I went to my second-ever professional soccer game over the weekend. It was much different than my first, back in 1978, when I saw the New York Cosmos defeat the Washington Diplomats (the "Dips") in RFK Stadium. This game was an English Premier League exhibition match between Manchester City and Chelsea, and it was held at Yankee Stadium on Saturday night. My soccer-mad friend Namit and I were guests of Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority. Since I hold no allegiance to any team in that league, I decided to support "City," as Abu Dhabi is Manchester’s official destination partner, the team is owned by a member of the ruling family, and they gave me a t-shirt. Being a Manchester United fan, Namit claimed to hate both teams equally, saying that he just wanted a competitive, entertaining match, but I found him cheering somewhat louder for Chelsea. In any case, it was indeed a competitive, entertaining match, perfect for American audiences, because things actually happened: a total of 8 goals were scored–a huge number for a "fitba" match–with Manchester City defeating Chelsea 5-3. If only every soccer game was like this, the sport might actually succeed on a professional level in America. Well, a few other tweaks might be necessary as well …
Soccer Still Needs a Shot Clock
Like I said, I’m glad this was an aggressive, high-scoring game, but I’m afraid it was a fluke. This was an exhibition game, meaning it didn’t affect either team’s standing. As with the NBA All-Star Game, that means the focus was on offense, rather than those stultifyingly boring defensive battles that we saw during the vuvuzela-soaked 2010 World Cup. Lots of action, lots of shots on goal, lots of aggression. But if this game really counted, there’s every chance it would have been another 0-0 draw, and I simply don’t believe anybody on the planet, no matter how sophisticated they are to the nuances of the game, enjoys that outcome. Therefore, I reiterate my call to introduce a shot clock to soccer. Action: Americans have to have it, and the rest of the world might like it too.
To Succeed On TV, The Game Needs Time Outs
Unless it’s on some premium cable channel, soccer broadcast in America needs to conform to our capitalistic system of shoehorning in a slew of obnoxious TV advertisements every 10-12 minutes or so. No, I don’t love watching TV commercials, but I do like having an occasional break to go to the restroom or the beer stand. If the teams can’t call a time out, the game should at least be divided into quarters, rather than two 45-minute halves. That’s a long time to sit still and watch nothing happen. And maybe if the players got more rest, they’d be more explosive in their drives to the goal.
America Needs to Develop a Real Soccer Fan Base, Not a Bunch of Pseudo-English Wankers
Yankee Stadium wasn’t at capacity, but it was quite crowded for a cold spring evening featuring two foreign sports teams. For whatever reason, most of the fans in attendance were wearing the dark blue of Chelsea, but there were a fair amount of City fans as well, and they wasted no time in going after each other. When the taunts, jeers, and fight songs come with an English accent, they sound somewhat authentic and sincere. But when rival groups of American fans call each other cunts, as I witnessed in the concourse on our way to the exits, they sound like British wannabees. Even Madonna is coming to realize that she sounds silly when she tries to talk like the queen. Do English fans of the Yankees try to sound like they were brought up in the South Bronx? (I don’t know, do they?) In any case, this problem will fix itself if MSL really gets established stateside, but in the meantime some of the more vocal fans are veering deeply into hipster territory with their cultural appropriations.
Enough With the Flopping Already
We Americans don’t have a leg to stand on in this debate (see the NBA), but good god it’s frustrating to see soccer players take dive after dive, clutching their legs and ankles in mock agony, begging the officials to penalize the other player for whatever egregious violation of sports rules and general morality he perpetrated. Even from the lofty perches of the upper decks, it’s pretty clear when a player’s faking it, and it doesn’t make them look very tough at all. In American football, which I’ll just refer to as football here, players pretend not to be injured even when their limbs are all but ripped from their bodies. There’s a lesson here for the soccer world. Quit trying to draw penalties and just get up and fight.
We’ll Need to Build Some Dedicated Soccer Stadiums
Because, as nice as the new Yankee Stadium is, it’s not designed for soccer. The angles are just a little bit off, and the turf they had to move around to cover the base lines (see photo) just doesn’t look right. Still, for an exhibition game, it was fine.
We Definitely Need to Call It Soccer, Not Football
First of all, soccer is the historically-accurate term for the game. It’s a derivitave of the term "assocation football," just like rugby is somtimes called rugger. I’ll admit that soccer has a lot more foot-to-ball contact than American football, but soccer’s such a cool word, it would be a shame not to use it. But really, I don’t care, I just like how Euros get so riled up over the so-called debate over what to call the "World’s Sport."
But Still, Nice Game You Have There
It’s funny how Americans are perceived to be ignorant about soccer, when in fact every kid in the country plays soccer in school. What we’re ignorant of is professional soccer, because it’s not (yet) a major TV sport. But I love soccer, and have nothing but fond memories of sweaty summer nights as a kid, playing until we were devoured by mosquitoes and couldn’t see the ball in the dark. Hardly any equipment is required: all you need is a ball and a friend. Two backpacks will function as a goal just fine. And pretty soon we’re going to figure out how that offsides rule works, and then we’ll be just as knowledgeable about the game as your average punter down the pub.
But if pro soccer’s to succeed over here, we’re going to make a few changes. And when that happens, will the world welcome the game’s increased popularity, or will it regret trotting out two of the planet’s best teams in Yankee Stadium to get us hooked?
[Related: How to Make Soccer More Interesting to Americans, Everyone Else; More by Victor Ozols; Follow me on Twitter]