It’s okay for Americans to not thoroughly embrace soccer

Soccer - FA Barclaycard Premiership - Manchester United v ArsenalEvery four years, when the World Cup comes around, Americans have to figure out how to respond to the fact that soccer is the “sport of the world” in virtually every country but the US. Many Americans respond by saying that “we’ll show them that even though it’s ‘their’ sport, we are Americans and once we put our minds to it, we can defeat anyone at their own game.”

Fortunately, there are lots of good soccer players in the United States, many of whom are first or second generation immigrants. Soccer has long been a staple sport in Catholic schools, and over the past thirty years most public schools have come to field teams. It’s a good sport for children of all ages because (a) it’s played outdoors, (b) a lot of kids can play at one time, and (c) it truly lends itself to teaching team play.

There are certain norms that are engrained in the four major professional sports in the U.S., not including soccer. These sports are: (a) baseball, (b) basketball, (c) football [that is, American football, as opposed to soccer], and (d) hockey. The norms include:

  1. The end of the game is dictated by a clock, with the exception of baseball which is measured by innings played. A player, coach, or fan can look at the clock and determine how much time remains in the contest. There is certainty to the end. Score one for clarity.
  2. The clock essentially runs when the game is in-play. When there’s a stoppage in play, the clock stops. A fan can always tell how much time remains. Play can be interrupted by the likes of time-outs, incomplete passes; pucks or basketballs that go out of bounds, etc. All of these are predictable and are part of clock management. Score another one for clarity.
  3. American sports are not marathons in which the “last man or woman standing” wins. We allow for free substitution in football, basketball, and hockey. This strategy is (a) humane because it allows players to are at or near exhaustion to get a break, (b) strategically smart because it allows the appropriate players to be on the field when the specialties are called upon, and (c) democratic in that it often ensures that every player on the roster of a team actually gets into the game. World Cup soccer only allows three substitutions per game meaning that at least nine players will not get to compete in the game that day.
  4. While there are some American football fans who regrettably seem to get a charge out of seeing an opposing player injured, for the most part we don’t like to see players getting hurt. Injuries are serious business and rarely do players “dive” or “flop” with the intention of drawing a foul on the other team or causing a clock stoppage. We recognize that most of our athletes are honorable warriors who only go down when they are seriously injured. We do a far better job of keeping the theater out of the game.
  5. Appropriate consequences for the commission of fouls, particularly those that are difficult to call. I just saw a Mexican player “yellow-carded” for semi-interfering with a Dutch player in their World Cup “Round of Sixteen” game. Not only did the Netherlands then get a penalty kick which went on to provide the margin of victory for their team, but the offending Mexican player would have had to sit out the next game had Mexico advanced.Rarely in the U.S. are players banned from playing in the next game or games because of on-field transgressions. In the N.B.A. players “foul out” after six violations; five in college ball. In each case, the team is not forced to play a person short; so long as a player is available on the bench he or she can replace the temporarily banished player. Players in football, baseball, and hockey can all be thrown out of a game, but their team is not forced to play a man short for the rest of the game or in the next game. This ensures more of a level playing field.

While I played soccer through high school, it never was as exciting for me as baseball, football or hockey. I understand that soccer is the sport of choice in most of the rest of the world. One reason for this might be that like basketball, it’s very inexpensive to play. All soccer needs is a ball and a flat surface with two goals. Basketball needs a ball, a flat surface and two hoops. It is no surprise that these two sports are universally played.

There are few indications that soccer is a declining sport on the global scene. For that reason, its basic rules should probably be left alone. But if I was tasked to make the sport into one that Americans would more fully embrace, I would take a year to try “experimental soccer” with changes such as:

  1. Going with a real clock (which is largely done in college and high school soccer).
  2. Allowing free substitution (which is largely done in college and high school soccer).
  3. In order to reduce concussions, disallow “heading” the ball until at least high school. This step is currently being pushed by some of America’s finest women soccer players.
  4. Experiment with allowing “off-sides.”
  5. Experiment with allowing “hand balls.”
  6. Get rid of yellow and red cards and replace them with penalties similar to those in hockey. These could include a team playing a man short for two or five minutes or even banning a particular player for the remainder of the game, but it would be nothing as severe as forcing the team to play one man down for the balance of a game and then the next game as well.

In some ways, it is awkward to make suggestions such as these. I truly object to the notion of American exceptionalism and feel that it’s important for this nation to continually be eating humble pie. On the other hand, there are countless times when the United States can have ideas that are beneficial to other countries. This just may be one of them. The chances of these changes occurring may be as likely as the U.S. turning into a democratic socialist state, but theymay still be worth trying.