Superclubs tour USA: pros and cons

By Paul Gardner

The so-called World Football Challenge brings with it some intriguing positive factors, along with a couple of decidedly negative aspects.

Whatever may be the level of the soccer played, however many may have been the youngsters and the substitutes pouring on to the fields, the crowds have been exceptional.

On the whole, they have not been disappointed. The main problem with these out-of-season (out of European season, that is) exhibition tours is motivation. Will the games be truly competitive, or will we see players going through the motions?

In that sense, the more youngsters and reserves who play the better -- they are the ones seeking to impress. But they are not the ones whom the crowd pays to see. The best we can hope for is that the stars show up, that they get on the field, and that they give us at least glimpses of their talents.

The WFC has done well on all those counts. The games have been full of atmosphere with plenty of attractive soccer -- mostly from Chelsea and Club America. The huge crowds show once again the potential for the sport in this country -- just as they, once again, must cause much furrowing of brows at MLS.

After all, 81,000 plus at the Rose bowl? Who are all these people, and why cannot they mobilized to support the local MLS teams, the Galaxy and Chivas USA?

Unfortunately, most of these fans no doubt come under the heading of Eurosnobs, though the involvement of a Mexican team spreads the snobbery geographically wider. I suppose these are elitist fans.

Sad to say, the snobbery and the elitism -- which clearly have an anti-MLS, anti-USA flavor to them -- are encouraged by the WFC organizers.

That stupid title, for a start. Why does the word football have to be used? This is the USA, and the word used here for this sport is soccer. What is wrong with World Soccer Challenge? I would suggest only one thing: it sounds too American, and the organizers are scared of that. They want to be seen as sophisticated people who use the word football -- that's what the "rest of the world" calls the sport, we are constantly being told.

That happens to be not true -- and it is particularly not true of the teams in this tournament. Two of them are from Italy, where the sport is called calcio, while the Mexicans use the modified futbol. On being questioned about the use of the word football, the people involved -- from WFC and from ESPN -- offered utterly lame reasoning, all of which implied that the Americans must bow down to "the rest of the world".

So we have a tournament played in America, organized by Americans -- but which is ashamed to use American vocabulary. Worse -- which uses a word that the organizers know is the wrong word.

A point about the word soccer: there seems to be a widespread impression that the word is an American invention. It is not. It is pure English, almost as old as the sport itself. Maybe the WFC people, having understood that the word has sturdy Brit Eurosnob origins, will now be able to use it?

But the WFC guys are to be praised for doing something else that does have a strong American influence. I refer to the points scheme they are using. It is an adaptation of the system that was used by the North American Soccer League 30 years ago -- one that rewards goalscoring by awarding a point for each goal scored up to a maximum of three.

The problem NASL ran into was that a team losing a game by a score of 5-4 would end up with four points for the goals scored -- the same total that a team winning by 1-0 score would get. They got around that by awarding 6 points for a win, rather than three.

I felt the system worked well -- though it is always difficult to accurately measure the effect of such changes. Assessing the effect of the points system was also complicated by the NASL's simultaneous use of the 35-yard offside line, a unique rule-amendment that may or may not have had an effect on the scoring rate. Certainly, NASL was never accused of being a defense-minded league.

The use of 35-yard line was a rule change (eventually nixed by FIFA) that entailed an extra field marking and altered the way that teams played, tactically -- not a good idea for clubs that wish to compete internationally. But the tinkering with the points system is not a rule change -- its effect, if it has any, is to encourage teams to go looking for goals, to not be satisfied with a 1-0 lead.

The scoring rate in the WFC has not been that high - in six games it averaged only 2.3 goals per game. I find that interesting -- as it suggests that the low-scoring nature of soccer has now reached the point where inducements to score (and such inducements could, in the end, be financial) will probably not work. The sport has simply sunk too far into the grips of the defensive mentality for mere exhortation to pull it out. I fear only rule changes will bring back the goals.


7 comments about "Superclubs tour USA: pros and cons".
  1. Doug Kieffer, July 27, 2009 at 12:52 p.m.

    I am so glad you mentioned the old NASL scoring system. It has been on my mind almost since day 1 of the league. I think this is a great idea because, like you say, it doesn't change the rules of the game, rather it determines what sort of play will be rewarded. Teams with a lead can keep the pedal down and teams down by a 2 or more goals late in the game still have an incentive to grab a goal. And if enough of the teams vying for 0-0 draws on the road get punished enough, maybe it can alter the defensive mentality. I remember people complaining when a the international system went from 2 pts for a win to 3. I don't know how these ossified attitudes get cracked but it is necessary for the league in this country to flourish. People want to see the shake-n-bake like in the NBA. There is not even close to a core level of hardcore fans that are so devoted to their club that they'll accept any kind of result.

  2. Shelley Steinhorst, July 27, 2009 at 1:21 p.m.

    After reading my second Paul Gardner blog today, I was about to cancel my subscription completely, but then I read all the other comments to Paul Gardner's last blog about Beckham - as a new subscriber, it helps to get more context and other people's opinions.

    The comments from the other readers do more to feel like part of a US soccer fan community than to read Gardner innuendo that all European, Mexican, non American Citizen supporters are either snobs or elitists. And that they and the WFC is 'anti-USA', by default.

    I get the feeling that Mr. Gardner believes that US soccer won't be a money maker until we get British style hooliganism - who snarl 'soccer' and look for 'anti-USA' behavior to head-butt in between beer chugs in the stands.

