Why Americans Don’t Love Soccer

Soccer is the favorite sport for a measly 2% of Americans – despite the fact that soccer is by far the most popular sport globally. Why?

To start, sports are entertainment, and cultural values drive entertainment preferences. And at the heart of American cultural values is an exceptionally strong sense, and deep love for, the concept of justice.

The “American Dream” is a story about justice. Those who are honest, hard-working, and persevere get what they deserve. They get success. Upward mobility is justice.

In sports, Americans want to optimize for justice. We want the team who won to have earned it – they played harder, they had more talent, they played more as a team, they were more clutch. The best team doesn’t always have to win, but they have to deserve their victory.

Which brings me to soccer…

Soccer is where sports justice goes to die.

Some examples:

1) One goal makes a huge difference in soccer where the average World Cup game has 2.86 total goals, and referees can play an enormous role in the scoring of a goal. A missed offsides call. A bad call in the penalty box resulting in a penalty shot (7.4% of all World Cup goals). A red card given for a minor infraction that tilts the odds. There is a tremendous incentive for players to shamelessly cheat. Goals are sometimes not deserved and feel completely divorced from justice.

2) Regular season and pool-play games can end in a draw. Therefore, one team may not be incentivized to win the game, and thus the terms of the contest are not equal (one team trying to win, another team being happy with a draw). And ultimately when there is a draw, there is no winner. We do not find out which team is better, and there is no justice.

3) Knockout games can end in a shootout. A team can win a game merely by fighting to a draw, and then being better at penalty kicks. The World Cup can be decided, not by soccer played on the field, not determining which team is the fittest and has the strongest will, but by the team who is better at one specific skill. There is no justice.

4) A team can absolutely dominate a game…and still lose. See: USA 2, Ghana 1. It’s fun when your team that pulls off an absurdly lucky, miracle victory, but I cannot imagine how much it must have sucked to be a Ghana fan yesterday.

If soccer is going to ever succeed in mainstream America (or just be a better sport in general), it should adopt the following changes:

Penalty Kicks/Fouls in the Box

A) No penalty kicks, ever, to decide a knockout game. Take players off the field if you have to (e.g. after the first overtime, go down to 10 on 10, after the second go to 9 on 9), but make the fittest and grittiest team win the game on the field. It takes away all incentive for one team to spend the entire game playing for a shootout.

B) Video review all penalties resulting in a penalty kick. Duh.

C) There should also be differing levels of fouls inside the box – a penalty kick should only be given if a goal scoring opportunity was impeded. Otherwise, a direct free kick does the trick.

D) When penalties occur in attacking situations, they should be delayed, hockey style – let the attacking team keep trying to score until there’s a change in possession, as opposed to letting advantage end at some point.

Yellow and Red Cards

A) Video review all penalties resulting in a red card. Taking a player off completely changes the course of the game, and you have to get it right.

B) For a yellow card, do what rugby and hockey do – send the player off the field for 10 minutes. Here’s why that works well:

  • A yellow card becomes a legitimate penalty that benefits the current opponent…not something that might hurt you down the road and benefit some random future opponent who has no role in this game.
  • Diving is reduced because a yellow card becomes a real negative at the moment it is penalized.
  • The game is more exciting and there is more scoring because you will have uneven numbers of players sometimes – “power plays” are awesome.

Injuries

A) Injuries should not stop the game unless there is an injury risk – it is an absurd tradition. They don’t stop the game (or the clock) in rugby, a far more brutal sport, when someone gets hurt, why should they stop it in soccer? All it does is incentivize faking injuries.

B) If you are going to allow an injury to stop the game, you HAVE to make it stop the clock. You can’t allow players to shorten the game by faking injuries – when USA lost to Ghana in the last World Cup, Ghana faked maybe five minutes worth of injuries, which seemed like were matched up with about three minutes of injury time. The game clock on the screen not being “official” kind of upsets Americans.

C) If you have to get taken off the field in a stretcher, you should be out of the game.

