Nice article by King Kaufman over on Salon about scoring (in the World Cup, that is). As he points out, the statistic that the ESPN guys insist on throwing into our faces at every possible opportunity (i.e., "the team that scores first is 21-2-3 in this tournament so far!") is basically meaningless; in a low-scoring sport like soccer, scoring any goal is crucial, so the fact that the team that scores first wins much of the time is obvious and uninteresting. The interesting statistic is the one they never mention: as Kaufman puts it:

If a goal is scored and ESPN flashes a graphic saying, "Teams that have scored first are 22-3-3," I, the typical American sports fan who doesn't care about soccer, will think, "Well, there's about a four-in-five chance that this baby's over. I believe I will turn off the TV, kick my dog, curse some foreigners and play with my assault rifle."

But if that graphic said, "Teams that have scored second are 17-2-3," I'm going to want to stick around to see which team can come up with that all-important tally. Better for me, better for ESPN and way better for the dog.

Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
The attempts to reduce soccer to statistics, of which the above is a good example, are infuriating and meaningless.

Yesterday, for instance, Ecuador controlled possession, but not only was this not reflected in the scoreline, it was not even reflected in the run of play - Germany was in control more or less the whole time, and most of Ecuador's possession was in the back 1/3rd of the field.

It's a cliche that statistics don't tell the whole story, but it's especially true in soccer. A 2:0 game can mean, for instance, that one team dominated and sat back on an early lead, or that play was even until a collapse by one side in the 85th minute, or 100 other things.

I'm not a (huge) geek, honestly, but a "Matrix" analogy would be apt here. You have to see the dynamic and flow of a game to get a sense of it, sort of beyond what Dave o'Brien can spew forth, and definitely beyond what a stat-shot can (usually) tell you.
6.21.2006 12:40pm
Soccer is just a flawed sport where the defense has too much of an advantage. If the sport were properly balanced then a team that were forced to play man-down for half of the game would be assured of losing. Care to name any other sport where that would be the case? A baseball team playing with one fewer outfielder? A hockey team killing a 30 minute penalty? So if a team scores that first goal they have the luxury of packing the defensive zone and are just at an immense advantage. Thats why the stat of how few teams can come back after going down 1-0 is so striking- it just help illustrate the reality of how unblanced the sport is.
6.21.2006 1:11pm
Riccardo Schiaffino (mail) (www):

Your analogies as regards what happens in other sports when one man down are fallacious, because they don't take into consideration how many people play on each team: being up a single man in soccer is not so much of an advantage because it represents only a 10% difference between the teams. In basket it is already 20% - that would be the equivalent of a soccer team being two men down, and so on.
6.21.2006 1:17pm
Football would be equivalent and a team would get destroyed on both offense and defense. Baseball is 9 vs 11 but I think it is very clear that a team playing with one fewer player would be assured of losing at the world class level. I would guess there are teams that have been 2 men down in Soccer for a half that have still managed to finish without giving up a goal. (but thats just a guess based on the lack of balance of the sport- I could be wrong) Once again- please let me know of another sport that you think is properly balanced where on the world class level a team could play with one fewer player and not be assured of losing.
6.21.2006 1:22pm
Joel B. (mail):

Baseball has 9 men on the field at a time, and relies on generally 2 relievers (relief and closer) meaning that likely Baseball uses the same number. If you restricted a man in a baseball, they'd hurt, quite a bit.
6.21.2006 1:24pm
What is most remarkable about the passage quoted by Mr. Post is the contempt it displays for Americans who dislike soccer (which is to say most Americans). Kick a dog, curse foreigners, and play with an assault rifle? He made his point with "turn off the TV." Everything else was a gratuitous insult to most of his countrymen.
As insults go, it is of the type that most of us ignorant slobs will forget about in 10 minutes (and some will view the assault rifle aspect as a compliment, despite its clear intent) but here's a hint for the soccer-friendly. Talking and writing like this (or repeating it without apology) is not likely to make us want to join your club.
6.21.2006 1:31pm
Matt22191 (mail):
Slghtly off-topic, perhaps, but am I the only one who fails to see the humor in Kaufman's charaterization of "the typical American sports fan who doesn't care about soccer"? I know it's intended as a caricature but, for me at least, the gratuitous nastiness sort of spoils the joke.
6.21.2006 1:35pm
Matt22191 (mail):
Oh, good. I'm not the only one!
6.21.2006 1:37pm
Jody (mail):
I disagree on baseball being as hurt as basketball or football. On offense, having 8 instead of 9 is of no importance and may actually help if the player lost was a less than average hitter. On defense, hitters have less than full control over where the ball goes so they are not able to fully capitalize on the hole in the defense.

