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The case for professional soccerBY: Tom Purdom 08.16.2010
With its low-scoring games and British roots, soccer may never be America’s game. But for connoisseurs, it’s the ideal niche sport in an age of niche markets.
Major League Soccer: Philadelphia Union vs. Real Salt Lake. August 11, 2010 at PPL Park, Chester, Pa. (610) 497-1657 or www.philadelphiaunion.com.
A sport whose time has come:
Soccer is a game of near misses and close calls. One minute your team is pounding toward the goal with everybody in the stadium standing up and yelling for a score. Sixty seconds later, the ball has missed the net by a hair, the counter-attack gathers momentum, and the fans who were roaring for a goal are groaning as they watch the other guys bear down on their goalie.
This emotional roller coaster continues through two 45-minute halves of almost uninterrupted action. American football is a 60-minute game spread over three hours. By contrast, soccer is a 90-minute game played in less than two hours, including halftime.
Americans think soccer is a dull game because it’s low-scoring. On the contrary, it’s actually fist-clenching intense. Every goal is a major development. A one-goal lead in soccer is the equivalent of a 20-point lead in football. The team that gives up the first goal is confronted with a grueling uphill struggle just to get even.
No easy sound bite
The recent home game played by Philadelphia’s new professional soccer team, the Union, probably sounded tepid when it was summed up on the 11 O’clock News. How do you turn a 1-1 tie into an interesting 20-second sound bite? But to those of us who were there, it was a wide-open battle packed with events that could have swung the decision either way.
In addition, teams tend to go on the defensive once they take the lead. A team that’s concentrating on defense can present its opponent with an almost insurmountable barricade.
Attack or defend?
In its August 11 game against Salt Lake City, the Union took the lead, early in the game, with one of the smoothest goals I’ve seen: a pass from its best scorer, Sebastian Letoux, to a fast, aggressive forward, Danny Mwanga. At that point the Philadelphians could have concentrated on the defensive. Instead, both teams kept up the attack. The visitors fought for a tie, as usual, and the Philadelphians went for a bigger win.
The game’s last 20 minutes were especially exciting. Both teams knew that the side that scored first would probably win. The Union players arranged a parade of scoring chances, but they couldn’t beat the odds that favor the defense.
The Union currently occupies seventh place in its nine-team conference, but the team looks better on the field than the standings indicate. It usually controls the ball more than its opponents, and its goal-scoring total looks good, too: 22 goals scored this season, the second best total in its conference. Letoux is the league’s number three scorer.
The league that failed
In theory, the millions of Americans, male and female, who’ve played soccer as children during the past 30 years— not to mention all those much-touted suburban “soccer moms”— could provide a lucrative audience for professional soccer. But so far most Americans seem to prefer playing soccer to watching it.
Baseball, football and basketball originated in the U.S. and developed in response to uniquely American tastes. Soccer is an international sport, shaped by global tastes and governed by an international body that clings to rules developed in England near the end of Queen Victoria’s reign. If those rules happen to produce low-scoring games that repel American minds— well, that’s the way it’s always been, and we all know Americans are odd.
The old North American Soccer League played in football stadiums that dwarfed the audiences it attracted. The new league only places teams in cities that are willing to build special soccer stadiums— and it plans its stadiums with an intelligent understanding of crowd psychology. The Union’s stadium, PPL Park in Chester, seats 18,500 spectators (with the capacity to expand to around 30,000), on the sound theory that a small stadium packed with overwrought sellout crowds creates a better experience than a big stadium pockmarked with empty seats. So far the Union has attracted at least 16,000 fans to every home game.
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