Monday, June 23, 2014

Dealing With Ties and Other Dilemmas of a Wannabe US Soccer Fan

By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Let me just get this out of the way early: There's gonna be a ton of soccer stuff on SuiteSports over the next few weeks.

The SS staff (Jeremy Conlin and I, pictured above) have caught soccer fever, though he is a bit more of a footy ball buff than I am usually. Plus, we both kind of hate baseball.

Does this make us unAmerican? Well, if you think drunkenly cheering on the stars and stripes and claiming US supremacy in something we know very little about is unAmerican, then you must be a commie!

Now, back to soccer, a game that captures the American imagination every four years (No, seriously, we could be good at this sport!), but also frustrates casual American sports fans to no end.

Here's how to deal with some concepts in soccer that may seem as foreign as Cristiano Ronaldo to you.


Of all the soccer traditions that annoy Americans, this one seems to get us Yanks the most riled up, which is ironic since one of our most popular sports leagues, the NBA, has always dealt with flopping issues of its own.

The difference, of course, being that when Dwyane Wade flails to the ground after minimal contact, he gets up in five seconds and takes his free throws. When a soccer player flops, he isn't just selling a foul, he's out to win a damn Golden Globe.

A flopping soccer player will grab his ankle (sometimes on the leg that wasn't touched) and shriek cries of pain to the heavens, as a look of utter despair falls across his face.

My God, did his ankle actually just shatter? Oh no, are they brining out a cheap plastic sled from CVS to slide him off the field? Wait, that's what they use as a stretcher?

I don't understand any of this!

Fear not, his ankle is fine, he's simply doing two things that we will get into more later. 1. He's selling an injury, hoping to coax the referee into handing the offending player a Yellow (warning) or Red (ejection) card. 2. He's stalling for time, which is why the cheap sled look-alike stretcher has to come out, because if the player can't get up after a certain amount of time (let's say a half hour) he must be carried off the field, er, pitch.

Just remember that flopping is all about gamesmanship, and is no different than a defensive lineman pulling up quickly to sell a hold, a pitcher working a baseball for better grip or, yes, any member of those damn Miami Heat drawing a foul.

Rainbow Colored Punishment Cards

Ok, what is this, 1st grade? You mean to tell me that when a player commits an infraction, the referee pulls out a Yellow or Red card, then, like, writes the dude's name on it and hands it to him?

Why doesn't he just put his name on the chalkboard or make him stand on the fence at recess, it's practically the same thing! Then, does the player take the card, or does the ref hold it? I never really pay attention to that part, but it seems like the ref should hold it since the player has to run around and kick really high in those little shorts.

And how do they decide what is a Yellow card, which you need two of to be ejected, or a Red card, which leads to immediate removal from the game? Keep in mind that this resulted in a Red card and one game ban for Portugal defenseman Pepe.

Quite frankly, there is no consistency with these decisions across referee crews, and the line between a simple foul and a Yellow card, and the line between a Yellow and Red card all seem to be as indistinguishable and arbitrary as you might imagine.

That being said, isn't arguing subjective and difficult calls by referees the most American of sports endeavors? Think about America's past time and it's most controversial area: The Strike Zone.

Balls and strikes vary from umpire to umpire, and the strike zone always seems to either grow or shrink in big moments, depending on the man making calls behind home plate.

How about holding in football? They say you can call holding on every play in an NFL game. That's a bit of an overstatement, but the sentiment is true; holding (and pass interference both ways) occurs a lot, and is only called when the referee happens to be looking right at the offender, or in particularly egregious cases.

How do referees determine penalty time in hockey? What is a flagrant foul vs a "playoff" foul or a flagrant two, or an intentional foul or just a guy missing the ball and accidentally pounding someone? These are all arbitrary judgement calls, so don't let the fact that soccer makes theirs with pretty little cards turn you off to the sport.

The Running Clock

The running clock in soccer has its pros and cons. The biggest pro is you know, generally speaking, how long the game will take to play. So, when your wife asks "how much time is left," you can tell her without translating from "sports time," where the last four minutes of an NBA game equals 37 minutes of actual time.

That part is nice, but the fact that the clock never stops, only to see the officials add an arbitrary amount of "stoppage time" at the end of every half is just infuriating. One of the officials is in charge of keeping stoppage time, but let's be honest, they just throw a number out there to make things exciting.