In football, where I think the effect is most noticeable, an offense that is lacking one man must always contend with two defenders who they can't block (at full strength, there's always at least one who can't be blocked) and a defense that's lacking a man can have everyone blocked.

In basketball, a 5 man defense can always double team the ball handler of a 4 man offense, while the best a 4 man defense can do is play zone (making offense more problematic than defense when playing a man down).

Really, I think the effect of losing a man will be most noticeable in sports where it is possible to exploit matchup problems (as being down a man is the ultimate match up problem). Basketball and football are noted for their match up problems. Soccer and baseball much less so and therefore are impacted less by the loss of a man.
6.21.2006 1:38pm
Alan P (mail):
This is just part of the penchant of sportscasters to say something, even if its meaningless, to fill up the air. This is not just an american problem. Listen to the Spanish language broadcast for awhile. Even if you can't follow the Spanish, it is obvious that they just can't shup up. The talking is non stop. Albeit, it makes more sense in connection with the game, but it is still non stop blather followed by the exaggerated and now cliche goooooooooooooo etc ool.
6.21.2006 1:40pm
Alan P (mail):
And as to the importance of every goal, Sure. But the on field celebrations at the World Cup would make White Shoes Johnson blush.

I believe it was Joe Paterno that said
"When you score a touchdown, act like you've done it before."
6.21.2006 1:43pm
James Ellis (mail):
Alan P has it right. The broadcasters just want to fill up time with chatter. They are enabled by "statisticians" manufacturing numbers at a moment's notice, without regard to whether the numbers actually signify anything relevant, let alone whether the broadcasters could explain that relevance if they had to.
Meanwhile, Netherlands-Argentina starts in a little while...I am sure someone is tracking the winning percentage of countries that begin with vowels versus those that begin with consonants.
6.21.2006 1:58pm
Kaufman fails to take his own theory far enough. Just repeat a statistic about how many games are won by the team that scores the last goal, and force everyone to watch to the end!
6.21.2006 2:00pm
Hattio (mail):
Just to be difficult, you are completely forgetting about individual "team" sports. Fencing, running etc.

Alan P. I think the quote is "When you get to the endzone, act like you've been there before."

As to being a man down, I was reffing a intramural league basketball game for the undergraduate we were afffiliated with when I was in law school. A team from the law school had to play four players to the other teams six or seven (obviously only five at once). Not only did they beat them (playing zone with a lot of switches), the other ref didn't notice that there were only four until I pointed it out. I don't think the other team ever noticed, or at least they didnt' make much effort to capitalize. Granted it's not world class or even close. But it was an impressive demonstration of hustle.
6.21.2006 2:01pm
Blue Passport Red Jersey (mail):
Alan P: How is "gooooool" cliche?

You're right about the U.S. broadcasters (especially ABC via TVUplayer) filling the air with ridiculous fluff. It's also generally agreed, here in Madrid at least, that the TV announcers are much worse than those of the radio. For that reason, we turn on the TV, yet with the volume turned off, and turn on our radios. At the same time, even the Spanish (not going to comment on Univision, as I have no knowledge of spanish language--but not Spanish--stations) TV broadcasters are much much better than those in the U.S.
6.21.2006 2:16pm
Then of course, there is the adage about parenthood:
With one child, play tag team.
with two children, play man to man coverage.
with three or more, play zone coverage.

And yes, if the American team is losing, we may turn off the tv, yell at the dog, and polish the rifle, but other countries' fans have tendencies to riot.
6.21.2006 2:18pm
Tierce (www):
I'm surprised that I'm the first one to point this out, but the link is to Salon, not Slate. I agree with those who have pointed out that fútbol cannot be as easily reduced to statistics as some American sports.
6.21.2006 2:25pm
I've heard this theory tossed around to balance out the offense and defense in a soccer game: start using lacrosse-style rules, where only certain players or so many players from each team can be in each attacking zone and/or the midfield at the same time. Then the D can't drop their strikers back; it also opens the game up to more counterattacks. Not sure if I agree, but it's a thought. The best way in my mind is to create a better method for offsides calls. Too many times a throughball is played to a man running onto it in an onsides position, but by the time the linesman looks the player has run past the defense and he throws up the flag. I've seen it countless times this world cup alone; there has to be a better way. Strikers get penalized for catching the defense asleep.
6.21.2006 2:26pm
KeithK (mail):
Jody, while I agree that a baseball team wouldn't be hurt at all on offense by being down a man it most certainly would make a big deal on defense. Imagine a team with two outfielders. Even the most stubborn pull hitter (think Bonds, Giambi) will sometimes put the ball in the air the other way. With two outfielders that easy fly is at least a double. A spray hitter would tear such a defense to shreds.

