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It’s Better When You Can’t Tie

June 28, 2010

In case you stopped watching the World Cup after the United States lost, the games have actually been a lot better since the knockout stage began.  Goals are being scored at about a three-and-a-half per game clip since the first game of the Sweet Sixteen, and the difference in shots between group play and single-elimination has been a total 180, much like Jason Kidd’s Dallas Mavericks.  The difference is obvious: the teams that advanced are better and somebody has to win.  There are no more Algerias pursuing nil-nil draws against England and the United States.  The only way to advance in the knockout stage when facing a superior opponent is to actually beat them.  That means you can’t play like tortoises — you actually have to try to score, which opens up the defense a little for the superior strikers in the tourney.

Moreover, once one team has the lead, that makes the pace for the losing side ever more frantic, which produces even more goals either as a result of one side pushing forward or the other countering.  It’s actually good stuff.  The goal that Carlos Tevez scored in the second half of the Argentina/Mexico game was a real beauty, as was Brazil’s Robinho’s goal this afternoon against Chile.  Both came against teams that were already down 2-0 and desperately seeking to score, because goal differential doesn’t matter at this stage of the tournament — all that matters is winning.

Every four years, there’s an argument about when soccer is actually going to blow up in America.  As I’ve said before, I don’t think soccer will ever become a dominant national force here because the best athletes will always do something else, but I do think soccer can become more popular here if the rules are changed a little bit to improve the game (and that no-goal for England against Germany is a great example of one of those changes — there need to be more officials on the field).  All of that said, these knockout games have been good.  Like, infinity times as good as the group play games.  It really cannot be overstated how much the draw and goal-differential-as-first-tie-breaker rules are killing the entertainment factor of group play.  That’s why I don’t think Americans are ever going to admit they like soccer (or watch it) until the United States makes it to a World Cup final.

The fact that the U.S. was eliminated in the first round of knockout play means that most Americans will remember this as the World Cup where America played four largely boring games (save for the second half of the Slovenia game and the last two minutes of the Algeria game) in a very boring World Cup — it’s been the lowest scoring Cup in history.  Indeed, in a stroke of bad luck, the Ghana game has been by far the most boring of the knockout stage.  Now that nobody in America is watching, the Cup is finally getting good.  But Americans had to labor through the awful group stage just to see our boys get put out in the first round.  If the U.S. were to reach a final, Americans would see what most of us have never seen before because our team always gets put out early — exciting soccer.

Unfortunately, the prospects for that don’t really look great.  But that’s where I’m drawing the line.  Soccer will be popular once Americans get a taste of the brilliant soccer that is the single-elimination stage of the World Cup.  Until then, bleh.  But it might do the World Cup to make some changes to group play so that its audience doesn’t have to wait three weeks to get entertaining soccer.  Just a thought.

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