Further proof from Manchester United’s 2-1 victory over Arsenal today that statistics in soccer don’t mean that much:

Amazingly, stats will tell you that Arsenal had more possession (52.1% to 47.9%) and made more passes (521 to 461) but the conclusion to be drawn is that United were simply better on the ball, more clinical, more direct and a lot more dangerous. Arsenal, leaden footed and half-hearted, could have passed it around until sundown and never really looked like scoring.

Despite the scoreline (1-0 at the half, 2-1 final), this was not a close game.   Until the last-second goal, Arsenal had exactly one good chance during the entire game, and even though it hit the post the keeper had the angle covered well, so if it had been on target it would have been saved.  Arsenal may have held the ball a fair amount but they never got the ball into dangerous positions on the other side of the field, whereas Man United often took only a few passes to get into a flowing offensive maneuver in the Arsenal half.

I’m genuinely puzzled about how statistics might be able to convey United’s dominance.
 

A small detail from a larger piece about how Freddy Adu illustrates that the US doesn’t know how to develop soccer talent:

Consider Adu was playing professionally at the age of 14, which is the age countries such as Spain, France and Italy allow youth teams to begin playing 11 versus 11.

This is what I mean when I explain to people that soccer fundamentals need to be developed early on, and teamwork can come later.  Are the Spanish, French, and Italians unable to play as a team because they start so late?

On a related note, at the park near me I saw a youth game involving Latino kids about 7-8 years old.  It was 11 vs. 11, on a full regulation field.  And it was hard to say what was more ridiculous- the kids bunching up and hacking at the ball in a scrum, or the fathers all yelling on the sidelines.

 

 

Two of the biggest errors that sportswriters tend to make when judging the potential for soccer to become popular in America is to focus on either the World Cup or MLS in isolation from each other.

If soccer’s growth depended on MLS, I agree that it would be a tough slog in the near future.  The league has proven it can sustain itself with some decent soccer and a loyal fanbase, but would it on its own crack the three big sports (football, basketball, baseball) that are pretty much enmeshed in America’s sporting DNA?  Not likely, or at least not likely in the next fifty years.

Then you look at international soccer, including the European leagues, major international tournaments (Champions League, Euro, Copa America), and of course the World Cup.  Here too there is a solid and even growing audience for this kind of soccer, especially when the US makes the second run of the World Cup.  And yet, despite the fact that highlights from the big European teams are cracking Sportscenter, there seems to be a bit of a wall for soccer across the pond.  For one thing, the time difference makes watching the games more difficult.  And the sport is still somehow exotic in its rituals (ties, no playoffs, multiple concurrent tournaments, diving) to American sports fans who did not grow up playing frequently.

But as I see it, these two types of soccer are not in fact operating in isolation.  Soccer is essentially building a train track from two separate destinations, and success will come when they meet in the middle.  Hence, it isn’t up to Landon Donovan in MLS or Wayne Rooney in the EPL to challenge Lebron James.  Success will come a decade from now when a young Ohio boy signs a contact with Man United at 16 and stays home to play on loan with the Columbus Crew for a few years and then goes to England for an illustrious career at Man United, only to come home for his last few playing years to finish his career at Columbus.

My point being that there is some room for crossover, and not even in this literal sense.  Some people will get into MLS, some will watch the European leagues, and Mexican immigrants will continue to support their teams from back home.  Professional soccer has a number of entry points now for all the people who grow up playing the game, and isn’t solely reliant on the World Cup every four years.  I think over time this kind of fractured support of soccer can become a strength, and we will start to see more relationships form between players and teams in different leagues and countries.

All that said, the latest attendance numbers for MLS are very positive, and I’m glad the league continues to grow and cement its place as a legitimate league, both in American sports and international soccer.

 

 

 

 

1) I’m watching the Sunday night NFL game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Detroit Lions.  I love it how the NFL shows air shots of the city.  They showed the same sunset I can see out of my living room window.  It was beautiful…though now the rolling fog is taking over the hill.  I don’t know why, but I love watching a game taking place nearby and being broadcast to the country.  I also love how American cities love their NFL teams.  Especially now that they are a good team, people love the 49ers here.