    Some of us are patient enough to go and support the games, in spite of 'differences' in talent and salaries on the field. Player profiles and lots of facts and human interest stories help me keep up my enthusiasm when play is not always top notch - because I want to fire up and honor those players out there working their guts out, whatever nation they come from, because they believe soccer has a future here. I believe it does too.

    I think a Joseph Goebbels style journalism fanning the flames of hate for everything 'non-American' is not what we need here. I admit, it makes an otherwise passive reader like me, more likely to comment - but when can we tone down the politics and turn up the soccer volume?

    By Paul Gardner's logic, we should be looking for a 'pure' American to be writing a soccer America blog - but that would be a shame, cutting out the Brits, now wouldn't it?

  3. Donald West, July 27, 2009 at 1:44 p.m.

    Want to score more goals? A simple rule change would do the trick. Get rid of the offside rule. It's a very-difficult-to-enforce-properly-and-uniformly rule. I know, I used to be a soccer referee, and running the lines required eyes that could focus on the player delivering the pass, the player receiving the pass, and the defensive player(s) furthest upfield, all at once. Try it some time without television replays to help the poor linesman. Oops, I forgot, to help the poor referee"s assistant.

    Basketball has no offside rule, and those games are high scoring.

  4. Timothy Hanlon, July 27, 2009 at 2:27 p.m.

    Have long believed the UEFA and FIFA need to re-visit both the rules for points AND for offsides, which the NASL was a pioneer in. Don't think these exhibition matches were truly indicative of how providing incentive for offense could work in league play, but I think it's high time the governing bodies start experimenting with both again - how many "exciting" 0-0 ties must we continue to endure?

  5. Georges Edeline, July 27, 2009 at 2:28 p.m.

    I liked the NASL scoring system and would welcome it back any time. Many club tournaments have adopted a similar system: 6 points/win; 3/tie; 0/loss; plus 1/per goal, up to 3 max.; 1/shut out. So, a 3-0 win would get 10 points.
    In the US, large #'s are appealing, i.e. the other football/touchdown(6 pts) & field goal(3); bb/3 pointers...
    Would it help to award more points for different types of goals, i.e. timing (First 5, 15, 30, 45 minutes, etc.); space(from various locations/distances/ angles); types(restarts; headers, own goals)...
    Where would we stop, so far as keeping the sport simple or making it more complicated to the average spectator?
    Last but not least, how about redesigning the field and make it more like hockey, playing all around (larger) goals, figuring out a way to keep the ball in play/non-stop, eliminating dead time (11-13' per half); subbing on the fly (more playing time for all); no corner, goal kick, throw-in(replaced by kick-in)...

  6. Kent James, July 27, 2009 at 2:32 p.m.

    I don't think the MLS should be concerned about the large crowds to see the big European (and Mexican) clubs. While certainly some of those fans are Eurosnobs, as Gardner points out, I think many of them are just taking advantage of the opportunity to see big European clubs without having to pay for a transatlantic crossing. The great expansion of soccer on TV, both through ESPN's televising the Champion's League and the Fox Soccer Channel showing league games has created true fans of the major European clubs who now happen to live in the US. While this might discourage some from ever condescending to view an MLS game, I think it is more likely create a knowledgeable soccer fan base, many of whom, when given the opportunity, will become fans of the MLS. Of course, this is only true if the quality of the MLS continues to improve (more teams, better stadiums, better players, as has been the trend).
    Many of us do not live near an MLS team, so attending MLS games on a regular basis is out of the question. But as true soccer fans, we see what we can, when we can. My first exposure to soccer on TV was Toby Charles' commentary on PBS's "Soccer Made in Germany" in the 1970s (when I first started playing). Until the early 1990s, getting to watch soccer on TV was a rare privilege. When I first had access to FSC, I watched the Dutch and the Argentine Leagues, with some Italian and German games thrown in. There were a lot of great games, but I can't keep up with every league. Now that you can see so many different leagues, I've become much pickier about what I watch (since I do want to have a life outside of watching soccer). So I tend to watch the big clubs who have the best players (how can one not watch Messi, Ronaldo, etc., when given the opportunity, and the day is only so long...). I also try to watch the MLS on a regular basis, to support the league (in my own small way). Fortunately, one of the few benefits of the MLS summer schedule is that they are playing when many other leagues aren't, so watching MLS games becomes easier in the summer. I actually think in addition to the play, the MLS needs to make sure their games have atmosphere. Places like Seattle, Toronto and DC have the kind of atmosphere that makes a game exciting even if the quality of the play is not great. I think the MLS is going in the right direction, and as the fans get more knowledgeable and are exposed to European-style atmosphere, support for the MLS will grow, not diminish. So while I'm not a fan of Eurosnobs, I'm not really worried about them either. Either they'll change their attitude or we'll get to soccer nirvana in the US without them, though the journey may be long.

  7. Christopher Hughes, July 28, 2009 at 9:39 p.m.

    As a new fan of soccer I really enjoyed the WFC and think I will support Chelsea when the premier leaugue season starts. Having watched the WFC and many MLS games over the past month I see a difference in the play. On Fox Soccer Channel I've also watched some past Italian Serie A games and my first impression as a comparison would be watching minor league baseball (MLS) vs major league baseball (Premier League / Serie A). MLS has come along way from what I have ssen and learned but it must come further. I love the USMNT and I look forward to learning more about the sport.

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