I want to like soccer. The entire world gets excited about the quadrennial ritual, and I want to join in—to get excited about every turnover, shot on goal, and save. I want to love soccer, but I can’t.
Soccer is undeniably fluid, with smooth transitions between offense and defense that contrast with the play-and-pause of football and baseball. But soccer’s mercurial play also makes it boring to watch. Goals are the only measurement of success and in between nothing (of significance) happens. 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 are the games’ framework and help fans create a gripping narrative from an otherwise meaningless sequence of events. A baseball game is more than a chronology of runs by inning. It’s a pitching dual with inning-ending double plays, over-the-fence grabs, and runners caught stealing. These tangible, memorable events result in outs and thus represent a quantifiable metric of progress towards victory that complements the score.
What is soccer’s narrative? For 90-ish minutes the ball goes back and forth and ends nil-nil. Without an intermediate measure of success soccer has no narrative, just a few goals spread over 90 minutes. There’s lots of action while the seconds tick away on a secret clock, but very few events significantly effect the probability of future outcomes, which makes them meaningless.1
A well-designed game has a build-up and catharsis tied to quantifiable in-game events. First-and-goal, loaded bases, and the power play are interesting because they correlate with scoring. Without any non-goal events to construct a narrative or drive an emotional ebb and flow soccer fans have one of two choices: boredom (a common American response) or a whole-game frenzy of crazed excitement completely decoupled from the actual events on the field.
How this level of fervor is maintained is a mystery, since Soccer has a nasty habit of stopping unpredictably. Just as a player makes a run the ref calls offsides or the keeper lunges forward on the ball, throwing a wet towel on any building excitement. Watching two hours of activity for a few moments of importance hardly seems worth the investment.
Until soccer is willing to experiment with ways to improve itself, it will never woo this American fan. I’m not sure what would help, but soccer’s enormous following is quite the laboratory and I think several ideas are worth a try:
- Restrict offsides to an offensive zone (similar to hockey) to let offenses innovate and make it easier to sustain an attack by reducing penalties during scoring opportunities.
- Let the keeper block shots with their hands but not hold the ball or restrict the use of hands to the 6-yard box so the keeper can’t aggressively charge out to stop an attack. This would make it more difficult for defenses to clear the ball and would result in less unnecessary stoppage right when things were getting exciting.
- Eliminate penalty shootouts. Changing the rules so substantially in overtime is silly (you too college football).
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.
Surprisingly, even the corner kick is a statistically insignificant predictor of scoring. ↩