Soccer resembles basketball with no hands. It uses zone and man defenses, movement away from the ball and a team-oriented attack. The transition game is critical to success. And yet it is completely unlike basketball (and other American sports) in that there are no time stoppages except a five-minute halftime. No quarters, no timeouts, no stopping the clock on certain out-of-bounds plays. A soccer half is 45 minutes of running time and constant action. Minutes are added for time lost because of injuries, but only at the discretion of the referee.
“In American games, everything is broken down – into innings, quarters, plays,” said Timo Liekoski, assistant coach of the U.S. national team. “There are sudden highs and lows. The concentration for those games is different than for 45 minutes non-stop. Obviously, scoring is important, but in soccer the focus is on the buildup.” Buildup, in American vernacular, is boring.
“Boring is whatever you don’t understand,” counters Sigi Schmid, UCLA coach and a U.S. team assistant. “If I take some people from Germany to a baseball game, and they see a bunch of people standing around, they’ll say that’s boring. They don’t understand. Soccer is all about time and space. What you’re trying to do offensively is give players time on the ball and get into dangerous spaces. Defensively, it’s just the opposite. You’re trying to restrict their space and take away their time.”
That can be done, for example, by pressuring the ball or increasing the number of defenders in an area. Offensively, teammates can lure defenders out of an area to give another player more space and time.
Liekoski calls soccer a “turnover sport,” where the best teams instantly take advantage of the transition from offense to defense, recognizing what they can do and then reacting. But soccer has more turnovers on a larger playing surface than basketball’s, and fewer set plays. Many more options develop, which can be confusing to a novice viewer.
“The uniqueness and beauty of soccer is that no two situations are the same,” Schmid said. “It’s not like in football, where if the receiver goes here, the safety goes there. So many things can be different each time you have the ball, from where players are positioned, to the angles … That’s also the difficulty of the game.”
A player’s duties are comprehensible, but more difficult to appreciate if you have never been there – receiving a pass inside the 18-yard line and instantly assessing where your teammates are, how the defense is set up, whether you should pass or shoot and in what direction. The tactics are simple to explain, difficult to execute. The idea, as in many sports, is to gain a numerical advantage against your opponent and then attack. It’s a lot like military strategy in that sense.
“Defensively, you have a line of retreat, just like an army does,” Schmid said. “If you’re caught unprepared, you use delay tactics until you get reinforcements and can get organization behind the ball. But if you’re in the third of the field near your own goal, you have to deal with the immediate danger (a shot on goal).”
The best teams, with highly talented athletes, can capitalize on situations in which they don’t have numerical advantage, such as a two-on-two, or even a one-on-two attack.
Schmid is trying to help television track the game for spectators with new statistics, such as time of possession and “offensive-third penetrations.” The latter charts how often a team penetrates into the final third of the field nearest the opponent’s goal. Television, with a John Madden teleprompter approach, could show viewers from what side a team tends to attack, and how often it shoots once inside that part of the field.
Another important thing to watch is the flow of the players. They move forward and backward toward the goals, but they also move across the field (in diagonal runs) to aid the attack or create defensive pressure. The attacking team tries to penetrate into its offensive third of the field, and the defensive team attempts to regain possession. A team’s sweeper (the last defensive player before the goalkeeper) is generally about 40 yards from its center forward. As one moves up field, the other follows, ideally maintaining the same space between them at all times.
Schmid said some subtle changes would make soccer more appealing to U.S. fans without changing basic elements. Already, the goalie has been limited in when he can pick up the ball, which prevents delays. Throw-ins might be converted to kick-ins from out of bounds. The scoring system for standings could be changed – awarding three points for a victory instead of two, providing more incentive for teams to win instead of tie. But more drastic changes (such as dividing the game into quarters) are meeting stalwart resistance in the highly traditional sport.
Tribune News, 1993