Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Brews And Views Series: Why American Soccer?

We continue our new series on the Free Beer Movement. It’s called “Brews and Views” and we pose a question or topic to various prominent soccer persons and, well, they give us their view on it.

We’ve got loads of get people that have already responded to our call for essay submissions and each week we’ll feature a unique perspective on the current topic/question at hand. Kicking it off (pun intended) we’re asking our respondents the question, “Why American soccer?”.

As inhabitants of the U.S. of A we’ve got loads of soccer viewing options and limited amount of time. We want our panel of essayists to make their case as to why the American version of the world’s game is the one we should all invest in.

Regularly readers know where we stand on this issue. Buy American. It’s ours. Build and shape it so it ranks as one of the premier leagues in the world.

The series will include such diverse voices as former U.S. Men’s National Team player Alexi Lalas, The Shin Guardian, MatchFit USA’s Jason Davis, Church of Soccer, Nutmeg Radio, FutFanatico, MLS Insider, and many, many more.

Interested in submitting your own answer to the question, “Why American soccer?”, then send us an email with your response. Please keep your submission to under 1000 words (that’s like 2.5 pages typed!) and include a picture that you feel goes well with your response. Send it to freebeermovement(at)gmail(dot)com.


By Eric Betts / The Other 87 Minutes

Or rather, why soccer?

Soccer isn’t my favorite because it’s the lovable underachieving sport, or because the cool kids, the beautiful people, the sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies or dickheads love it and think it’s a righteous sport, Ed.

I love it more than the others because I believe the mechanics of the game are more refined, more entertaining to watch and participate in. The game is better, the same way Monopoly is better than Battleship or the jungle gym better than the see-saw. And because I believe that, I also believe that the game can speak for itself; that the key draw beneath the advertising and the branding and even the free beer is the soccer. That the game will spread as the understanding of it spreads. That to know soccer is to love it. 
Because make no mistake. Our game is superior.

It’s not just because the action is continuous, with fewer and shorter breaks than nearly every other major sport, though that certainly doesn’t hurt. I’ve already written on our site about how the average football telecast features 11 minutes of gameplay and 17 minutes of replays and the average baseball game consists of somewhere between 55 and 500 distinct moments of gameplay, each lasting between 0.396 seconds, in the case of a 103-mph fastball, and 30 seconds, in the case of a David Ortiz home run waddle, which we’re generously counting as gameplay in order to make a point. Compare that to soccer, where it’s 90 – (TAS – STA) or 90 minutes minus (time actually stopped minus stoppage time allotted). The common complaint from the non-fan — “But they’re not doing anything!” — really means they’re not doing anything that can be quantified for the non-fan to understand. But continuous play is just the means to an end, not the end in itself. That we have so much action makes soccer better; it isn’t why soccer is better.

The key to all ball sports is the manipulation of space. From billiards to basketball, tennis to team handball, controlling the space in which the game is played in the surest way to victory. We don’t always think of sports this way. Even the kids on the U8 team I’m coaching this fall see it in the negative, as the absence of opposition from a particular zone rather than the positive, the presence of open space. We talk of shaking your man, of getting open; of pulling your opponent around the court, of hitting it where they ain’t. We’re talking about space.

Teams battle to control that space within certain limitations of their game. This limitation, in my experience, is the sticking point for many of soccer’s detractors, at least the ones who aren’t just complaining that soccer players aren’t doing anything. This prohibition on the use of hands seems to them to be insurmountable.

Football has limits built throughout its rules — about the forward pass, about receiver eligibility, about the ball not being allowed to touch the ground — but the biggest is one of time. Play is so easy to stop that there is very little time for the offense to accomplish anything before they have to start again, hopefully a little bit further down the field. The time limit is so brief as to constrain independent thought; that’s why football teams leave the thinking up to their quarterbacks and coaches, and require other players to merely execute or follow their own decision trees. A football player doesn’t have time to figure out what his teammates are doing; he has to know immediately, and so the sport is prescribed and decisions assigned according to its caste system.

In basketball, the limitation isn’t time but space. A basketball court is a small area for ten large men to run around in, one that’s getting smaller as the players get larger, and so the challenge becomes about overcoming density. The space required to operate is at a premium, but basketball is also the sport that requires the least amount of space. The most common way for players to create space is to use the z-axis: can’t go around them, can’t go through them, have to go over them. Another is to take advantage of that density with plays like pick and rolls, backdoor cuts or three point specialists who run around four different screens before catching and uncorking their shot. They collide bodies into one another in order to ensure there isn’t a body waiting at the point where they wish to score.

Soccer’s limitation is actually less constricting than either of these. It only checks how you can manipulate the ball, not what you can do with it or where or when. There is space for players to exploit not just as individuals but as a unit, and there is time for them to think and solve problems rather than simply executing someone else’s dictum before the man with the ball gets killed.

That freedom leads to what was called earlier in this series “moments.” Moments are better than highlights; a highlight is impressive, a moment makes your jaw drop. Typically moments have something extra about them. Usain Bolt’s 9.58 in Berlin in 2009 was a highlight, but his 9.69 in Beijing, the one where he started celebrating with 20 yards to go in a race for the Olympic gold medal, was a moment.

In soccer, that something extra is not just that the stakes of scoring are so much higher, it’s often an idea. The highlights of other sports are typically physical, a combination of athleticism and technique. With the time and space limitations, that’s what those players have the ability to do. The highlights of soccer often have a mental component: a nugget of creativity at their heart. It’s the defense-splitting pass, the crossfield ball that sets a man 40 yards away free on goal, the two touches taken to get around three defenders. The way the physical blends with the artistic.

These moments aren’t limited to the soccer you watch on TV. You can have them in pickup or in indoor play, kids can make their moments in rec or travel ball. They’re a little slower, a little sloppier, but they’re the kind of plays you remember for the rest of the season, if not the rest of your life.

It’s great that American soccer is on the rise; it’s fun to get to root not just for a team, but for an entire sport to succeed. But ultimately, that means little. If our sport was as popular as water polo, jai alai or korfball, we’d still be there to coach, watch and play it.

It’s the best game in town.

[1] With the exception, interestingly enough, of dodgeball, where the spaces are rigidly defined between teams. When I was 11, some friends and I invented a version of dodgeball that we played after Boy Scout meetings. I’ll go to my grave convinced that our version is superior.

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"Anyone who tells me soccer is boring, I'm going to punch them in the face."
– Former Dallas Burn (aka FC Dallas) coach Dave Dir

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