2) I’ve been extolling the virtues of soccer for some time now, but watching this game I’m experiencing some internal pushback.  In theory, the constant breaks for commercials suck.  But in practice, I’m liking the rhythm.  There is no slack part of the actual game, as there is in soccer.  When the the game is on, there is imminent action, whereas in soccer the camera stays on the field for a lot of slow moments, like when the teams are setting up to take a corner and the big defenders from one team are lumbering up to the attacking end of the field to try to head one in.

2a) Building on that idea, there is something very compelling about watching the huddle, the break, the lining up in formation, and quarterback calling signals…and then it’s on!  Each play has a sweet tension build that is just easy to watch and stay interested in.  If I knew more about football schemes, I would no doubt like it even more as I could diagnose the strategy of each team.

2c) In contrast to soccer, you know exactly where the game stands from an offensive or defensive perspective.  The team has X points, they need to go Y amount of yards for a first down, and Z amount of yards for a touchdown.  It’s entirely quantifiable, and as a consequence easy to get a hold of.  Soccer is much more subtle, though I have to say, as I’ve watched a ton of soccer over the last three years, I can discern patterns there too.  I can tell which team has dominated certain periods of play, and fit it into a kind of quantifiable feeling in my head that lets me predict what might happen later in the game.  (One of the big breakthroughs in my soccer knowledge has been the ability to detect when possession of the ball is indicative of dominance and when that possession is sterile.  Most of it has to do with where the ball is being possessed on the field and how advanced down the field does the opposing team start to press.)

 

 

I was walking with my kids other day and we were exploring the area behind a tennis court.  We found some balls that had been hit over the fence, and then were throwing them against this wall nearby.  It has been so long since I’ve played an organized game of baseball or even wiffle ball, but the act of throwing the ball against the wall brought back all these rich memories of playing baseball with a tennis ball throughout my youth.  Gripping the ball and striding forward, feeling the release of the ball in my hand, hearing the pop of the ball against the wall and reading the bounce and grabbing with my left hand as thought I were wearing a glove…

It made me reflect on my current distance from baseball.  I never watch it anymore.  I have some free Giants tickets coupons that I have haven’t used in the last two years.  And it occurs to me that perhaps the reason I don’t watch and follow the sport anymore is because the sport doesn’t offer me much connection to the passion I felt when I was playing as a child.

For one thing, I hate the slow pace of the game.  Why does batter need to step out of the box?  Why does pitcher need to leave the mound?  Why does the pitcher get so much time to warm up at the start of an inning?  Why are managers allowed to change hitters and pitchers so often during a game, and why are these new additions to the game given so much time to warm up?  Why are there so many commercials that interfere with a game?

One of the things American sports fans don’t fully understand (or any sports fan, for that matter, and myself included until I’ve thought about it recently) is how growing up with a sport can make you fall in love with it, but it can also blind you to its flaws.  The opposite occurs when this fan looks at a sport they are not familiar with.  I’ve never played cricket, so all I see are its flaws and am unable to appreciate its virtues.

I could just leave this idea here, but what makes it more interesting to me is that, to compare soccer and baseball, where both of these sports have flaws, perhaps the single biggest reason for soccer’s emergence as the most popular sport in the world is that its flaws are less pronounced than the flaws in, say, baseball.

I will be the first to admit soccer’s flaws: low-scoring games, players who fake injuries, penalty shoot-outs as a means of settling draws.  But soccer’s strengths as a sport are to my mind insurmountable: the rules are incredibly simple, you can play an authentic game with any number of players available, the equipment is supremely simple, and you can play on a variety of surfaces.  It’s very easy for people to play soccer, and it’s very easy for someone new to the game to understand very quickly what is going on in a televised broadcast.

Baseball, on the other hand, has flaws like the slow pace mentioned above.  It also has very complex rules to learn.  If you want to play with a small group of people, you have to modify the game in a way that renders it very different from an actual game. (In my youth we never ran when we played baseball.  We had a pitcher, hitter, and if available, a catcher.  Although it should be noted here that with 2-3 people, baseball is easier to play than a game of soccer.)  You also need a lot of space to play baseball.  I know this because my pickup game- despite the fact that we had 20-30 people playing, would get booted off the field because 5-8 baseball players had reserved the field for practice they needed to hit flies.

My point is that an American who is used to baseball is a bit blind to all of these flaws.  They only see the virtues.  But if the sport wants to grow internationally, I think it needs to address the flaws, because as it stands right now, soccer’s flaws, while readily apparent, are less of a barrier to new people enjoying the sport.  Cultures with no soccer tradition are rapidly taking to the sport, like Jamaica and Cuba.  Baseball, on the other hand, relies almost exclusively on tradition, in which dads teach their kids how to play and the love of the game is passed on.  That’s great, but I don’t see it growing the sport.

