I started writing about soccer in 1980. I was on the Tulsa World sports staff and, initially, wrote an occasional sidebar on the Tulsa Roughnecks of the North American Soccer League. Later, I became a more regular fixture on the soccer beat, and covered the Roughnecks during their strange run to the 1983 Soccer Bowl title.
A lot of sports writers brought up on balls and strikes and first downs didn’t like covering a sport in which a 1-1 draw was an exciting result, but I did. I can’t even say why, exactly. Maybe it was the foreignness of it. Soccer in those days was as exotic to most Americans as Dr. Who and sushi. The United States had not played in a World Cup in 30 years and wouldn’t for another 10.The North American Soccer League required each team to have at least three U.S. or Canadian players on the field at all times; a lot of those were goalkeepers and naturalized Europeans. American field players were miles behind the rest of the world, athletically and technically.
Soccer has certainly grown over the past 35 years. The U.S. has qualified for every World Cup since 1990. It’s best players now hold their own in the best leagues in the world. For the most part, though, I would have to say we still don’t get it.
My theory is that soccer is just too random and too unstructured for Americans to fully comprehend or appreciate. Soccer is a game with very few rules, and the ones it does have are often arbitrarily applied. It is officiated by a single referee responsible for a playing area larger than an American football field, with players scattered from one end to the the other and sideline to sideline. Yes, he has two assistants, and those assistants have been given more responsibility in recent years, but the referee is still in charge. What he says go. Unlike American timed sports, where an impersonal scoreboard clock ticks down the final seconds of a football or basketball game, the referee alone decides the moment a soccer match ends. His decisions carry enormous weight. By sending a player off or awarding a penalty kick, he alters the game in a way not even a baseball umpire or basketball referee can.
Every time a flag drops in an American football game, seven or eight guys in striped shirts get together to decide whether there was a penalty or not. In soccer, one man blows a whistle and that’s pretty much it.
Americans are bottom-line kind of people. They want results. All that dribbling and passing and juggling is swell but if it comes to naught 99 times out of 100, we figure we might as well go to the ballet. And about half the goals that are scored look like accidents. The ball gets blasted into a crowd, it ricochets off two or three players and goes in the net off a defender.
Every sport is a form of performance art, but soccer is more free-form than most, certainly more free-form than baseball or football and even more than professional basketball. It is a game of both structure and creativity, and we Americans seem to have trouble wrapping our minds around it.
For me, soccer is a little like a David Lynch movie. I don’t always understand it, but I can’t stop watching.