Can Someone Please Explain Soccer to Me?

This is the post where I probably sound like a jerk but seriously…what’s the appeal of professional soccer? I am not a big sports guy. I like college basketball in March. I enjoy watching golf but more as a sort of white noise than something to get excited about. I watch about three college football games per year. I played baseball for years but haven’t seen more than a handful of games in the last decade. NASCAR is bizarre to me. I like the obscure sports in the Olympics because it is brief. Not sure I would watch pole vaulting beyond the couple of days it is on the air. The only sport I am truly obsessed with is MMA and I totally get why some people don’t see the appeal.

Tonight we went to dinner at a Mexican restaurant and every TV in the place was tuned to the World Cup. The servers were all distracted by the games and there was a large crowd of Latinos watching one of the big screens while enjoying their meals. I think sports as a philosophical concept is a good one and I admire the dedication of soccer fans but in the hour we were there I didn’t see a goal scored. WTF? So, some questions:

– Is the defensive battle what it’s really all about?

– Are the long stretches between goals a way of building tension that is released when someone finally scores?

– Am I right that white Americans liking soccer seems just a little bit pretentious?

– Are there actually Americans who didn’t play soccer themselves who enjoy watching it?

Educate me folks. And for the record, I don’t understand hockey either which I usually refer to as ‘ice soccer’ because they seem roughly the same to me in concept.

 

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117 thoughts on “Can Someone Please Explain Soccer to Me?

  1. Only have a couple minutes but i never played soccer and i do enjoy watching it. I think you either intuitively get or love or a sport or you don’t. If it doesn’t move you, then that is all there is to it. Why would white folks liking soccer be pretentious? Soccer is the most popular sport in the world.Clearly there is something about it people really like. With the growth of cable tv we can see far more of all sorts of sports so its easier to get hooked into something that you aren’t exposed to in your local life.

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  2. You’re right that soccer and hockey are theoretically similar in structure. Fewer players in hockey, much faster passing and shooting, but also much smaller field of play. The larger number of players in soccer creates an opportunity for more complex formations and passing patterns than in hockey.

    Basketball seems like soccer and hockey to me too, although there is no goalkeeper in basketball. But the passing, the formations, and the probing through of opposing formations is where a lot of the action is. So too are ball handling skills and the use of quick handling maneuvers and body movements (what they called “juking” when Barry Sanders did it for the Lions) that are one of the ways players penetrate into or disrupt opposing formations.

    Perhaps the hardest thing for the soccer viewing newbie to understand is the offsides rule, which can seem really arbitrary when it gets enforced, particularly because the field of play is so big. And the clock not stopping, but extra time getting added on to the end of each half, can be a little bit disconcerting too until you get used to it.

    If it’s not your thing, it’s not your thing. Some of us are going to be gabbing about it round these parts for the next couple of weeks, but you need not. The only thing that you could do that would really bug me would be to root for Ghana.

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    • Also, hockey has the sensible rule that even the most serious penalty ends after the other team scores, while a soccer penalty can leave a team shorthanded the whole game.

      Apropos, can anyone explain why flopping, so common in basketball and soccer, seems not to happen in hockey?

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      • I tend to think it’s because of the negative consequences in a sport where hard hitting and fights are part of the game and culture. Eg, if the NBA let players go after floppers by allowing more hard fouls I think you’d see a lot less of it. But the NBA is really becoming a joke when it comes to contested three pointers. It seems like about half of those contests end with the shooter on his back regardless of whether contact was made. And they keep getting the call.

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      • I think flopping probably doesn’t happen as much in hockey because of the speed of the game, the smaller number of players, and the small field of play. When your team is on the attack you can’t afford to not be involved lest you sacrifice control of the puck to the other team.

        Which is not to say flopping doesn’t happen. Players do try to draw tripping and hooking penalties when the defender’s stick gets around their body or feet. What they won’t do is spend time rolling around milking it, as the pace of the game doesn’t allow for it.

        Mike Dwyer, the appeal of hockey is that it has the physicality of football, and a faster pace, with less stoppage of play, than basketball. Power plays ass to the excitemeng because of the significant but time limited mismatch in personnel. Changing on the fly means players have to keep their heads up, as it provides opportunity for fleeting mismatches that can be exploited.

        I think you’re right about the lower scoring building anticipation. There are few sporting moments as exciting as the waning minutes of a close game, and then the trailing team takes the gamble of leaving their net undefended to gain the extra attacker.

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      • I think it probably doesn’t happen as much in hockey because of the speed of the game, the smaller number of players, and the small field of play. When your team is on the attack you can’t afford to not be involved lest you sacrifice control of the puck to the other team.

        That’s a good point. There’s a lot at stake by sitting out a half or even full second in hockey. One of the things that I’ve always noticed about hockey is that as the stakes increase the number of fights and flops goes down dramatically. Players just can’t afford to take chances in the playoffs that they’re willing to take in the regular season. That’s one of the things that makes the playoffs so much fun to watch actually. Less bullshit.

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      • Checking is frequent enough, and penalties are short enough in hockey that if you act hurt, the other team will see attempt to exploit that by hurting you badly enough that you can’t play – you act like your left shoulder hurts, you’re going to be checked HARD from the left anytime there’s the least excuse, and often enough when there isn’t.

        If anything, hockey players pretend not to be hurt when they are. Don’t want blood in the water when you’re swimming with sharks.

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      • Also – in the NHL playoffs, each pairing is best-of-seven, so if you put someone out for a couple of games, you gain a durable advantage. I don’t know how other leagues run, but in the World Cup, it’s all single games – if you put someone out for a couple of games, you’re only going to help teams that are also your opponents.

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    • Regarding “juking”, I think this video is instructive.