Soccer can be amazingly dramatic and entertaining, and I absolutely love the World Cup. I’m also firmly aware that soccer is doing just fine and doesn’t give a crap about what will make Americans love it more…but like any good American, I can’t keep my opinions to myself.

Related Wait But Why Posts: 

Why Sports Fans are Sports Fans

73 thoughts on “Why Americans Don’t Love Soccer

  1. Honestly my lack of interest is due to my understanding (or perhaps misunderstanding) of the fluctuating leagues of the Premier . In the NFL the leagues are divided up by region and consist of the same teams unless all other team owners vote to add more additional ones. That hasn’t happened since 1993. The same 32 teams every year.

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    • the bottom 3 teams in the league get relegated so the top 3 in the second division get a chance to play in the first division. It is actually beneficial

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  2. Why do Americans have to like it, it’s already a great game you have your football there you get loads of break or you can learn to use your feet like your hands but you have more aim and power pluse keepers use their hands to save ball which is the hardest thing to do. Pluse if players wasted all their energy trying to work too hard too quickly they would have to be out of fitness too soon.

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  3. I’m from Europe, and we want much of the same changes what you described. The problem is that the footbal federation is very stubborn, ancient and corrupt. I hope they will finally catch up and listen to reason.

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  4. Hey Finn, adding my two cents here.

    First, I’m a big football fan (I’ll call it football… soccer just doesn’t seem right to me) and I like most other team sports (rugby, American football, basket, volley, handball…). Though all sports are interesting to play (I’ve played volleyball and handball in teams… really satisfying), I find that all come short to football when it comes to watching (with rugby and basket being good enough, but still far from it).

    To answer your propositions:
    – Sport justice: this is exactly where culture keeps the US out of it against the entire world. You’re taught to believe that the best always wins. It’s a whole part of US culture. It’s both a reason of your success as a country (always thriving to win, to be the best) and the reason of most of your mistakes (the other countries are not all losers, you’re not always the smartest persons in the room, your advice doesn’t have to count more, imposing your point of view is not always the right move). You believe in winners and losers in all things, never in draws, never in status quo, never in win-win agreements. I would add that sometimes, in life as in sport, winners don’t always deserve their wins (a big part of life is made out of pure luck… where you’re born, which means you have access to, who you got to meet…).
    That said, the “injustice” of football is exactly why it’s the preferred sport in the rest of the world. A sport where everything is possible, where the little can takeover the rich and powerful (even though this is least and least true in European football), a sport where giving everything is often a prerequisite for victory, but might never be enough (as in life). Football is the embodiment of the unfair beauty of life. Some of the most important moments in the history of football are about this unfair beauty (Maradona’s hand of goal, England/Germany refused goal of 1966, double defeat of the Netherlands in 70’s world cups, France/Germany 1982 semi-finals, Barcelona’s remontada this year…). When you watch football, just ANYTHING is possible.

    – The penalty kickouts: it’s the best invention ever! If all games don’t have to end up with a winner, some do… And you have to find a way to settle it in the end. Footballers can’t play forever on a pitch (it’s unfair for next games and dangerous for the players) and shootouts only come after extremely tiring prolongations. But what a hectic way to settle a disputed match. A penalty shootout is a utterly stressful moment for everyone (the shooter, the keeper, the mates, the coaches, the guys in the stadium, the spectators behind TV). During last Germany/Italy shootout in the Euro cup, absolutely all my neighborhood was watching it on TV… Each penalty was a concert of screams and cheering… Hitchcock doesn’t come close to the intensity of a penalty shootout. It’s raging when you lose it of course, but God how intensely you’ve felt.