Case in point, the referees stopped America's eventual tie with Portugal in the first half for a water break. This was the first water break in World Cup history, but what made things even more odd was the fact that the break followed a lengthy injury delay, lasting around three minutes in total, yet only two minutes of stoppage time (which should have taken the water break, along with all other first half stoppages into account) was added to the end of the first half.

Then in the second half, five minutes of stoppage time was added, when there didn't appear to be noticeably more injury timeouts, and there certainly was no water break. As you know by now, Portugal scored a brilliant equalizer late in the 94th minute.

Conspiracy? Nope, just soccer.

My biggest beef with the running clock is it encourages stalling to no end. Now, every time a player from the winning team is tripped, he will take 20 minutes to get up. Sure, they can threaten him with that sled-looking stretcher or, you know, just stop the freaking clock!

Sorry soccer fans, this one I can't defend, at least not until stoppage time consistently represents the actual amount of time lost to stoppages. As long as we keep getting the generic 2-3 minutes for the first half and 4-5 minutes for the second half, this is a broken system.

Realism and Excuses

Nobody in America likes excuses. What, you mean there were extenuating circumstances that prevented you from succeeding? Quit your belly aching' and pick yourself up by your bootstraps boy!

That's why we as Americans had such a big beef with US national coach Jurgen Klinsman saying that our team "cannot win this World Cup."

Here is his actual quote.

“We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet. For us, we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win the tournament… Realistically, it is not possible.”

Dammit, I knew we shouldn't have trusted our boys with this German! How could he say something like that?! Why even show up if you don't believe you can win?! Are you just going for Carnival?!?!

Then, to make matters worse, moments after American hearts were ripped out by Portugal's equalizing goal, Klinsman began making excuses for his team's game against Germany that won't be played until Thursday.

"We have one day less to recover. They played yesterday, we played today," the German-born Klinsmann said of the team he used to both play for and manage. "We played in the Amazon, they played in a location where they don't have to travel much.

"Everything was done for the big favorites to go and move on. We're going to do it the tough way."

Already making excuses! When will you foreigners learn, this is America! We hunker down, put our collective noses to the grindstone, roll up our collective sleeves and get the job done! It doesn't matter how impossible that job is!

But guess what, our new soccer Fuhrer is right on both counts. America is not at the level where it can realistically contend for a World Cup title right now. Should he have said the US "can't win?" Probably not, but he was being honest and frank, something we claim to want from our sporting heroes.

As for his preemptive Germany match excuses, he has a right to be a bit peeved. No team in the World Cup will travel more miles for its matches than the United States, and America's second game against Portugal was played in the warmest and most remote of all tournament venues, Manaus.

The US will indeed have one less day to recover from the only game in World Cup history that required a water break, and will have to play against one of the tournament's best and deepest teams.

I know we don't like our coaches being realistic or making excuses, but the US has had a pretty tough road to hoe in the supposed "Group of Death," and is only a tie away from securing a spot in the knockout stage. Klinsman has done a fabulous job getting America to this point, so if he wants to complain a little bit about realistic challenges, I say have at it.

A Lack of Scoring

I used to be in the camp, but if you actually watch the games, that lack of scoring isn't as boring as you might think. Keep in mind that more scoring would make each goal less significant (think hockey), and that waiting for your team to kick or head home an equalizing or go ahead goal is one of the most beautifully stressful moments in sport.
Us waiting longingly for a second half equalizer
As Americans we always want more action. Offense is dominating football right now, and you know we went so homerun crazy in the late 90s that we totally ignored the steroid era of baseball, but perhaps we can learn some restraint.

Would we really want every football game to be a 51-48 shootout? I know I wouldn't. Soccer is the same way, and when you catch a game that finally is a shootout, let's say 3-2, it's all the more exciting.


Ugh, I hate ties!

Well, just remember that there are only ties in the group stage games, and that once you get to the knockout stage, we get overtime and, eventually, penalty kicks.

Soccer fans hate penalty kicks as much as hockey fans hate shootouts, but it makes for fantastic and random finishes, like the 2006 World Cup Final between Italy and France.

I know America's tie with Portugal felt like a kick to the, you know, but if the US can tie Germany, get ready to celebrate. I know we're not much for indecisiveness or nuance in America, but ties actually make the group stage more interesting. A tie can mean so many things, and it just adds another level of complexity to qualifying and non-elimination games.

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