      In general, I think if you don’t “get” a sport, it makes sense to look at highlight reels since they are simply collections of what the fans find most interesting. In the above video, Ronaldhino pulls off some very subtle moves. There is misdirection, behind-the-back-passes, kicking the ball left (but making it go right), and in general many things that made certain basketball players interesting.

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      • Vikram,

        Here’s where I lose interest with this sport: Those highlights are cool and clearly he is talented, however if you will notice none of those end in scoring. It’s basically, “I did these awesome moves to get the ball down to a guy who kicked it at the goal…and missed.” I think that’s where Americans especially have problems with the nature of the game.

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      • Those highlights are cool and clearly he is talented, however if you will notice none of those end in scoring

        Homer: Son, come here. Of course I’m not mad. If something’s hard to do, then it’s not worth doing. You just stick that guitar in the garage next to your short-wave radio, your karate outfit, and your unicycle, and we’ll go and watch TV.

        Bart: What’s on?

        Homer (paternally): It doesn’t matter.

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      • I think the response to that is that there are plenty of amazing things that Americans love about our sports that don’t necessarily result directly in scores: there are few things more likely to get you on a highlight reel in baseball than a great defensive play, or a wicked strikeout; in football, many of the most highlight-worthy offensive plays do little more than result in a first down.

        Honestly, the main reason pro soccer is only starting to really take off in the last few years has nothing whatsoever to do with the scoring. Instead, it’s just that before 1994, there was virtually no exposure for the game in mass media outside of the short-lived (and poorly structured) NASL. Closely related, until the late 70s/early 80s, I don’t think many kids played in organized leagues, but by the mid-80s or so, it was one of, if not the, most popular sports for kids to play. Those kids didn’t really start having the disposable income to support their fandom until between the late 90s and mid-aughts.

        I strongly suspect that a similar sort of thing is going to happen, albeit on a smaller scale, in the next 20 years with lacrosse, which is becoming incredibly popular for kids to play but which is only starting to get any kind of mass media exposure at the collegiate and/or pro levels.

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      • I think that’s another of the elements that is similar to hockey. In basketball, a “great play” results in scoring. In both soccer and hockey, a great play results in a shot on goal. And if you manage to make a dozen shots on goal, one of them is likely to get in. The other 11 required the same level of skill, but you don’t get any credit for them.

        Some people will be turned off by that. Others will find it makes the game all the more interesting and the goals, once they are made all the more worthwhile.

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      • Following up on Mark’s comment about kids playing soccer. Years ago some guy I met very briefly said to me, “soccer’s great for little kids, it lets them run and run and run with relatively little chance of sustaining a traumatic injury.”

        Today, with more concern about concussions in football, the number of kids playing youth football has begun to drop, and I see no reason to think that decline won’t continue for some time to come. If I have a son, would I be more comfortable putting him into soccer or into American football? I think for an increasing number of American parents–especially with today’s overly involved helicopter parents–soccer’s going to be the obvious choice.

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      • I think all the scoring is part of why I don’t find basketball all that exciting – it’s hard to get very excited about yet another two points, when the score is 72-79 with a third of the game left to play.

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  3. I think soccer never became popular in the United States for two reasons. The main reason why it never caught on big in the United States is that professional baseball and college football were already the big spectator team sports when soccer started gaining global popularity in the early 20th century. The United States did not need another spectator sport. The lesser reason was that soccer grew in global popularity because you don’t need a lot of money to play soccer because equipment costs are high. You just need a ball, a field, and two things that could pass as goals. For low income countries, soccer was a great spectator sport because of that. America was a much wealthier country and selected more expensive, in the sense that you needed more equipment, sports as their spectator sports.

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    • Basketball is even cheaper, if you’re in a city. You can build a zero-maintnance playground with a bit of blacktop and a few hoops. Soccer would require far more space and a lawn that has to be taken care of.

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      • Basketball is cheaper, but at least in the north, not all that feasible for much of the year. Here, people want to play indoors because 1) they want to play during the season and 2) during the season, at least last year, it was below zero and there was several feet of snow on the courts.

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      • There are many footbal variants that can be played and all you really need is a ball, even if a makeshift one at times. Some we play here in Brazil are:

        – Futsal: the court version of the game, played 5×5 in the same court as Basketball, you just have to add the goallie’s area and the middle circle and the goals:

        http://imoveisemgoiania.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/12-quadra-poliesportiva.jpg

        It’s almost more played by amateurs in here, if you only count cities, it’s the actual most playee version of the game at all. It’s the version played in schools and student tournaments. Field is only played professionally or in more rural/countryside areas, usually without grass at all. It’s cleaner and more skillful in some ways due to the smaller space and smaller ball. The smaller field and less players make scores more common, but headers are rare and curve balls almost unexistent due to space and the ball’s weight and size. Many top players come from a Futsal background, like Ronaldo “R9”. It’s usually played two halfs of 15 minutes and scores range from 5 to 10 in professional matches. It’s far less followed as a spectator sport but is actually the most played variant. People mostly play Futsal and then watch Futebol.

        – Golzinho (Small Goal): often played on neighbourhood streets in front of people’s houses, and you can bounce the ball off the street steps without stopping the game. Usually played with a Futsal ball. It’s mostly played 2×2 or 3×3, with no goal keeper, but one player often stays behind and defends the goal with one single foot, as there’s a tiny area around the goal where you’re forbidden to put both feet in or the other team gets a free kick from the middle/other side of the “field” where the ball cannot be stopped, much like a free throw in Basketball. Also very skillful, there’s as much lack of space and you have to be very precise to score around the other player’s foot.

        Here’s a quick clip of Futsal, which happens to have a few shots of Golzinho in the beggining (those are very big goals though, seem more like kids goals than actual Golzinhos, it’s usually like half of that):

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCZEyMW25ZU

        – Beach Football: also smaller than field and played on sand. Scores are more common too, sometimes above 10. It’s also full of those aereal combos and fancy goals as the ball can’t roll on sand and players don’t get hurt by falling on the ground all the time. Goalies can use their hands on almost their hole side of the field, and there’s some blue card rules that puts players 4 minutes or something outside the game, then they can come back.

