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John Feinstein Blog: Serious Flaws With Game Of Soccer

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NATAL, BRAZIL - JUNE 16: John Brooks, Michael Bradley, Kyle Beckerman and Fabian Johnson of the United States celebrate after defeating Ghana 2-1 during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group G match between Ghana and the United States at Estadio das Dunas on June 16, 2014 in Natal, Brazil. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

USA Soccer (Credit: Michael Steele/Getty Images)

World Cup fever lives. Sort of. At least until Sunday.

That’s the way it is—and always will be—with soccer in this country. When the United States is competitive and, even better, winning, there is genuine interest in the sport. When there’s no World Cup going on or when the U.S. is losing, only the soccer-istas care. Soccer has a very definite—and growing–niche in this country now but that’s exactly what it is: a niche sport.

So, for those of us who can name the defending champions of MLS (Sporting Kansas City) but know little else about the league, the wise thing for the soccer-istas to do is enjoy our presence in and around the game for the next few weeks and accept the fact that it isn’t going to last.

If the U.S. hadn’t scored late to finally beat Ghana on Monday night, there wouldn’t be that much talk about soccer going on right now. There would be talk about the fact that U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann gambled by cutting several veterans, including Landon Donovan, to try to build his team for 2018. Now, thanks to the late goal,  lots of people are talking soccer. And thinking—correctly—that the U.S. has a very good chance to advance to the knockout rounds.

That’s all good. Beating or at least tieing Portugal on Sunday doesn’t appear to be nearly as daunting as it did when the draw was announced last December. The Portugese were awful against Germany on Monday and lost another key player to injury. If the U.S. wins it will advance. If it ties, unless it does a complete pratfall against Germany, it will also advance.

There will be some dancing in the streets. There will be great anticipation for the round of 16 game and HUGE interest if the U.S. should advance to the quarterfinals.

And then the World Cup will end. There might be a momentary boost in MLS attendance but eventually things will settle down and most teams will go back to drawing the 15,000 to 20,000 devoted supporters who have followed their team since the league was launched in 1996. Yes, they draw more than that in Seattle. Every rule has an exception.

Soccer has a long history in this country of “exploding.”

Back in the mid-1970s, the New York Cosmos became a must-see team in the New York area. The team recruited Pele, the greatest player in history, and brought in international superstars like Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia to back him up. For several years, the Cosmos drew huge crowds to Giants Stadium and the North American Soccer League flourished in other cities around the country.

The NASL billed soccer as “the sport of the 80s.” It expanded to 24 teams and divided those teams into two conferences: National and American—a straight copy of the NFL because it was going to be as popular as the NFL. The championship game was called—you guessed it—The Soccer Bowl.

Except those running the NASL made one mistake: they over-estimated how much people in the U.S. liked their sport. When the Cosmos came to town with their superstars, soccer was an event. But when the Washington Diplomats played the Minnesota Kicks in July, it was a soccer game and perhaps 15,000 (or less) would show up. The teams overspent, the league over-expanded and by the mid-1980s, the sport of the 80s was gone.

Of course the soccer-istas insisted that once all the kids playing the sport grew up, the sport would boom professionally. Well, those kids have grown up. In fact, many of their kids are playing soccer. And yet, the MLS ranks behind the NFL, MLB, the NBA, college football, college basketball, hockey and golf. It HAS caught up to tennis but that’s in large part because tennis is a dead sport in the U.S. Still, that’s progress and all good but the English Premier League—not MLS—draws ratings.

You know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. Anyone who knows anything about soccer—even someone like me—knows that MLS isn’t close to many of the European leagues in quality of play. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention to it at times, especially if we happen to like soccer. But let’s not think for one second that the sport is going to take off in this country because the U.S. does well in the World Cup.

It is worth remembering that after the U.S. hockey team pulled the greatest upset in sports history at Lake Placid in 1980 that everyone thought hockey would be the next hot sport. It did spike briefly but, after a while, returned to its normal levels and—in fact—plummeted after the league, much like the NASL, over-expanded.

Remember 1999? When the U.S. women’s soccer team “won,” the World Cup (I put “won,” in quotes because to me winning or losing on penalty kicks in soccer doesn’t really count) there were books written on the coming explosion of women’s soccer in the U.S.

There ARE plenty of girls playing the game now. But NO ONE watches women’s soccer. Leagues have started and folded and the one that exists now has about zero TV exposure and several dozen fans. People got excited about the women’s soccer team in 1999 because it gave them a chance to chant, “USA!” About the only thing that compares in popularity to that chant is the NFL.

What’s more, regardless of how popular soccer may be worldwide, there are serious flaws with the game—at least to many Americans. There is NOT enough scoring. Please don’t say, ‘you don’t appreciate the beauty of the game.’ The POINT of the game is to score and there are ways to increase goal-scoring without changing the sport at its core.

One change, which the NASL actually employed all those years ago, would be to put in a 35-yard-line. That means there will be far fewer off-sides in the scoring zone and allow for more creative play near the box. The argument that, ‘we’ve never done it that way,’ is ludicrous. One of the reasons the NFL flourishes is because it is always willing to make changes to make the game more fan friendly. This would do that.

What’s more, ending World Cup knockout games with penalty kicks MUST GO AWAY. It doesn’t matter if the players are tired after 120 minutes. Tough luck guys, keep playing. No one is saying that kids soccer games should be played out but if a WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP is being decided it should be decided by someone scoring a real goal playing real soccer.

The NHL uses a shootout during the regular season—but NOT during the playoffs. Can you imagine playing 12 innings in a World Series game and then saying, ‘hey, the bullpens are gassed and it’s really late, so we’ll decide the game with a home run derby?’ How about deciding a Super Bowl after five quarters with a field-goal kicking contest?

Ridiculous, right?

Well, so is deciding who advances in a World Cup or who WINS a World Cup with penalty kicks.

Soccer is a fun sport and it is a growing sport. But people need to let it grow naturally—not by saying, ‘you MUST love it,’—and, while they’re at it, make the game better than it is.

No sport is perfect—even the ‘beautiful,’—is perfect.

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