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!"
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).