        Here’s a clip of highlights of last year’s World Cup:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=08Wa_DPygDg

        – Beach Footvolley: it’s beach Voleyball you can only hit the ball using the same rules of Football (i.e. no hands or arms). Here it’s the older guys game, as it’s more about skills and control and less about running. Some retired players from field go into this variant.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLrCzy19w1o

        – Sepak Takraw: popular in asian countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan and such. It’s a form of Footvolley played on a very small court with a lower net. I don’t know much about it but seems very hard to play :D

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Taesss2Sk78

        Unnoficial variations:

        – FootPong: Tennis with football no-arms rules. You can often see people playing it 1×1 on streets and such, often with a football, handball or a tennis ball on a hard surface. I found no video other than this funny with with an actual table-tennis (Ping-Pong) ball.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wVmnqyADrM

        – “Duplinnha”: (“doubles” or “couples”): usually played 2x2m it uses a single goal and just a small place (half a court or a keeper’s quad of a field. The team with the advantage shoots a kick from the penalty/shootout mark and the other team has one player as goallie and other as defender (that waits behind the goal before the kick start). If the team scores a goal, it’s worth 1 point. If the goallie touches the ball and it goes back to the attackers it’s worth +2, and the team then gets 3 points if they score (+2 from the goallie touch and +1 from the goal). If the ball hits the side benches it adds +3 (values can vary by agreement), if it hits the top bench it adds +5, and the corner connector is worth +10. Players still have to score to colled the points, if it’s kicked out or the goallie grabs it, they lose the stack, and the advantage goes to the other team. The defender can pass the ball to the goallie if the steals it, I’m not sure if it adds +2 like the goallie touch too unless he puts the ball off the side +1 or off the back line +2. If the team scores, the advantage also goes to the other team. The strategy is to try to keep on hitting benches and hitting the goallie with hard kick he can’t hold to inflate the score stack and then making sure to score it.

        – Freestyle: you can do many things with a ball in your feet, so it’s fun even if you have nobody to play with. But in case you have you can also play a Duel:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=md4G1gwVzzI

        – Bobinho (Fool): often used by teams to practice passing the ball quickly. One player is the “fool” and has to catch the ball, the other players can only touch the ball once or twice (depends on agreement) and whole loses the ball becomes the new “bobinho”.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNBctCRjBvs

        – Goal-to-Goal: usually played on a Futsal court or Golzinho while the players the get there early wait for more people to show up. Two players kick the ball from one goal to another trying to score. On goalzinho you can’t defend the ball, and on court you can only defend without using your arms. Sometimes there may be used a rules for max two or three touches on the ball, so you have to defend already preparing your kick.

        – Artilheiro (Top Striker): similar to Goal-To-Goal but played on doubles. Each team has a goallie and one attacker thaat only stays on the opposite side and can only touch the ball once. The goallie launches the ball and the striker tries to score with a single touch.
        —-

        Appart from all those most common stuff, people play everything “foot”ball-style, Snooker, Bowling, Bocce, whatever. All you need is a ball.

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    • It seems worth mentioning that soccer is rapidly becoming popular in the US. Professional soccer is now more popular than baseball amongst the 18-25 set. Soccer catching on is a function of several things – the 1994 World Cup laid a foundation that allowed MLS to form, and also ensured that Americans would at least tune into the World Cup every four years in large numbers, with some small portion of those numbers getting hooked after each cup. Then the increased importance of live events for media companies made the EPL, La Liga, and Champions League important but affordable ways for those companies to remain competitive; more soccer on TV made it easier for fans – and especially the huge number of kids and young adults who play soccer- to maintain their interest. Finally, after some early struggles (and poorly chosen initial locations -Miami cough cough-) MLS managed to negotiate soccer-specific stadiums that made MLS games enjoyable; combined with the fact that media companies started having a need for live events that MLS could fill along with the aforementioned leagues, this allowed MLS to become an event kids and young adults found worthwhile. Oh- and the whole David Beckham thing helped too, much as it pains me to admit.

      Ten years ago, MLS was contracting teams from it’s already small league. Now, they almost can’t expand fast enough, and are likely to be up to 24 teams by the end of the decade. Close to 70,000 people are now showing up every year for the Sounders-Timbers game in Seattle.

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      • When did it become a mania in Europe? Because we had massive immigration in the early 20th century, so I would think that if it was already huge with the European masses at that time it might have gotten a better foothold here. But if it really grew after we began to slow down European immigration…?

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      • I don’t think it really took off outside of Western Europe until the 20s- the Serie A wasn’t started until around 1927, and Italy wasn’t even one of the teams invited to the first World Cup. Interestingly, the US was actually one of the better soccer playing nations at the time. I remember reading an article a few months ago about why this didn’t lead to a successful pro league or lasting popularity. I unfortunately can’t remember what the reasoning was; it may have had something to do with competing leagues cannibalizing each other.

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      • , there was a big drive to “Americanize” the immigrants to. Many Americans might not have gotten into soccer if its something they associated with the incoming immigrants.

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      • , according to Wikipedia soccer was introduced to Brazil by a Scott named Thomas Donohue with the first game taking place in April 1894. It grew steadily and it was organized nationally in 1914:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Football_in_Brazil

        Soccer was introduced to Argentina by British immigrants with the first known game on May 9, 1867 and became an organized sport by the 1890s.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Football_in_Argentina

        Mark seems to be right about the United States. Soccer started to be played at a sport in the 1860s and was organized professionally in the late 19th and early 20th century but disappeared because of league competition. The real problem was that even though professional soccer existed, it didn’t enter into the public imagination like baseball or college football. Those became the big spectator sports at the time.

