ideas are worth a try:
- Add more officials. Football has seven; in soccer there are technically five but only one who calls penalties. One seventh the eyes watch a bigger field. No surprise then that soccer is notorious for acting, which occurs because there aren't enough officials and because acting isn't penalized.
- Eliminate penalty shootouts. Changing the rules so substantially in overtime is silly (you too college football).
- Eliminate the point for ties. Points are for winners, if you tied you didn't win.
- Use a game clock. Soccer prides itself on a continuously running clock; what a farce. The existence of stoppage time admits the truth.
- Let the keeper block shots with their hands but not hold the ball. The result would be less unnecessary stoppage right when things were getting exciting. Or, restrict the use of hands to the 6-yard box so the keeper can't aggressively charge out to stop an attack.
- Restrict offsides to an offensive zone, say midfield or some new line. Or, treat the 18-yard box like the key in basketball: limit how many players can be in it and for how long.
Football has added the two-point conversion, moved back kickoffs, and modified overtime. Hockey legalized the two-line pass and basketball the zone defense. The merits of any change are debatable, but at least these sports are innovating. To fix its problems soccer also needs to embrace experiment and change. In fact, perhaps America's real issue isn't the lack of scoring or story--just that it's just tough to fall in love with something that thinks it's perfect.