Soccer for Americans

Three rule changes to turn American soccer into a big money maker.

The experience of watching a soccer game rarely lives up to the anticipation. You go in hoping for a 4-3 cliff-hanger (as with Argentina vs. France recently) but too often you end up with 1-0 or worse, a draw, or much worse, a draw that is resolved through a penalty shootout. This chronic letdown explains why Americans prefer watching other sports.

Photo by Torsten Bolten.

Except for anxiety-ridden upper middle-class moms trying to steer their teenage sons away from (American) football practice, most Americans don’t really care about watching soccer. If this is changing, at about the pace of a glacier inching down an Alaskan ravine, it is mainly because the percentage of immigrants in the US population has been on the rise in recent decades. These immigrants or their parents often come from countries where soccer is the leading spectator sport. It follows then that with the current crackdown on immigration, the future of American soccer is looking as frail as ever. NFL bosses need not lose much sleep.

Aside from legacy issues, there are real problems with soccer when considered from the point of view of result-oriented Americans. And these problems call for changes. European and Latin American purists will scoff at the proposals below. But something needs to be done if soccer is to ever get its share of the huge pot of gold that is American sports revenues.

First, soccer is dull because matches are low scoring. The average number of goals scored in a World Cup game is only about 2.5. This is like your average football game having only two touchdowns and one field goal and ending with a 10-7 score. One way to speed things up is to do away with the offside rule. It is difficult enough to score under any circumstance. Without the offside rule, the average number of goals would rise but probably not by very much. It is worth testing the impact of such a change or to consider other goal-boosting measures. Change 1: increase the number of goals.

Second, soccer scoring is dumb. Each team adds one point at a time, regardless of the type of goal that it scores. That is fine for 19th century English kids playing in a vacant lot, but maybe not for a 21st century world-class event. It would be better for example if a typical goal earned two points and a penalty kick earned only one point. Because very few trips into the penalty box lead to scoring an actual goal, a foul committed inside the box by one team should not automatically hand the other team a 75% chance of scoring a goal. Another change would be to award three points to a clean goal fired from outside the penalty box. Change 2: adopt two-tier or three-tier scoring.

Third, as a corollary to the first two, too many soccer matches end in a draw. According to this research, nearly 7% end with no score at all, and over 25% end in a tie. Ninety minutes of viewing is too much of an investment to end up with nothing; no thrill of victory, no agony of defeat.

Fourth, a penalty shootout seems like a bad way to break a tie. In the later stages of the World Cup, draws are resolved through extra time and ultimately through penalty kicks. This solution is marginally better than flipping a coin and is extremely unsatisfying after watching a game for two 45-minute halves and two 15-minute extensions.  A sudden-death approach would probably be better and fairer. In theory, because soccer is low scoring, it could take another 90 minutes or longer to get a sudden-death goal. In reality however, player exhaustion would probably set in and the quality of play would fall rapidly, precipitating the final goal. Another twist to speed up resolution would be to gradually reduce the number of players on each  team. This article suggests other ways to resolve a tied game. Change 3: do away with penalty shootouts.

Last and perhaps most damning from the American point of view, soccer seems more fatalistic than football or baseball. Coming back from a goal deficit in soccer is more difficult than dealing with a similar quandary in American sports.

Consider a point in time when 90% of a game has already been played and 10% remains to be played. If a soccer team is down by two goals in the 81st minute of the match, the odds are low that they will score three goals and win in the remaining nine minutes (ignoring stoppage time). The mental toll inflicted by a two-goal deficit late in the game combined with the exhaustion resulting from nearly ninety minutes of running is just too great to overcome.

By contrast, if a football team falls behind by two touchdowns and there are only six minutes left in the fourth quarter, the odds that they will win in the end, while not comfortably bankable, are certainly higher than in soccer.

In baseball, there is no clock. Yet if we assume that the average length of a baseball game is three hours (3 hours 5 minutes and 11 seconds in 2017, according to the baseball commissioner’s office) and ponder the odds of a team overcoming a two run deficit at the 162nd minute (after 90% of the three hours have passed), those odds are also significantly greater than in soccer.

Another way of posing this problem is to ask at what minute of the game does it become highly improbable for a team to come back and equalize from a two goal, two touchdown or two run deficit? We could say that for soccer it is at the 81st minute with ten percent of the match left; for football at the 57th minute with five percent of the game left; and for baseball at the 177th minute with two percent of the time left. While these differences appear nominally small, they feel very large for a sports fan sitting on the edge of his seat, praying for a miraculous reversal.

By making the three changes above, soccer can delay by several minutes the point in time when it becomes highly improbable to overcome a two-goal deficit.

It is tempting here to sketch a theory about American optimism vs. other world fatalism. In America, defeat is a temporary setback. Recovery and reinvention seem attainable even at a late stage (of life, of a game, etc.) and there is almost no time that is too late for optimism. In many parts of the world, the die is cast earlier and there is after that little that you can do to straighten the ship.

This article was also featured at National Review.

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