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      • Credit must also be afforded to the globe-spanning British Empire exporting its culture to the rest of the world:

        On the eve of independence for the colony of South Yemen, the last British governor hosted a dinner party attended by Denis Healey, then the minister for defense. Over the final sundown cocktail, as the flag was about to be lowered over the capital of Aden, the governor turned to Healey and said, “You know, Minister, I believe that in the long view of history, the British Empire will be remembered only for two things.” What, Healey was interested to know, were these imperishable aspects? “The game of soccer. And the expression ‘fuck off.'”

        As reported by Christopher Hitchens. Also a story relied upon by Niall Ferguson, although while both men write with wit, I sort of prefer Hitchens to Ferguson. (Also note that Hitchens uses the word “soccer” in the anecdote, reflecting his long residency in the United States, where Ferguson refers to it as “association football.”)

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  4. Are there actually Americans who didn’t play soccer themselves who enjoy watching it?

    I didn’t and do. I’ve never been a hater, but it did take a while to get into it. Now, I think it’s one of the purest, funnest, most dramatic and most exciting forms of sport there is. But man do I hate FIFA.

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  5. Mike, the answer is that, like just about every sport, it’s an acquired taste. I mean, a major league baseball game is close to three hours, but there are only something like 10 minutes or so where the ball is actually in play, so during most of a baseball game, there is literally nothing happening, and even when the ball is in play, about 75 percent of the time, the outcome is a fairly mundane out. And baseball’s rules are complicated! Football fits a similar description, actually, though the periods of action, unlike baseball, are extremely intense. Along these lines, NASCAR can be reduced to just “cars driving around in a circle,” and in basketball, one can complain that because scoring is so frequent, there’s no tension at all until the last 2 minutes. But in each instance, plenty of Americans have always found these sports exciting. Why? Because they’ve learned enough to understand what they’re seeing and found something about it that they loved.

    Soccer’s rules are comparatively simple, but the strategy takes awhile to understand and appreciate. Once you kind of learn to appreciate that, the relatively infrequent scoring becomes part of the game’s appeal, perhaps even the biggest part of its appeal. Goals are not merely rare, but they almost always have to be earned. Every goal is so crucial, and the knowledge that another goal may not even come so engrained, that a single goal 10 minutes into the game is cause for unbridled joy. If not a single goal is scored the rest of the game, you spend the rest of that game on the edge of your seat, with your heart falling, and then rising, with every single missed shot by the opponent. Don’t get me wrong – more goals is almost always more exciting than fewer goals, but that tension can make even a 0-0 draw incredibly exciting as long as at least one of the teams is able to regularly work its way into the attacking third.

    The best analogy I can make is to a roller coaster. Basketball is like a really fast roller coaster with lots and lots of dips and turns, maybe one or two loops or a massive drop at the end – lots of reliable fun but not very suspenseful until the very end. Soccer is like a Space Mountain sort of coaster- even more so than basketball, it’s in constant motion, but it maybe doesn’t move at such a consistently high pace; regardless, you’re in the dark, don’t really have any idea what’s coming, will have a varying number of small dips (missed shots in soccer) spread throughout, and somewhere in there, you’re probably going to get a couple of loops (goals) thrown in, but you’ve got no idea how many, and no idea when they’re going to come.

    Neither of these coasters is inherently better than the other, nor even more exciting than the other. They’re just different kinds of excitement.

    As for whether Americans liking soccer are pretentious, well there are certainly some of those – they insist that Americans need to love soccer because it’s the worlds most popular sport, even as they complain about how MLS is beneath them and constantly rag on the USMNT. These people suck. But they’re also a much smaller portion of soccer’s American fan base than they were 20 years ago.

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    • Thanks Mark. I think that reply made the most sense to me.

      As noted, I have my own weird preferences. I think MMA is the most beautiful sport there is and it’s certainly an acquired taste. As you noted, you have to learn it and understand it to get it. Today’s MMA fans have become well-educated to the point where something as subtle as passing from full guard to half guard will get a crowd on its feet.

      Ironically, the sport I played more than anything else growing up was soccer, but it was no-rules playground soccer. Back in the days when recess was actually an hour long we would play soccer from the time the bell rang until the nuns made us come back inside. But there was no strategy, nothing like what goes on today. It was just kids kicking a ball around in a parking lot. In that sense maybe some of the other commenters are correct that it has become so popular because it doesn’t require anything more than a ball.

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    • These people suck. But they’re also a much smaller portion of soccer’s American fan base than they were 20 years ago.

      I think one of the problems is that for a non-fan like me, those people seem the most vocal/noticeable. That’s almost entirely my problem because I shouldn’t be making generalizations and also because it might be one of those things I see because I look for it without noticing the 5 real fans per 1 pretentious fan (or whatever the ratio).

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  6. I suspect part of it is average physical size. Pele, considered by many to be the best who ever played the game, was 5’8″ and 150 pounds at the peak of his career through the 1960s. By that time playing at the top levels of basketball or American football generally required, by global standards, a freakish physique. 50 years later Lionel Messi, possibly the best soccer player in the world today, is 5’7″ and 148. Over the same time, NBA and NFL physiques have gotten even more freakish. Lots of countries — or within a country, lots of teams and lots of players — can realistically hope to compete at an elite level when genetics doesn’t count so much, so draw big crowds.

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    • Though baseball doesn’t. Greg Maddux, 6’0″, and one of the top 10 pitchers of all time. Joe Morgan, 5’7″, possibly the best second baseman ever. Willie Mays was 5’10”, Omar Vizquel 5’9″.

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      • Absolutely. And of the three big sports created in the US (baseball, basketball, American football), where the US professional leagues are the best in the world, baseball is the one with the long history of success by foreign players. With no disrespect, foreign players predominantly from countries where people are not, on average, physically large.

