The U.S. men's national soccer side won the Gold Cup last week and has looked strong in international plan in the lead-up to the World Cup next summer in Brazil. Soccer happens to be one of the rare activities that remains universal across countries, time zones, hemispheres, languages, and religions. It is a great sport that is the quintessential blend of hard work, sacrifice, patience, trust, teamwork, and strokes of luck. But for many U.S. citizens, it holds little significance in comparison to other major sports. Why is this?
There are several reasons soccer in the U.S. will never be as high-profile as it is abroad, including: the profile of who plays soccer in the U.S.; where the best professional competition is located; the perceived excitement of the sport; lack of individual statistical categories compared to other major sports; the fact that matches can end in draws; and the possibility that the World Cup, Earth’s biggest party, can end in penalty kicks.
In the U.S., our best athletes do not enter our professional soccer leagues and younger generations are not particularly focused on playing the sport when basketball, baseball, football, and hockey traditionally come first. Could you imagine if the likes of LeBron James, Mike Trout, Calvin Johnson, and Patrick Kane had played soccer when they were budding youngsters and kept playing until they entered the professional ranks? Could you imagine Dwight Howard’s athleticism and physique (not mind) guarding the goalposts for Team USA? The athleticism and raw talent of these individuals is unquestioned and serves them greatly in their respective sports. I am certainly not suggesting that our current soccer sides are not athletic. But it is interesting to consider how the sport would play out in the U.S. if the most athletically gifted personalities donned shin-guards and cleats.
If you have any real success playing soccer in the U.S., your goal is to play for a side that resides abroad, preferably in Europe, where the best competition is. For example, one Cleveland-area player chose to sign with a club in Europe over playing college soccer with UNC, the 2011 NCAA champion. There has been an influx of European greats such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry coming to play for Major League Soccer teams near the end of their careers. These players know the competition in MLS stands at a lower mark than they are used to, and they can still be effective as they age while earning millions— something they would not be able to accomplish abroad. Conversely, baseball and basketball players from abroad come to the U.S. for the best competition.
Some argue that soccer is not exciting — i.e., there is not enough scoring. Looking at the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 regular seasons of the English Premier League and the National Football League, I channeled my inner Bill Simmons and Nate Silver to produce a scoring breakdown. The average real-time viewing length of an EPL game is 111 minutes, and the average real-time viewing length of an NFL game is 187 minutes. The 2011-12 EPL had 1066 goals in 380 matches, or 2.81 goals per match, and the 2011-12 NFL had 1259 touchdowns in 256 games, or 4.92 touchdowns per game. The 2012-13EPL had 1063 goals in 380 matches, or 2.80 goals per match, and the 2012-13 NFL had 1297 touchdowns in 256 games, or 5.10 TDs per game.
The result? The 2011-12 EPL boasted one goal scored for every 39.50 mins of real time, and the NFL that same year had one touchdown for every 38.00 minutes of real time. In 2012-1, the EPL had one goal scored every 39.64 mins of real time, and the NFL had one touchdown scored every 36.67 mins of real time. Scoring in the EPL and NFL occurs at a pretty comparable rate. This does not account for field goals in the NFL and I did not separate how many goals in the EPL were penalty kicks, i.e. untimed scores. But the results are rather surprising — in both seasons, a differential of no more than three minutes. The blanket notion that soccer does not have enough scoring is simply not accurate all of the time, and the numbers demonstrate this.
In the four major U.S. sports, there are many statistical categories that help individual players determine where they stand. Baseball has batting average, home runs, runs scored, runs batted in, strikeouts, and earned-run average. The NFL has touchdowns, yards passed/run, receptions, interceptions, tackles, and sacks. Soccer has goals, saves, and tackles. The comparative lack of individual statistical categories makes it harder for players to differentiate themselves from one another. And whether athletes admit it or not, striving towards individual accolades is a big part of the equation. If you are a goal scorer, such as the great Lionel Messi, your chances of landing advertising and marketing gigs are exponentially higher because the world already knows you from highlights of scoring. There are not many highlights of soccer players making tackles or smart defensive plays, like you would see highlights of MLB players making diving catches and throwing out runners, or NBA players delivering blocks.
Lastly, soccer is at a disadvantage in the U.S. because of the ways in which matches can end: win, lose, or draw. None of the four major U.S. sports’ games can ever end in a tie. MLB has walk-off hits and the NBA and NHL have buzzer-beaters. But unless a soccer match is played in some sort of tournament or knock-out format, draws can be commonplace. And if it is a tournament and the game is tied after regulation and extra time, both sides line up and take penalty kicks to decide the winner. This would be akin to Game 7 of the NBA Finals, after overtime, coming down to free throws. Could you imagine how anticlimactic this would be? But when soccer players run around for 105-plus minutes and a winner cannot be decided, it makes sense to put the match on the mental shoulders of the exhausted players. You never know when a scoring chance will present itself, so the players are forced into one and forced to perform well on the spot. If you have ever played soccer or watched penalty kicks with your side playing, it is quite a nerve-wracking experience.
These factors all contribute to soccer existing as an under-valued and under-appreciated sport for U.S. citizens. Until our best athletes play it here in the U.S., the scoring notion is analyzed more closely, and the essential team nature of the sport is recognized, it will remain on the periphery.