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All right, I admit it, I hardly know the first thing about soccer. I grew up playing football, baseball, and basketball and didn’t learn the rules to “European football” until I started coaching my sons.
As a kid I had a Jackie Robinson comic book that told what a great athlete he was at UCLA. One picture showed a soccer-sized ball bouncing off his chest. I thought he was playing dodge ball — which was my favorite sport. I didn’t even know soccer existed.
All this makes me spectacularly unqualified to say anything about the game. When I make this suggestion to veteran soccer players, they look at me as if I haven’t grasped the first thing about it. But here goes anyway.
Let’s get rid of the offside rule.
We’ve just watched yet another World Cup decided on penalty kicks. This is the way it goes at the professional level. In my sons’ league we played games that had scores like 5-3, 6-0 until the teams started getting good and the scores shrunk to 2-1 and 1-0. World Cup takes this a step further. The typical score is 0-0 or at best 1-1. And half the time those goals are scored on penalty kicks and corner kicks anyway. I have yet to see a team bring the ball down the field and put it in the goal.
It’s just too damned hard to score in this game. The reason? The offside rule.
The offside rule says that an offensive player can’t get in front of the defense while running down the field. In basketball, this would be the equivalent of eliminating the fast break. In football, it would be like saying the receiver can’t outrun the defender on a forward pass. Imagine how boring basketball and football would become with those rules.
Whenever I make this suggestion to a veteran soccer player he inevitably responds, “But then all the offensive players would just cluster in front of the goal.” So what? If an offensive player stands in front of the goal, then a defensive player would have to go back to guard him, just like in basketball. The result would be that most of the game might be played in front of someone’s goal instead of in the middle of the field.
As it is, the offside penalty is inevitably invoked when the offense moves the ball quickly downfield — a fast break. Instead of trying to outrun the offensive player, the defensive player hangs back and “pulls” the offensive player offside. Professional teams play a “trapping defense” where the defense plays far up field trying to trap the offense into an offside. As a result, the ball shuttles back and forth in the middle of the field and nothing much ever happens.
“If you got rid of the offside rule, it would be too easy to score,” is the next inevitable response. Too easy to score? In a game where nobody EVER scores? What a horrible thought.
Because nobody ever scores in soccer, games are decided instead by penalty kicks. This is the equivalent of saying that if a baseball game is tied after nine innings then it will be decided by hitting batting practice home runs. In basketball, it would mean deciding the game on foul shots. In football, players would take turns at kicking extra points. The skills involved in making penalty kicks have very little to do with the skills involved playing the game. Does the best team win? How does anybody ever know?
Soccer is encrusted in outdated rules and traditions. If the regulation game ends in a tie, you play overtime but it isn’t sudden death, where the first team that scores wins. Instead, you have to play the entire 30-minute period just so the team that scores first doesn’t get an advantage. Somehow this all seems too Victorian.
Let’s scrap the offside rule, play sudden-death overtime, and make the game exciting and decisive. As it is, watching World Cup soccer is like watching switch engines move railroad cars around a freight yard.
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