Soccer Is Too Random for America

Like many Americans, I have been watching a lot of soccer during the World Cup. Also like many Americans, I won’t watch soccer again until the next World Cup in four years. Despite the popularity of youth soccer across the US, the game has just never really caught on as a spectator sport here.

A number of theories exists as to why soccer isn’t more popular in America — no timeouts for commercial breaks, not enough scoring, ridiculous faking of injuries, generally boring*, too European, etc. — all of which are probably true (I am drinking my own explanation Kool-Aid here). And there are, I’m sure, plenty of other good reasons, including my personal uber-theory of sports, which I will save for a later post, after I have trademarked its awesome parts.

But watching this World Cup I came up with a new idea. Relative to the big American sports, soccer is way more random; players don’t have as much control as they do in our sports. The players thus lack agency, which I use here in the philosophical sense: “human agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices and to impose those choices on the world.” Americans like sports with heroes, and heroes require agency. All the great American sports narratives are abut players who took control (Babe Ruth calling his homer, Michael Jordan in the clutch) of their game. Randomness gets in the way of this control.

When I say that soccer players are not in control, I don’t mean this as a criticism. The guys in the World Cup are the best at what they do. But using your feet to move a ball is simply less precise than using your hands, as you do in football, basketball and baseball. Shots and passes regularly go awry in soccer; this is the randomness of which I speak.

For example, in Sunday’s game between England and Germany, at around 59 minutes a German player was breaking away. Although English defenders were closing in fast, the German had an open shot at the goal. He took the shot from not far outside the penalty area (ie. from 54 feet…pretty close) and yet he missed the goal by three feet. Why? Because kicking is not hugely accurate. Compare that to an NFL quarterback, who, even with giant players rushing in to clobber him, will rarely miss a 19 yard pass by three feet. Why? Because throwing is accurate. Note: I am watching the Uruguay vs. Netherlands game as I post this, and the same thing just happened.

True soccer fans probably like this randomness. And over time, the randomness will be evened out: even if players only make a fraction of their shots, the better team will likely take more shots, and thus score more by the end of the game. But Americans are far more Newtonian. We want action, then result. We prefer a narrative of consistent forward progress, not random fits and starts. We want our action heroes not to follow the flow of Brownian motion but to seize the day and execute, whether they are Peyton Manning or John McLane.

* I tried to find the brilliant bit from the Simpsons where the ball just gets kicked back and forth for about two minutes, fully encapsulating the American view of soccer, but the internet failed me.

THIS JUST IN: Check out this set of Get Fuzzy comics for a classic take on the American view of soccer as boring.

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