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      • Soccer is also (one of) the cheapest and “easiest” (not in terms of skill, but in terms of acquiring the basic elements of gameplay) sports to play.

        Hockey, you need ice. Basketball, you need pavement. American football, you need lots of gear.

        Soccer? You need a ball, and some objects to place on the ground as goalposts.

        So pretty much any kid, in any country anywhere, can play soccer.

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      • Soccer? You need a ball, and some objects to place on the ground as goalposts.

        And in some parts of the world something only approximately a ball, made out of stuff (rags, strings, etc) salvaged from the trash. I remember a guy at a pick-up game in the park in Austin many years ago describing how excited he and his friends in some tiny village were when one of their grandfathers came home with an actual beat-up old ball they could use.

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  7. – Is the defensive battle what it’s really all about?

    No. It’s about a lot of things, but the offense is as important as the defense. Which gets at what it’s about. It’s about a flow, a constant strategic battle carried out primarily (though not entirely) by the players on the field in the course of the game. You have 22 players playing a constant positional battle with multiple decisions in every play, around the ball and away from it, all in the attempt to create or prevent an opportunity that must be seized in a split second. Because they’re so fleeting, most opportunities will be rushed, squandered, or frustrated, and every player knows this, so another part of the game is a stubborn persistence, a constant game of will and endurance, and as a result, momentum (which is sort of a mythical concept in most primarily American sports).

    It is a game of precision, a game that is absolutely reliant on teamwork from one end of the field to the other, in which any mistake can cost you the game in a split second and every play has the potential to be the deciding one.

    It’s also rather beautiful, particularly at the highest levels (and on the Continent and in South America even more so), with frequent displays of breathtaking skill.

    – Are the long stretches between goals a way of building tension that is released when someone finally scores?

    Yes, in a good soccer games, goals are about as exciting as a moment can be in sports. I have trouble getting excited about basketball or football games that I don’t have an investment in. I can enjoy them, sure, but I can’t get excited except in rare moments (last second shots, say). With soccer, I can get excited about a goal or near goal in any game between any teams. I have teams that I root for, but I will watch any soccer game at any time, and this is one of the reasons why.

    – Am I right that white Americans liking soccer seems just a little bit pretentious?

    No, and that’s a bit absurd. It’s a sport popular throughout the world in shanty towns and ivory towers. It crosses virtually every societal boundary: race, class, religion, gender, nationality. To be honest, it’s always looked to me like the pretension lied in Americans’ general disdain for soccer (which is melting away, happily) because it is not a sport that we dominate. It’s an affront to American exceptionalism, so we treat it like it’s not worthy of our attention.

    – Are there actually Americans who didn’t play soccer themselves who enjoy watching it?

    Sure. I played organized soccer from 4 through high school, but I know a lot of people who’ve never played it who love it.

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    • I wouldn’t say “absurd.” There used to be some truth to it. At least, many soccer fans seemed to wear it as a badge of anti-UglyAmerican honor, among other things. If not more snobbish than fans of other sports, then snobbish in a rather unique way.

      That stopped somewhere along the way, though. I don’t know when, but I made a comment about it and Mark replied that there used to be an issue but that it had subsided. I thought about it, and he was right. It had been a long time since I’d gotten those airs.

      Not sure why. It might be that when I was in Mormonland I was inundated with a different kind of hard core soccer fan (World Cup was fascinating there – everyone rooted for the team where they did their mission). More likely, as soccer became bigger, the fandom-dynamic changed. But it was a change I hadn’t actually noticed until it was pointed out to me.

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  8. This is a really good BBC documentary on soccer riots. I think, to a certain point, it explains why soccer became such a big deal for them.

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  9. Am I right that white Americans liking soccer seems just a little bit pretentious?

    I got into soccer largely, though not wholly, through my wife, a Dutch-Indonesian-American, who got her love for it from her Dutch immigrant father. That seems pretty organic to me.

    I like hockey, auto racing, basketball, football, track and field, bike racing, swimming, baseball, downhill skiing, rodeo….it doesn’t seem pretentious to like yet another sport as well.

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    • The most fun I have watching soccer usually involves watching it with non-Americans. When I was late to pick up the boy yesterday and considered watching the game out, I knew the only places I’d consider were the various Hispanic/Lationo restaurants near his daycare. It’d have been mostly the employees, meaning real fans. The normal bars were not a consideration.

      I don’t know if that makes me a pretentious white guy or not but I do not think it has achieved “Stuff White People Like” status yet (something I actually hope to explore in an upcoming post).

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      • Um,

        Many white people will tell you that they are very into soccer. But be careful, it’s a trap.

        If you then attempt to engage them about your favorite soccer team or talk about famous moments in soccer history, you are likely to be met with blank stares. This is because white people don’t actually enjoy watching soccer, they just like telling their friends that they are into it.

        You’ll note that he’s careful to indicate his claim is that white people are more enthusiastic about the idea of being someone who is into soccer than they are into soccer.

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      • Interesting. I couldn’t answer those questions. But I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a soccer fan as much as someone who enjoys watching high-level soccer. I understand the game and enjoy it but don’t follow it.

        Among my friends, many watched the WC. I think only myself and one another (Indian but American born) watched Euro. Another two religiously follow Premier League, but one of those guys is from England.

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      • You know, the “I’m not a fan but I like the idea of being one” is pretty common for all sports.

        Hell, right now I’m pretending to be a handball fan. I know virtually nothing about the sport, but I love watching the guys dive headlong into the circle repeatedly. It’s like watching some sort of strange ritualistic dance.

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      • But I think there is a differce.

        “I find this exciting and want to see more” is different than “That seems like something it would good to be interested in so I will pretend to be interested.”

        The former is what normal people do. The latter is what posers overly concerned with signaling do.

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  10. Soccer? Meh.