    – Video for penalties: it’s coming to town now… It will be there in a few years for sure. Is it really a good thing? It will slow the pace (requesting video analysis will take 1 minute at least), it’s not an absolute solution (sometimes even video doesn’t help) and it takes off the salt of it. Yes it will push divers away… But playing football, you realize that the line between diving / genuinely falling without a fault / being irregulary tackled and showing off for the referee is sometimes extremely thin… Also, it means that the rules won’t be the same for everyone. Yes, at the World Cup finals, there will be 200 cameras for every angle, but in the 5th district division of Colombia, the referee is alone and the problem remains. I would vouch much more for renewal respect for the referees and acceptance that them being wrong can be part of the game.

    – Different level of fouls in the box: it exists (but the freekick is indirect then), but it is always a mess. Having 22 players in the box is a recipe for awkwardness and ugly goals. It never looks pretty. Again, a penalty can be a great football moment (Zidane’s panenka in 2006, Panenka’s panenka, Zaza’s miss, Di Biaggio shoot on the bar in 1994, Trezeguet in 2006… a World Cup title lost for about 5mm!).

    – Delayed penalties: it also exists… If the team keeps the ball and still had a big chance to score, the referee will mostly wait for the action to conclude and might come back to the penalty. There, referees mostly do a pretty good job at it. Still many penalties are whistled since most faults in the box result in the action being terminated.

    – Video for yellow and red cards: same debate as for penalties… It will come around, but is it really good? The rules of the game say that the referee should appreciate countless parameters: where is it on the pitch, was the fault dangerous for the player, was it tackling the ball or too late for it, was it intentional or not, was it the first of the offender, when is it in the game, how is the overall climate… No video and no computer will ever replace a good referee. There again, let’s start by respecting him more and accepting he might be wrong (especially when it’s not in your favor of course…).

    – 10 minutes sent off for yellows: in football, a sentoff is really a big sanction that desequilibrate the game (much more than rugby and hockey, where they are anyway used rarely) and there are just too many fouls that lead to yellows. Whether we’d have to upper the bar for a yellow, which would lead to many big fouls being unsanctioned properly, whether we’d end up sending off two or three players at the same time, it is just impossible in football.

    – Injuries: there I kind of agree with you that injuries are sometimes poorly handled in football. The rule should be that an injured player goes out of the field and the 4th referee counts the time to add extratime at the end. It’s not a perfect rule and it’s certainly not enforced enough (but if a player gets a kick and seems hurt, it’s hard to push him off the field). But I wouldn’t pause the clock, as done in the US football or basketball. This slows the pace of a game, with intensity falling dramatically for the spectator (the main reason why fewer people watch these sports outside of the US), and it prevents from having a clear idea of how long the game will last (which is important for TV channels organization… but also for the mothers who go pick their kids after the Sunday game!).

    In the end, I really loved your point of view as it challenges my interest for the game and pushed me to put some words on some ideas I have about it, but I do disagree on most of the things!
    Football is THE sport that people love to hate. You hate the referee for taking the wrong decision, you hate the fate for the post pushing back the strikers attempts for the 3rd time in a game, you hate your team to play so well for 85 minutes to lose concentration in the last five, you hate the other team for playing slow in the end to see the clock running, you hate the other team’s supporters who tease you after you lost unfairly to their shitty team assembled with Qatari millions…

    But in the end, when Lionel Messi strikes a second goal at 93rd minute of a 2-2 draw in the Clasico, after a 7 passes counterstrike and pushes Barcelona to come back on parity with Real Madrid five games before the season end… when Steven Gerrard shows the way forward to a crappy Liverpool team losing 3-0 against Milan in Champion’s League finals, but which will end up winning… when an obscure amateur team reaches the finale of the French Cup to lose to an unfair penalty (fuck you Caveglia!) but steps hand in hand on the podium on the account of the opponent’s goalkeeper… when 1.5 billion scream simultaneously, watching Mario Götze taking away another title for the best player ever in a great finish, setting half the world in tears and the other half in chants… God I really love this game.

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    • Loved every single of your points here.

      You’re forgetting the last minute Manchester United turnover vs. Bayer München at the Champion’s League finals, or the fairy tale story of the unknown Leicester taking home the British League title, or a million more tales.

      Thanks for your stories, man

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