Soccer needs to rev up the action

Posted: March 03, 2013

Matt Zencey

is a former Inquirer editor

This weekend marks the start of the region's pro soccer season, when thousands of fans flock to PPL Park in Chester to cheer on the Philadelphia Union. I will not be among them.

To me, soccer is much ado about not enough. The teams run around for an hour and a half and if the fans are lucky, their team may - hold your breath! - score a goal or two.

Yes, I know that along the way, you'll see impressive feats of foot-eye coordination. A star player can dribble the ball as if it's on a string attached to his foot. The stamina required to run nonstop for 45 minutes at a time is mind-boggling. After buzzing around on a soccer pitch for two or three minutes, I'd have trouble outrunning a three-legged beagle.

But all that comes with a lot of nonsense. A soccer game offers some of the best acting this side of Broadway. To gain a breather, players will fake a catastrophic orthopedic injury - then bounce up a minute later as if they just received the miracle cure of Lourdes. Attacking players, feeling a defender's touch that wouldn't knock over your grandmother, fall to the ground, hoping to draw a penalty shot, which almost guarantees a goal.

To capture my interest, soccer needs more scoring. Loosening the offside rule would help. It's a way to keep attackers from hanging around the other team's goal for easy scores. But many an exciting offensive rush has been annulled by the ref's judgment that, gee, the guy who is swooping in on goal was maybe half a step ahead of the last defender back when the ball was kicked in his direction. (Got that?)

Soccer could rev up the action even further by allowing substitutions on the fly, as in hockey. Right now, to change players on the field requires an elaborate ritual only slightly less involved than getting married, and unlike marriage, there's a limit on how many times you can do it.

Soccer fans like the lack of scoring, and the long, slow buildup that precedes any score, and they experience an incredible burst of emotion when it finally happens. If it happens only once a game, that's enough, thank you very much. (Kind of like another intensely popular human activity, involving a long buildup and a short, intense burst of pleasure . . . except soccer fans don't fall asleep after it finally happens.)

I don't begrudge them their pleasures. Mine is baseball - definitely an acquired taste. It involves intense bursts of sometimes breathtaking athleticism, followed by much longer spells of squinting, spitting, glove-tugging, and standing around doing nothing on the field.

I just hope U.S. soccer's growth doesn't unleash the same violent passions and hooliganism that sometimes erupt in Europe and Latin America. Remember the unfortunate Colombian defender who was shot to death not long after causing an own goal in the World Cup?

Here in the United States, we have enough idiotic sports-related violence. One of our major sports, hockey, officially tolerates fighting among players as "part of the game." At least the lords of soccer are smart enough not to allow that.


Matt Zencey is the author of "Unlikely Liberal: Sarah Palin's Curious Record as Alaska's Governor" E-mail him at mzencey@hotmail.com.

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