Chaos Theory: Why Americans Don't Love Soccer

Barking CarnivalAnalyst IJuly 16, 2010

CARSON, CA - JULY 04:  Landon Donovan #10 of the Los Angeles Galaxy warms up before the game against the Seattle Sounders FC on July 4, 2010 at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California.  Donovan is playing in his first MLS game since returning from the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.  (Photo by Jeff Golden/Getty Images)
Jeff Golden/Getty Images

I’ve given some thought recently to what it is about soccer that Americans don’t like. I understand the usual complaints about a lack of scoring, strange rules, not invented here, it being difficult to follow on television, it not being suited for commercial advertising, etc.

None of those fully get there in terms of an explanation, though.

Unlike every other popular American sport, soccer goes from chaos to order rather than from order to chaos—this, I think, is the real explanation, and I think it says some interesting things about the American sports fan. 

A common element of baseball, football, and basketball—the trinity of popular American sports—is frequent stoppage of play.

With baseball and football, it’s obvious—there are literal, structural breaks between plays. With basketball it’s less obvious but no less present—in addition to the timeouts, play stops after every score, and scoring is very frequent.

Another commonality is the use of stoppages to re-form the order of the players on the field/court. Baseball players shift position between batters and sometimes between pitches. Football teams run different plays, for which both offense and defense adjust formation and personnel. Basketball teams call plays and defensive sets.

A final commonality, and an important one, is that in American sports, the ball is under the direct control of one of the players the VAST majority of the time.

The wait to see whether a long bomb will be completed, a three-pointer sunk, or where a hit baseball will land are minuscule when compared to the amount of time the football is under center or handled by a QB or RB, the amount of time a basketball is being dribbled by someone, or the amount of time the baseball is possessed by the pitcher.

This means that every one of the popular American sports follows a pattern. Order is imposed from above (the coach) during frequent stoppages, and the players do not exercise their own latitude until after the ordered play begins.

The things we tend to celebrate—the home runs, the nasty dunks, the sweet open-field jukes—are the chaotic acts of the individual.

The breakaway running back who decides how to run and who to juke, the hitter who decides which pitch to swing at full-bore, the basketball player who crosses-over a defender and gets to the rim—all of those are acts of individual discretion, departures from the script, individual acts of chaos.

Once a play begins in an American sport, the players as individual actors devolve the structure in a way that they individually believe will best accomplish the goal they seek to accomplish.

I’m not trying to get heady here, but players in American sports progress from structure to freedom, from complete control and possession to a short period of loss of control, a sort of sports entropy.

Soccer is an entirely different beast. Once kick-off occurs, there are very few stoppages of play. And even those few stoppages rarely result in any massive repositioning of any meaningful sort, because the coach can’t call a timeout and can’t access the players.

Soccer is chaos, really. Twenty-two players on a huge field, 20 of them unable to use their hands and the two that can are restricted in their movement, chasing a single ball. But the thing in soccer that is celebrated and remembered is the exercise of control and order out of the chaos.

The plays start with a bouncing or free ball, resulting usually from a tackle, and then a team or player controls the ball and orchestrates what looks like a planned movement without any set play or spoken plan. It starts as nothing, an amorphous mass, and moves into a determined something.

The Spanish style of play is so beloved is because of its close control. The Xavis, Iniestas, and Fabregases of the world whirl away from contact and trouble with the ball glued to their feet. They read angles and body movement to determine where to pass the ball so that their team maintains control of it.

They exercise control over the ball and game. When they score a goal, like the one Iniesta scored in the final, it is an exercise of individuals imposing control on a chaotic situation.

The goal is a perfect illustration—Torres crosses the ball in, a Dutch player mis-kicks a half clearance, the ball bounces free to Fabregas, who immediately controls it and plays it into the path of Iniesta, who controls it by striking it into the net.

Out of nowhere, two deliberate acts of attention and control stand out amongst the chaos of the ball pinging around freely, and those two deliberate acts win the game.

This is true of almost everything about soccer. Sneijder’s passing is celebrated because he takes an uncontrolled thing, a freely bouncing and moving round object, and uses it with precision and purpose.

His vision requires not just exercising control over the ball itself, but understanding the movements and purposes of players with whom he cannot then communicate. A sort of telepathy.

The very act of scoring a goal is a triumph of order over chaos. That’s not to say that speed and power don’t have a place in soccer, but there is no quality soccer without technique, and technique in soccer is entirely the exercise of dominion over the ball and the other players.

Three- and four-pass sequences, each of which involve a series of intended touches, are small victories over the chaos of long down-field balls that multiple players jump in the air to try to win.

Those sequences are never planned—they occur spontaneously through the players reading one another and making a million little adjustments without conversation, consultation, or overt coordination.

That ‘s the real beauty of soccer to me. It is a victory over chaos. The artistry of the great players is that they make that victory look easy. Zidane was Zidane because he made the ball do what he wanted despite 11 other people, a field, and the ball itself conspiring against him.

Same with Dennis Bergkamp. Same with Michel Platini, Diego Maradona, Leo Messi, and the other geniuses. They read the players, the spacing, and the field, then they use all of those reads, on the fly and in concert with a perfect control over the ball, to orchestrate tremendous movements that look master-planned.

There is no room in American sports for this kind of artistry. A pitcher becomes beloved when he makes his intended, and called for, pitch with frequency. A quarterback is a star when his throws go exactly where he intended and where the play directed.

A basketball player becomes a star (excepting your true point guards, like Chris Paul and Steve Nash, who are really the only American athletes who do something similar, albeit in a far more controlled, smaller environment) when he uses his tremendous athleticism to regularly explode past lesser athletes in a confined space.

I don’t know why the American character is not open to the freedom and creativity exercised by soccer players.

It’s the sport that most nearly encapsulates the free market concept—very little top-down control, everything arises organically through competition, every player on the field is positioned so as to have the possibility of scoring, and the ultimate reward is a goal scored by a single player, a goal which trickles its positive effect down to the rest of the team.

What is it in the American character that prefers sports that go from order to chaos then? Is it the regular chaos and freedom to which we’re exposed that makes structured sports seem so much more attractive?

Similarly, is it true that people and cultures more accustomed to a tremendous amount of top-down autocratic control are more attracted to the freedom and chaos of soccer?

I don’t know the real answer to those questions. But there is something there. Whatever it is, it’s the real reason why soccer is not likely to overtake the American sports-consciousness anytime soon.


From the FanTake blog: Pitchmen

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