    My boxx, who is from Brazil bails hours early for this, which is fine as he enjoys it, and I get to relax a bit more :)

    I’m no sport fan, I barely notice the Olympics or the Super Bowl and they rarely hold my attention. Maybe if I was with a group of friends and we were all watching..or I was at some lives games….but, in general, on tv, I’m not interested.

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  11. Take out soccer and put in organized sports and you have my opinion. I remain utterly baffled by people’s enjoyment of watching other people play sports.

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  12. “Can Someone Please Explain Soccer to Me?”

    It’s like basketball only outdoors, you dribble with your feet, and if you have to run to the restroom or go to the bar to get another beer you usually don’t miss anything.

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  13. Lots of good comments, but I think no one has touched on this one: if you watch American ball sports on US TV, you’ve been taught a bunch of bad habits that make it hard to watch soccer. The worst of the lot is “follow the ball.” In soccer, the important stuff is much more likely to be happening away from the ball. That’s not always the case, but true much more often than in the big American ball sports. US TV coverage of soccer doesn’t help. Consider the standard US TV coverage for a corner kick: cover the player putting the ball down at the corner, stepping back, kicking it, then zooming out to follow the graceful curving flight of the ball… like it was a field goal. Then, mirabile dictu! Someone heads the ball into the net. All the important stuff was happening in front of the goal all along, and none of it was in the US director’s camera selection.

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      • Formations, penetrations, passing lanes. Challenging to recognize at first since they’re in constant motion and more complex than what you’re used to in hockey or basketball. Fancy footwork is cool, but not all that frequent.

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      • Yeah, what Burt said.

        Once I started watching soccer I was surprised by how similar it was to watching basketball. As you begin to know the game, all of the most interesting stuff happens away from the ball.

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      • What Burt said. And Chris’ comment above is also a good attempt at describing something that’s hard. Excluding the occasional set play (a corner kick, for example), you’re watching the flow of players create (or deny) open space, by position and movement, where the ball can be maneuvered.

        One of my favorite “plays” in soccer is the long downfield pass to the player who has broken clear (and who will still have to beat the goalie to score, but I digress…). The combination of things needed to make that happen is complex. The break-away player isolating a defender; the passer having enough space to make the pass; a long pass that winds up in the right place (think an NFL quarterback dropping a long pass on a receiver sprinting down the sideline, only with your foot); perfect timing or it’s offsides; and any of several players may be called on to make, or receive, the pass. But it’s not like a called play; it’s a pattern that emerges for a moment in time that has to be exploited before it disappears.

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      • Exactly, thanks. Also an example of the difficulty of television coverage. At the point when the pass is made, the target is just barely in view at the right edge of the screen. Watching live, you would have known the opportunity was potentially there.

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      • Yeah, you’ve got to give at least as much credit to Bradley for seeing the opportunity and getting the ball there as you’d give to Altidore for both catching the pass and getting the ball under control to even take the shot in the first place. That was a strike.

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    • I’d argue the same issue is there with football. On passing plays, the camera stays on the quarterback scanning the field and lineman grappling one another instead of the players trying to get open. We’re lucky if the commentators decide to show the receivers on a replay.

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      • True. I once watched an Oakland Raiders game live, sitting dead-center in the end zone, front row of the upper deck, back in the day when Oakland was all about throwing the long pass. Completely different game from that perspective.

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      • This is one of the reasons that beIN Sport is awesome. Their coverage of La Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1, and in some cases Bundesliga, Russian Premier League, and Liga MX is primarily through networks in those countries, with English or Spanish commentary provided in studio by beIN, which means you get real soccer camerawork, not American soccer camerawork.

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  14. If I may go on a rant…

    Yesterday’s game demonstrated why soccer needs more referees. They have one ref to cover an area larger than a football field with a ball that can be kicked more than half the length in a matter of seconds. They’re constantly trailing the action and making calls from tens of yards away. It is why flopping prevails. Yes, they have linesmen but they are similarly yards away from the center of the pitch. Two major calls yesterday were blown. Why can’t they put two or even three field refs out there to cover more area? Goal line technology will be great but seriously: one ref to cover 22 players on over 5000 square yards of field is straight up stoopid.

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      • I actually do think this is one of the reasons it struggles to catch on. No one wants to spend two hours watching a game with an outcome that doesn’t seem legitimate. If that feels like the norm rather than the exception, people tune out.

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      • I don’t think it’s been an impediment to growth in the US – the game’s greatest growth here has been at the same time as match-fixing problems have been growing rapidly, but yeah, if match-fixing isn’t seriously and comprehensively addressed soon, it could very quickly start to threaten the game’s popularity, not just in the US but worldwide.

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      • What I mean is that if I sit someone down to watch his first soccer game and the final score is 1-0 on a bogus goal scored off a blown call in the box, that person might say, “Why’d I waste 2 hours watching this crap? It’s all just random.”

        I’m not even talking about match-fixing, which is a real issue, but the apparent arbitrariness of outcomes. Americans claim to love upsets and volatility and parity, but the ratings show that Final Fours or championships with Cinderellas have much lower ratings than power houses. We are fierce believers in a meritocracy: we want the best team to win and feel like superiority is rewarded. And while the better team usually does win because of how a team can dominate a 1-0 game in a way that the score belies, that is lost on the amateur fan.

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      • For instance, an amateur fan might think Brazil didn’t deserve to win yesterday. Odds are they would have won even without the blown calls because they dominated what really mattered. But an amateur is going to see a bogus PK and a disallowed goal on a bad call and think Croatia was robbed.

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      • Gotcha. That’s a fair point. I can’t deny that perception exists, even if as you say it doesn’t line up with reality. When someone makes that claim, I usually point out how an MLB team that finishes with a winning percentage of .600 is a championship contender, while a team that finishes with a winning percentage of .400 is a cellar dweller; by contrast, you need a winning percentage of close to .750 to be a top 3 team in the EPL (treating draws as half win, half loss), while a bottom tier team usually only has about a .300 winning percentage. I’d also add that only 8 countries have ever won the World Cup out of 20 cycles, with four of those teams win 16 of those titles. Yet we complain incessantly about disparity in baseball.

