As July rolls on mercilessly and interminably, I'm reminded every day that there isn't a sport as good as hockey out there. I don't necessarily hate baseball, as it's always decent for background noise while engaged in more fast-paced activities, like..say... a game of Monopoly, or counting all of the spare change I keep in a jar of indeterminate origin on my bookshelf; I just can't appreciate the game on television nearly as well as I can when enjoying a day at the park. The sad thing is that I live near Kansas City, so the closest thing to professional baseball near me is a 4 1/2 hour drive away in St. Louis.
Other than baseball, golf, NASCAR, rugby, bear-baiting, fishing, bowling, rummikub, cheerleading(?), roller derby, Calvinball, mumblety-peg, and surfing, the only other somewhat interesting sport in season during these hot months is soccer (or, as famed British announcer Ian Darke calls it, "Soccah"). With the sting of the U.S. Women's soccer team loss to Japan in the World Cup Finals still fresh on the cusp of our consciousness, I wanted to address the sport in true American fashion: by calling it stupid and explaining to a world that loves it more-or-less the way it is why they should change it to suit my dumb whims.
Before we get started, I feel that I should let this out: I grew up playing soccer. From the awesome bumblebee-ball games that small children play when they clump around the ball and kick wildly, hitting shins as often as anything, all the way to the exciting level of junior-varsity, where we started calling the field "the pitch" and thought that the coolest thing ever was a person who could execute a front-flip before throwing in the ball. I actually loved soccer before I met hockey. However, just like the first girlfriend is a "practice" girlfriend so you don't screw up trying to score the real hottie, soccer was a first love that taught me not to mistake a lot of going down easy for a promise of a ton of fast-paced action.
Let's get to the jump before I go any more blue with that metaphor, shall we?
Without further ado, here are five ways soccer could improve and, in the process, become more like hockey:
For all the complaining we as hockey fans have done about the decisions made in the War Room in Toronto, imagine how much worse it would be if the only explanation we got was "Well, the guy who was 30 yards away saw it this way and neither of his linesmen could say they saw any different, so that's the way it is...forever." I'm still mad about a disallowed Brad May goal during the regular season two years ago. I can't imagine how furious I'd be if something this obvious knocked my team out of the playoffs. Are we worried that it's going to make a 90-minute game even longer? Who the hell cares? Instant replay didn't ruin the enjoyment of the NFL, it made it better. That's what allowing technological advancements to improve the game tends to do.
The good news: There are 11 of you. The bad news: 8 of you have to stay on for the entire game and if you come off, you're done. I know, I know; it's part of the game. Part of the challenge of soccer is the endurance it takes for the players to give it 90 minutes of sprinting for 15-second intervals, jogging for two minutes, and walking for the other ten. I'm in absolute awe of the sheer athleticism these guys have to show just to be able to do that. However, I'm not entertained by sheer athleticism. Marathon-runners are goddamn heroes, but I don't want to watch people run for two hours unless there's a chance that a ball is going to go into a net and a girl is going to take off her top as a result of it (and at least there's an off-chance that something embarrassing is going to happen to them.). My favorite part of soccer is when they're running fast. Allowing unlimited, on-the-fly substitutions like they have in hockey would mean more of the running fast part and less of the "showing off aerobic athleticism" part.
Do you want to know my favorite offensive strategy in soccer? It's the one where your team brings the ball up-field, tries to get it into the 18-yard box and then, if you don't score, the one where a player falls down trying to get the refs to call a penalty on the other side so you can get the opportunity to score the easiest point since the NFL instituted the PAT kick. Want to know why that's my favorite strategy? Because it's the ONLY strategy. If you're going to insist on giving a penalty kick in that tiny portion of the field, then at least give the defending team a penalty kick when somebody takes a dive in the box. Don't even get me started on cards. To be honest, there's something inherently awesome about a red card. Watching a ref jog up to a player and flip that card up in the air before walking way is the ultimate act of cool. No words or fancy hand signals are needed, just a little colored card that tells us "we're done here, buh-bye." Unfortunately, with the card system, you get a lot of ways that very dissimilar fouls all get equated. Did you call a guy a poopy-head in the first half and then intentionally stick your hand out to play a ball at midfield in the 2nd? Congratulations, you're every bit as bad a person as the guy who did a flying jump kick into your teammate's knee earlier in the game, you monster. Let's not forget the yellow card for delaying the game. As a reminder, the clock counts up from zero and the ref just kind of arbitrarily decides when to tack more time on to the end of the half and he's the only one who knows when the final whistle is going to sound. Let's give a goalie a yellow card for taking advantage of this when he takes too long to restart play on a goal kick, but don't worry about the 40 other times during a game that a player kicks the ball out of bounds intentionally and play has to be stopped.
People hate the shootout in hockey, and for very good reason. The only reason it's widely accepted is because people also hate tie games. However, at least the NHL has the guts to decide their playoff games through the terribly suspenseful, tense, and exciting process of "you play the game until somebody scores or you're all dead." Unfortunately, thanks to the aforementioned stupidity regarding substitution rules, soccer games are actually more likely to end up with all the players dead. Instead, they decide that the best team in the world is the one who can play the other best team in the world to a 120-minute tie ballgame and then come out the luckier side in a penalty kick shootout. They could literally flip a coin and the outcome would have just as much bearing on which side is better at soccer.
This is the worst rule in soccer by far. It's not that giving the defense the ability to prevent cherry-picking is a problem, far from it in fact. Pushing up-field while your team has the ball in the attacking end is a great way to keep all soccer teams everywhere from adopting a strategy which would basically end up being the neutral zone trap of soccer. Instead, what I hate about offsides is that the ball can be in the penalty box within 18 yards of the goal (on a 110-yard field) and the entire play can be whistled down because some jerkhole is magically standing behind the defense and this is supposed to be his problem. As a concept, once you're within 40 yards of the opponent's goal, there is no such thing as cherry-picking, just good hustle and positioning.
So there you have it, five ways soccer would be better if it were more like hockey. However, re-opening the ex-girlfriend metaphor for a minute, I just want to address soccer and tell her "it's not you, it's me... we just grew apart. Sure, you could change yourself to look more like what I want, but then you wouldn't be you. In the end, you'll be happy to stick with a guy who appreciates you for who you are, even with all of your numerous flaws. Also, tell your sister Rugby to stop leering at me for breaking up with you. She kind of scares me."