I should probably do another post soon about who cares whether a sport grows, and address my obsession with seeing sports as being in competition with each other for market share.  I’m not fully sure where it comes from myself.  I think it’s mostly because I see this trend that most people in the sports world seem totally unaware of, in which soccer is going to make inroads in America and other sports like football and baseball are going to become niche sports.  I very well could be wrong, but I don’t see either of those sports converting people in other countries that are not currently into them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been watching Portland play Colorado off and on this evening.  It’s been an enjoyable game- the quality of play is high, the score is close, and the crowd is terrific.  The supporters section has been shouting all game.   If MLS could bottle what they have in Portland and spread it around the country, the league would be incredible.

But I still haven’t enjoyed watching this game as much as if I were watching Arsenal or the San Jose Earthquakes.  The score is 1-0 Portland, but I don’t care who wins or loses.  I’m just passively watching.

I’m deeply curious about this innate need to follow a particular team.  I’ve grown attached to my players, particularly the Arsenal ones.  Even when other teams are producing superior soccer, I don’t enjoy watching them as much as watching my team.

It’s especially strange because I have no clear connection to Arsenal.  I picked them for certain reasons, some more clear than others.  But the choice at the beginning of last year was subjective, even whimsical, and yet I’ve developed a kinship with this team such that I’ve been checking my phone all day to see if we signed new players before the transfer deadline. (We didn’t…sigh.)

I’m tired now, but this will have to be explored.

I’ve posted some entries that flow together. If you want to read them in order, here they are:

Post 1

Post 2

Post 3

Post 4

I should add that my thoughts here borrow some ideas and were inspired by things that Michael over at Braves and Birds has said over the years. Particularly the things about sample sizes, the Atlanta Braves, and college football. He doesn’t post often, but when he does it’s almost always great.

Let me start off post #4 by returning to the quotes from post#1:

Friend #1) I don’t watch “X-sport” during the regular season, but once the post-season starts then I start watching.
Friend #2) The regular season is really just preparation for the post-season. It’s less important to be dominant during the regular season so long as a team peaks during the playoffs.

Both of these perspectives are very strange to European soccer followers. Last year the LA Galaxy had the best record at the end of the season, yet would not be MLS champions unless they won the playoffs. As Thierry Henry said:

“I will never get used to it; in Europe, Los Angeles would be champions…You fight all season like the Galaxy, but rules are rules…You have to adapt to it. I guess it can make things more exciting, but I will never get used to it.”

What strikes Europeans as odd is the sheer randomness of American playoffs. Yes, you have more guaranteed excitement at the end of the season, but it comes at huge cost. I would say the Olympics are perhaps the most blatant example of this tradeoff: every four years athletes are given one day to prove they are champions. Yes, they have to work hard to qualify, but no cares until it’s time to hand out the medals. One fall can ruin a gymnast or iceskater’s entire past four years. To win a gold medal means a person or team was the best on one particular day, and for that reason I find it all a little silly.

For this reason, despite being raised on American sports, I have gone over to the European perspective. I can no longer look at things like the San Francisco Giants World Series Championship as anything more than a good team that got hot at the right time. Luck. That’s all it was. They were not better than the Philadelphia Phillies during the season. They just happened to be able to win a short series against them.

Now my thoughts here don’t apply to all American sports. Two sports that are actually more in common with European soccer are college football and NASCAR. Both have meaningful regular seasons in which every game/race counts. (Honestly, I’m not 100% about NASCAR, but I think that’s what I remember seeing.)

Football is an odd animal. The bruising nature of the sport limits the number of games during the season. This makes it impossible to have a season in which each team plays every other team in equivalent fashion. When teams have unequal schedules in terms of degree of difficulty, then playoffs become a necessity.

Nor is a series of games a serious possibility in football. Football is stuck with a small sample size of games to orchestrate a championship.

One might think the small number of games and the inability to host a series would hinder its popularity. (After all, even soccer teams often do home-away rounds.) I think the opposite effect is at play: the scarcity of games means the games that are played take on a heightened meaning. It’s a mirror of the NBA, in which the regular season means very little to all teams not battling for that 8th playoff spot.