        I think what obscures this is the fact that about 20 percent of games wind up in a draw in soccer, which is actually a lower rate than the number of NHL games that go to overtime, and only about 10 percent more than MLB games that go to extra innings. But because soccer treats this as a draw (rather than going into an overtime that is statistically equivalent to a coin flip), we think this means that it’s easy for an inferior team to match up with the best teams.

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      • If I knew how numbers worked, I dream of doing a sophisticated statistical analysis that looks at how each sport does at crowning a champion. The NBA seems to do the best job (and this is backed up by how often #1 and #2 seeds win) because of A) a relatively large sample size of games in the playoffs and B) the higher frequency of scoring seems to reduce variance. When you are scoring 160-240 combined points, it is much less likely that any single basket is the game winner, meaning flukey things are less likely to influence the final outcome. When you are scoring only a couple of points/goals per contest, flukiness increases.

        Soccer is a bit of an outlier because of the strategic element of it. A team can dominate a 1-0 or even 0-0 game. A great team might be a bad team 90% of the time but many of these games will be 1-0 affairs that will make the teams appear more evenly matched.

        Soccer — at least on the international stage (I don’t know a ton about the various national leagues) — seems to do a very good job of crowning a champion. It often seems that the very best or one of the very best teams wins. As you note, 4 teams have won 75% of the World Cups. But I think there is a perception issue that makes it seem more random than it is.

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      • You don’t need to be a statistician, just apply common sense. Best-of-seven matters. Continuity of play matters. Limited situational substitution matters. Limited specialization of player personnel matters. Limiting scoring to small number of points at a time matters. Ease of scoring at the last second matters. There are reasons that “Cinderella” runs tend to be March Madness and NFL things — both are structured to make “upsets” much more common occurrences.

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      • Nor do you need to be a mathematician to realize that baseball becomes more random every time another layer of playoffs is added. A five or seven (or, God help us, one) game series does not sort teams nearly as well as a 162 game season does.

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  15. We got take-out from the Mexican place for lunch and, while standing around, noticed no fewer than three players hitting the dirt and the camera zooming in on the guy (and then a slo-mo replay of the guy falling, then another slo-mo from another angle).

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    • The Dutch are still mad about that invasion/subjugation thing oh, so many centuries ago, and the Spanish are mad that the Dutch revolt began Spain’s decline as a world power.

      There might be some hard feelings from some international incident circa 2010, too.

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  16. Pingback: Explaining Soccer | Ordinary Times

  17. I’m just a long-time lurker, but this question is the equivalent of the bat-signal for me. Hell, my screen name is a shout-out to a footballer (specifically River Plate alumnus Marcelo Gallardo). I love all kinds of football (association [soccer], gridiron, Australian, Canadian, rugby [union, at least, at the international level] – and will happily geek out at length about history, tactics, history of tactics…

    As for the general attraction of the sport, I’d say that for most fans out there, it gets you with both pincers. The first is rivalries – in most of the world, soccer grew around the turn of the 20th century, and the club you support is based on where you live, your class, and sometimes your religion – and there’s another club that represents the area/class/religion you don’t like very much (this can also be expanded to nations, of course). The other is that it’s not just a game, it’s in some sense performance art. Soccer is /hard/ because you can’t use your hands to control the ball. So unlike basketball, where absolute control is expected, or hockey, where players are supposed to master the puck, the football is expected to master you, so when it doesn’t – when a master like Cruyff executes the turn that is named after him, or Maradona dribbles through the entirety of the best defense in the world before scoring – it’s
    breathtaking.

    As to the specifics:
    – Is the defensive battle what it’s really all about?
    The low scoring may make it seem like it’s defensive, but – 1960-1985 excepted – it’s mostly been an attacking game, just pitched to a much, much lower average scoreline. The thing is, because it’s so hard to score 3 goals, 3-0 is an almost insurmountable lead. So it’s quite possible to have success as a team with an attacking philosophy, but it just doesn’t look that way to USAns when you are winning 4-1 instead of 41-14. It’s a kind of paradox – goals are rare, they are more decisive when they happen, so scoring them is much more valuable game-theoretically than preventing them (caveat, unless you are a severe underdog, in which case “parking the bus” is recognized as a valid strategy).

    – Are the long stretches between goals a way of building tension that is released when someone finally scores?
    Historically, there have been times when the powers that be tuned the rules for six goals a game, and times when it was two goals a game (just like baseball with rules favoring the pitchers from 1955-1968 or most of the Dead Ball era, and rules favoring the hitter post-1973 and after Ray Chapman’s death). The, um, goal, is to maximize the dynamic balance between offense and defense so that neither inevitably dominates. The tension this imparts on the narrative of the game is a positive side effect.

    – Am I right that white Americans liking soccer seems just a little bit pretentious?
    If I were feeling snarky, I’d say that it’s not that as much as “a lot of the white USAns who like soccer /are/ a bit pretentious”. Where football landed before WWI, carried by British evangelists, it became a working man’s (while it was often safer for women than you might expect, it was rarely friendly to them) sport. While it did touch down here (the famous “first college football game” was played with with rules very close to the Association football of the time), it was quickly relegated to the immigrant communities. When it did gain some traction, it was the middle class watching “Soccer Made in Germany” on PBS, or later Fox Sports World on cable – exactly the people you’d expect to be a bit pretentious. This is every bit as much an inversion of expectation as Communism being first tried in Russia rather than Germany. Only now, as MLS is becoming entrenched (pet peeve: there are not “four major” US sports, there are either three or five), is it starting to filter down so that it’s OK to be a soccer fan who isn’t a snob, and (led by the fierce rivalry here in the Northwest) a real supporter culture that the rest of the world might recognize is starting to take shape.

