July 9, 2006

Soccer: It’s the Strategy, Stupid!

Posted in Life, Sports at 8:01 pm by mj

Everybody has a theory why “soccer” isn’t more popular in the United States. None is ever going to be proven right, but the one I’ve found most convincing attempts to explain both the popularity of soccer in the U.S., and the level of play of U.S. soccer players: the theory that U.S. soccer is too organized. And not in a good way.

If you’re like me, you grew up with organized youth league sports. Which means, in many respects, you never stood a chance at being any good at it. Young leagues are all about having fun, playing by the rules, giving everybody a shot, and fostering self-esteem. Laudable goals, but not really an environment that fosters playing at an elite level. The best kids I knew in any sport did not play youth league sports: they played pick-up with the freaky kids across town.

Soccer–that is, football–is, so they say, all about playing pick-up in the streets with the best kids in town, even if those kids don’t belong in your middle-class suburban neighborhood. Right off the bat, you see the dissimilarities. How can U.S. kids compete with that? How could U.S. kids grow up to be so passionate about a sport like that?

It’s not a perfect theory, but I’ve heard it a number of times, and I find it more convincing than other theories. The closest theory in my mind is that the rules of soccer just don’t lend themselves well to high-impact advertising.

But, watching the World Cup championship this year, a competing theory gelled in my head, which I haven’t yet poked many holes in. No, it’s not the theory of headbutts. It’s the theory that American sports spectators like high levels of strategy.

Every other sport that is popular in the U.S. has, at its core, a battle of shifting strategies.

In baseball, the pitcher and catcher have to strategize about every batter they face; in turn, the batter gets cues from his coach on whether to expect a pitch that’s hittable. When runners are on base, strategy is taken to another level.

In basketball, 80% of the trips down the court result in set plays, either called directly by the coach or by the point guard. These are plays that are practiced day-in and day-out. Defensive strategies might shift a half dozen times during the game, in response to who’s on the court, whether the offense is hot from a certain range, etc.

Golfers have a strategy for every hole, hockey teams seem to set up plays much like basketball players (I don’t know enough about ice hockey to know whether that’s really true), even tennis players get a chance to play mind-games when they serve. About the most notable exception is Beach Volleyball, but, well, who doesn’t want to watch Misty May and Kerri Walsh bend over in their bikinis?

Of course, you can’t take your obsession with strategizing too far. You wouldn’t want to be seen running around with a chess geek or anything. But bursts of athleticism + plenty of strategy + plenty of action = good spectating.

Okay, I’m really just talking out of my ass here, but that’s what spectator sports are really all about anyway. So nyah.

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