The final vestiges of early fall hang on. The vibrant foliage that was short time ago is now fading. Pumpkin spice everything is the rage. The decreased amount of daylight has become increasingly more noticeable. Step outside most mornings and there is an extra chill in the air. Food cravings have changed, at least mine have, desiring more rich, hearty offerings. All of these signs of late October also point to the start of high school soccer playoff time in Maine.
I’ll have to admit, I am not and probably never will be an expert on soccer. When I was growing up, god does that phrase make me sound old, there was a distinct big three in the American sports hierarchy. Hockey had a solid foothold on a distant fourth. Soccer for most Americans was not even on the radar.
Other than playing a crude version of the game in phys ed class, my only exposure to soccer came when I started timing the John Bapst soccer games in the late 90’s. Advocates of the sport long predicted how the sport would grow in popularity. I sort of poo-pooed the notion, up until recently that is. I found those who loved soccer seemed defensive in their passion for the game. Their proclamations that the beautiful game would some day stake a solid foothold fell on deaf ears. Soccer for a long time was the island of misfit toys in our American sports culture.
Slowly, soccer began gaining popularity. Key events such as the United States championship in the 1999 Women’s World Cup helped pave the way. Many non-soccer fans tuned in. Those locally who were passionate about the game became more organized. Soccer clubs began forming all over the state. While I still wouldn’t consider myself a soccer fan, I have come to appreciate the increased skill level today’s players collectively possess over twenty years ago.
Having said that, there are aspects of the game of soccer that I simply don’t get. There are things that just eat at my innate sense of fairness which keep me from fully embracing this sport.
First, more so than other sports it seems, a team can dominate a soccer match and yet lose. Yes this can happen in football, basketball, or baseball, but fluky things seem to occur more in soccer, partially because there are generally fewer scoring opportunities. In a basketball game, where each team will score a lot of points, one or two plays doesn’t define a contest like they can in soccer. It seems strange how two teams can battle it out for eighty minutes yet have a match come down to seemingly minute situations.
The awarding of a penalty kick may be the most severe of all consequences in sport. Think about how an entire match can hinge on a single infraction inside the penalty area. I attended a match last week in which half the contest’s scoring occurred by way of penalty kick. These are generally converted at a fairly high rate, as well. You have a player from only twelve yards out, defended only by a keeper, trying to keep the ball out of an eight yard wide goal.
Speaking of penalty kicks, there have already been some seasons which have been decided in this fashion. In playoff soccer, if the score is tied following the first eighty minutes, the teams play two sudden victory periods of fifteen minutes each. If the game is still deadlocked the squads line up for a series of penalty kicks to determine who advances. This would be akin to having the state basketball championships decided by having a free throw contest at the end. Let that sink in. Teams run all over the field from mid-August on, only to have an entire season come down to penalty kicks. Perhaps a better solution would be to reduce the number of players on the field, creating more scoring opportunities in the overtime. Following this you could proceed to a series of corner kicks.
Soccer has a running clock except for goals, injuries, cards, or penalty kicks. There are plenty of ways for a team to nurse a lead late in the contest by delaying the game. Teams may put in a late game sub, kick the ball out of bounds, or take their sweet time on throw-ins or kicks late in the contest. Perhaps it would make sense to stop the clock in the final ten minutes of the game to prevent some of these stall tactics.
Fans of the game should have much to look forward to over the next two weeks, culminating with the state championships on Saturday, November 5th. Those involved should be commended in the manner the game has grown and how it is not only surviving but thriving.