This sentence, you’re likely to understand: “The St. Louis Rams beat the Minnesota Vikings 48-17 at home in a battle of division leaders on Sunday.” This sentence, maybe not so much: “Arsenal and Fulham played to an unlikely goalless draw Sunday at Highbury in a battle between teams top of the table.” The first refers to a football game. The second refers to a game in London, where both Arsenal and Fulham are based. There, they call it football. Here, we call it soccer.
Soccer has developed quite the bad rap here in the United States. Other than the groundswell of support that usually follows the national team in the World Cup every fourth year, the sport is largely ignored by the majority of stateside sports fans. The U.S. fan base for soccer at all other times is probably mostly made up of people who grew up playing soccer, a group I’m not a part of. The 2,200 people in my hometown probably owned three soccer balls among them. I never saw a soccer match on TV until the 1994 World Cup, and I certainly never played the sport (until college, when I almost certainly set some kind of record in my first game by becoming the first goalkeeper in U of M intramural history to make three separate saves with his face.)
And yet, I spent my Sunday afternoon firmly ensconced on my living room couch, flipping back and forth between the Vikings game and the Arsenal match. It’s my big secret: I’m a soccer fan. I spent my day watching a game that would produce no goals and that featured one team undertaking what amounted to a ninety-two minute defensive stand. The question I’ve got to ask myself, at times like these: Why?
It’s simple. It’s because of the goals.
The soccer goal is the most consistently exciting play in all of sports. Goals in hockey are exciting, but when the average game features about six of them, they lose a little bit of importance. Goals in soccer are rare. Goals in soccer are special.
There are exciting plays in baseball, but often as not they have to be accompanied by a special situation (say, the bottom of the ninth) to really be thrilling. A home run in the seventh with one team up 15-2 is so uninspiring as to be almost boring. As in all sports, soccer goals are more exciting in a big game or when the game is on the line; but the fifth goal in a 5-1 soccer blowout can be as exciting as the first.
Points in football and basketball aren’t exciting in and of themselves, just because of their importance in the final score. In both sports, the scoring of a point is only exciting given the right situation. There are so few goals in soccer that every goal comes in the right situation, and is important to the final tally.
It was a goal in the 2002 World Cup that got me hooked on soccer, a goal in a match-up between the U.S. and Mexico in the middle of the night. Eight minutes into the game, Brian McBride scored what would eventually be the game-winner… and I found myself on my feet, generally going through histrionics that I usually reserve for walk-off three-run home runs or overtime goals in hockey.
It was sheer euphoria for me, and euphoria is the reason sports are so much fun in the first place. Occasionally, when Grant Potulny scores an overtime goal to beat Maine, or Brian McBride sticks it to the hated Mexicans, sports fans like are lifted to a higher place. It happens in every sport. But it happens more often in soccer. And that is why I watch.