The great thing about college football is that an upset in September can take a top team out of contention for awhile. Thus, when top teams like USC, Alabama, etc. play weaker teams, there is real drama. One loss is very important. Many people who oppose the idea of a playoff for college football do so on the grounds that if somehow the season affords top teams one loss and still lets them into championship contention, then the drama of an upset would carry less weight. It’s not an argument that necessarily carries the day against a playoff system, but it is something to be accounted for.

As for the NFL- they seem to have hit the sweet spot for finding a regular season with meaningful games followed by a meaningful post-season. From a justice perspective, I think the league would be better if Wild Card teams weren’t allowed to win the championship, but from a drama perspective I think on the whole it works. Again, this is because the regular season itself has a sample size that is relatively small. A 16 game season – 3/4 game postseason for the champion (ratio of roughly 4:1) works well at providing good drama and justice. (The bye weeks for the top teams and the home field advantage are also ways that help the justice factor.)

The NBA, to my mind, has the worst of both worlds when it comes to drama. The regular season drags on and on, and then the playoff series drag on and on. I think if you are a basketball junkie then the intricacies of a long series featuring the same teams appeal to you just fine. But for someone like me, I’ve stopped paying attention to basketball, even during the playoffs. I don’t find enough drama unless it is a game 7 of the Finals. Where the NBA does well is in justice. The long regular season and long playoffs mean that only a truly deserving team wins out in the end.

But as mentioned above, I’m on a European soccer diet now, and I’m taking the rhythms of the sport into my life as well. Arsenal have drawn twice in their first two games, which means we’ve taken 2 out of a possible 6 points. This is disappointing, but not entirely unexpected, since we have a bunch of new players who are still figuring out how to play together. But we have no time to fool around and merely qualify for the playoffs before we make our run. Our run starts now. And that’s why when we play Liverpool this Saturday, in a certain sense, our chance at a league title is on the line. And that’s drama.

Caveat: This may be a cop-out, but I don’t have the time these days to do a lot of meticulous research, so I’m going on my general knowledge.

It is my understanding that the way American sports leagues started was similar to the way European soccer is currently run. The leagues had 10-15 teams, each team played the other teams an equivalent number of times, and the team with the best overall record at the end of the season was crowned champion. Hence, in the olden days of baseball the goal was was to win the pennant. Wikepedia:

The last few weeks of the regular American professional baseball season are known as a pennant race. This is a holdover from the time (pre-1969) when the league championships were determined by the team with the best record at the end of the regular season.

The introduction of a series of games to settle the championship evolved out of desire to see a true champion crowned from the winner of the two separate leagues, the National League and the American League. In theory, the leagues could have done two other actions:

1) merged their regular seasons and continued playing each team an equivalent number of times

2) separated all the baseball teams into hierarchical leagues- that is, to say the best 15 teams will play in the top league, and next best 15 teams will play in league one level below. This is the model followed by soccer around the world (not in the US).

It is my strong hunch that baseball chose to tack on a series at the end of the respective American and National league seasons rather that purse either of the other two options simply because it required the least amount of logistical headache. The season-ending series, henceforth known as the World Series, preserved the leagues as distinct entities during the regular season and didn’t require the coercion that would have been necessary to see some teams dropped into a lower league.

I’m sure much has been written on this topic elsewhere by baseball historians, but what interests me is that the decision was not taken with a narrative perspective in mind. That is, the people in charge of baseball didn’t see the World Series as solving the problem of the baseball season lacking a natural climax. Sometimes there was a thrilling pennant race, but I’m guessing most of the time the Yankees put it to bed early on.

The reason I think the lack of climax didn’t bother anyone is because of the widely held view – and here we connect back to European soccer – that deserving winner of the championship trophy was the best team in the league. How should one determine the best team in the league? Well, if each team played all the other teams the same amount of times, then the best team is the won with the most wins. Simple and fair.

The World Series introduces a different element, because the Best-of-7 series, with its much smaller sample size, can hinge much more on chance. It’s only 4-7 games, compared to the 150 that were played during the regular season. In this case, we now have a championship that is not based a season-long effort, but on being sharp in a short series.