    – Are there actually Americans who didn’t play soccer themselves who enjoy watching it?
    Sure. I’m not one to know – I was a kid just as the NASL-fueled youth soccer movement was just taking off, and I’m still playing now despite (ugh) soon pushing 50. But the drive-time show on the Seattle-area hard rock station is not only soccer-friendly, but they occasionally organize events. I think that’s clear evidence that it has gone mainstream, at least here in the maddest area of the US – it might take a while before it spreads to the same extent, but it’s not going anywhere.

    I think that’s more words than I’ve chipped in in my whole time lurking here so far. Not ashamed, this subject is my equivalent of catnip…

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    • 4-1 instead of 41-14.

      Are those really equivalent? Is 2-1 equivalent to 20-12? I have to admit it’s hard for me to interpret it as such an insurmountable lead when it’s just one goal and a goal can be scored in seconds.

      Thanks for de-lurking!

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      • I have to admit it’s hard for me to interpret it as such an insurmountable lead when it’s just one goal and a goal can be scored in seconds.

        Vik, I think you just confirmed his point about Americans not understanding why a 4-1 in soccer (or even 2-1 late in the game) is a substantial lead, more than 41-14 in a game where each team is gonna get approximately 100 points each. In fact, that’s my beef with the NBA: since scores are so high there often isn’t any reason to watch the first half or even (in lots of cases) the third quarter. It’s only in the fourth quarter when the value of each point becomes significant enough to create any dramatic tension at all. Not so in soccer or hockey, in my opinion. Each point is so significant that it’s worth watching to see them, but also because scoring first (or being scored on first) can and often does change the way each team plays given that slight margin.

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      • ‘Tis true that technically a soccer game is always potentially eight seconds away from a goal, and occasionally you do get a late outburst like the 1999 Champions’ League final where Manchester United overturned a one-goal deficit to win during time-added-on (possibly the most amazing thing was that there were only three minutes of stoppage time rather than the seven or eight that MU typically enjoy when not winning). But just last year, there was a game where the Patriots scored two TDs in the last 30 seconds to cap a comeback of their own.
        But in rough order of magnitude, I figure that it’s as tough to come back from three goals down as it is from three touchdowns down in the same time remaining, for a lot of the same reasons. 41-14 might have been a bit of a hyperbole, though (I picked it up as the canonical score for a blowout when I was a kid, I think from reading a history book involving the Cleveland Rams).
        The basic point was that the NFL giving seven points for a major score inflates the actual difference between the teams, while looking at the number of scores is more representative. I don’t know how to factor the AFL and NBA into this – running up scores into the hundreds make them more exciting and more fluid, but the inability to truly shut down your opponent on defense complicates the “how long will it take to come back” calculus above and beyond soccer or gridiron.

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      • Given that it started with a Swiss tackle in their own box that could have gone horribly wrong and could have ended in a penalty kick, to flying the other direction and, 15 seconds later, be touching the winner into the net, it was quite spectacular.

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      • That sequence was absolutely magnificent. It’s an absolute shame that Behrami didn’t wind up on the stat sheet for his involvement in the play – he made the picture perfect, but incredibly risky, slide tackle in his own box, then got up immediately, grabbed the ball, ran a good chunk downfield, got fouled and knocked down, but somehow managed to keep his momentum going forward enough to recover the ball, before passing it off to his right winger, who then immediately switched the field to Rodriguez, who in turn had the beautiful cross that resulted in the winner (I’m trying to get over the fact that someone named “Rodriguez” had the key assist for Switzerland in beating a Latin American country in the WC).

        The referee’s well-played use of the advantage rule shouldn’t be ignored, either; it would have been all too easy for him to blow the whistle the second the Swiss player lost control of the ball after the foul in midfield, but instead he had the awareness to give that player time to get back up and win the race to the ball (although it wasn’t much of a race since the Ecuadorean player nearest the ball was slow to react). Too many referees would have blown the whistle.

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      • Wow. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around what happened in that game. Dempsey’s goal was a thing of beauty, but other than that, if you had told me that the US was going to win despite any of the following, I’d have called you crazy: a) Michael Bradley playing the first truly bad game from him that I can recall; b) losing Jozy, and his unique skill set on which the American attack is incredibly reliant, in the 21st minute; c) Ghana would win the possession battle 99:1 (approximate); and d) the US was going to have to need great games out of its center backs to withstand a relentless Ghanaian assault,and with Besler out of commission for half the game to boot.

        I figured for certain that the only way we were beating Ghana was with Michael Bradley playing well and by playing strong possession soccer. Instead, the duo of Jermaine Jones and (I can’t believe I’m going to say this) Kyle Beckerman, were my co-Men of the Match.

        I don’t know where we go from here, though – the loss of Jozy is just devastating, assuming he’s out for awhile. His hold up play is really underrated for it’s centrality to our game plan, and his physicality opens up space for everyone else in a way that can’t really be duplicated. With Pepe out for Portugal next weekend, I was really looking forward to seeing what he could do in that game.

        However, I just can’t see Bradley having two consecutive bad games, and Portugal is in complete disarray, missing at least one and possibly three starters. If Bradley plays well, I think we’ve got a very good chance of getting at least a point against Portugal, who is likely going to be very vulnerable to the counterattack, even without Jozy. With the goal differential being what it is, a draw with Portgual may be all that we need to get through now.

        One thing is for certain, though – what we saw tonight stylistically looked a lot more like the US of 1994 than the US of the last 15 months. That concerns me.

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      • If nothing else, it says we’ve all done a lot of thinking about how the USA might finally beat Ghana!

        (It was kinda cool that almost all of Ghana’s players had Mohawks. But it’s the score that counts, not the hairstyles.)

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