Long story short: drama wins big with the introduction of the World Series. Every game counts, winner take all, loser goes home. And where drama wins, justice loses. A team like the Atlanta Braves in the 1990′s can consistently prove over the course of 162 games that it is a superior team, only to fail in a short series in the playoffs. And American sports fans can draw the conclusion (and I admit, back then I was one of them) that despite winning the large sample size, the fact that the Braves couldn’t win when it counted in the playoffs marks them as relative failures.

Over time, despite the fact that historically things were otherwise, Americans subconsciously accepted the playoffs as opposed to the regular season as being the more legitimate proving ground for a team. Get to the playoffs, peak in the playoffs, and become champions.

I would argue the only reason for having the playoffs stems from their superior ability to offer sporting drama, but not as a mechanism for truly determining the best team. (The NFL is a different animal here. This applies to sports with large sample sizes and equivalent schedules in the regular season MLB, NBA, and NHL.) The playoffs, with their short series, offer the inferior team a better chance of winning than they would have in a large sample size of games like the regular season. The NCAA basketball tournament is the epitome of this rule: Princeton University has a slight chance of upsetting Kentucky in a single game- it has essentially zero chance of defeating them in a 7-game series. (Whatever brilliant plan Princeton concocted to defeat Kentucky one game will be quickly dealt with by the Kentucky coaching staff, and thus the element of surprise is negated.)

Now, just because playoffs are unjust is not a reason to not have them. They have a lot of value in the predictable (in the good sense) drama they provide. But I think one still has to consider whether the value of this drama is worth it in light of the two factors discussed thus far: the siphoning of excitement from the regular season and the increased likelihood that the best team (as determined by the largest sample size of games) will not be crowned champion.

The reason that American sports with their post-season tournaments are not necessarily superior from a narrative perspective is due to the fact that thus far we have been only concerned with climax of the season and the manner in which a champion is crowned. (Why am I writing like this? I can write more fluidly, but I like the academic tone…)

The sum of the argument is that in order to aggregate so much excitement in post-season tournament in American sports, the sport has to sacrifice excitement that would otherwise attach to regular season games. In other words, the post-season tournament doesn’t add excitement to the season; it just takes it from the regular season and loads it up at the end. (This is not a value judgement- yet. I’ll take that up in a third post).

For example, contrast the EPL with the NCAA basketball tournament. Let’s take two top teams, Manchester United and the University of Kentucky. During the regular season, Kentucky does not need to win all of its games. It can lose between 5-10 games and still coast into the post-season tournament. It can lose more than that and still make the tournament. Any given regular-season game it loses isn’t that important, because the NCAA tournament is what matters, and all they have to do is qualify for it.

Manchester United does not have that luxury. Like Kentucky, Manchester United can and do lose games, for sure, and they can still win the championship even if they lose games. But because the regular season games count towards the title, every loss or draw is lost points. And that bears direct influence on the title hunt. There is no reset at the end of the season. Manchester United cannot bank on coasting into a playoff simply by finishing third or fifth and then focusing on the playoffs. They have to finish first, which means winning as many of the games as they can at all points during the season.

What does this have to do with narrative excitement? Well, a loss by Kentucky in the first half of the season isn’t that big a deal. It does no direct harm to their overall goal of winning the NCAA tournament. On the other hand, if Manchester United lose to a weak team, it has direct influence on their title hunt. It is three points they should have put in the bank and now can never get back.

In this sense, when Manchester United lost to Everton a week ago on the opening day of the season, it wasn’t simply a loss to take in stride as the growing pains of a new season. And the fact that this opening day game has a clear and direct influence on their title hunt brings excitement that would otherwise be absent if at the end of the season there was a reset involving the top 4-8 teams.

This excitement applies to every game during the season, and gets more intense as the season progresses. At this point, I have to acknowledge a complicated dissent: in the EPL model as the season progresses more and more teams drop out of the title race until only a few are left. Sometimes one team runs away with the race. In a playoff system there are teams battling for spots, and this adds excitement to games involving those teams.

But my overall point is that I think there is a finite amount of excitement to be enjoyed during a season, and different methods for determining a championship simply organize that drama into different parts of the season’s timeline. The NCAA tournament has a lot of drama during the final three week tournament, but it comes at the expense of the regular season. The English Premiere League has more game-to-game excitement in the regular season, but often does not end in a natural climax, meaning the season can end an anti-climax.

In my next few posts I will explore some of the historical underpinnings of the different ways to crown a champion, and look into how important the role of familiarity plays into which one a person prefers.