Or imagine being short an infielder. That creates a massive hole that turns easy grounders into singles. While I agree that it's not easy to hit the ball where you want in high level baseball, it's very much doable.

In a major league baseball game, a team down a player on defense would get smacked around something awful, unless they got a 20 strikeout performance by the pitcher. maybe even then.
6.21.2006 2:28pm
Robert Lyman (mail):
Don't these statistics seem to show that "teams who score goals (whether first or second) tend to win more"? Isn't the appropriate converse statistic the win-loss records of teams who score no goals?

Bah. I don't care for any televised sports. I'd much rather be participating in sports, such as competitive assault rifle shooting (where the guy who hits the x-ring first tends to beat the guy who doesn't hit it).
6.21.2006 2:32pm
I agree that requiring 2 or 3 players to be in the offensive (and defensive) halves of the field like Lacrosse would make the game more interesting though I am not sure that is the best way to go about it. I think there might be a subtler way of opening the game up though. Personally I think that they should just mark off the 1/3 lines of the field and offsides would not count until that point as opposed to the midline as it works currently. This would just allow players to cross the midline with the ball and be assured that there are offensive players that are significantly ahead of the ball. To me its the equivalent of allowing the "2 line" pass in Hockey which was a very welcome change to the rules of that sport in my opinion. In soccer the defense just has the ultimate control of how far ahead of the ball the offensive players are allowed to get and it is too much of an advantage. To me this rule change would not change the core of what people like about the game but would still allow teams to mount a more consistent attack.
6.21.2006 2:35pm
Sam (mail):
Why have an "offsides" rule at all?
6.21.2006 2:55pm
Chico's Bail Bonds (mail):
What annoys me most about ABC’s statistics is that ABC posts them in full screen graphics that block out all the action on the field. For this reason alone, I now exclusively watch the Spanish channel.
6.21.2006 3:00pm
When you consider that, in most soccer games, the winner scores two or three times, don't those two statistics (i.e., overwhelming WL record for scored-first and scored-second team) imply that (a) the team that scores first often scores second, too, and/or (b) there are a lot of shutouts?
6.21.2006 3:02pm
TomHynes (mail):
In any low scoring game between, the first to score almost always wins, even with evenly matched teams. Try flipping coins, with the number of coins the total number of goals scored.

Flip one coin, first to score always wins.

Flip two coins, first to score wins 2/4, ties 2/4.

Flip three coins, first to score wins 6/8, loses 2/8.

Also, some teams are better than others - they are biased coins. Ergo, it has not been demonstrated that scoring first gives a tactical advantage.
6.21.2006 3:02pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
The other important thing is that the 22-2-3 figure represents all the games, which of course includes all the lopsided matchups. If you're talking about a particular game between two well-balanced teams, then those statistics would be totally different (e.g., meaningless).

And since anyone who has a team is naturally going to think their team is better than it is, people often think matches are more well-balanced than they really are. Which means the suspense is still there most of the time.

Plus, you can't discount the value of waiting for it, waiting for it, and then finally getting it. Or the huge unexpected upset.

The idea that it's unbalanced, though, strikes me as weird. If handing out a red card completely threw the game, then we wouldn't have red cards in the first place.

Personally, I enjoy soccer for the athleticism, the beauty, and for what a simple and natural sport it is, not just for the goals. I like American sports too, but the idea that they are somehow superior to soccer is absurd. Basketball, where you basically have to be 7 feet tall; Football, where the game stops over and over so the 350 pound giants can get up and start over; baseball, where you stand around for 5 minutes for every minute that you play; all of them with all their intricate rules, specialties, equipment, such that there's nothing even resembling an equal playing field around the world.

Hey, they're good for what they are, but there's a reason soccer is the world's game. The idea that it needs a bunch of new rules to create more offense strikes me as totally missing the point. If you want that, you can watch arena football.
6.21.2006 3:03pm
jvarisco (www):
Soccer is different from baseball and football in that all eleven players are not involved in both offense or defense (with exceptions) at any given time. If a team is down a man, they can simply remove a forward - their offense will be weaker, but their defense will be just about the same. The fact that scoring is rare merely accentuates this; while in a sport with more scoring the difference would be more pronounced, in soccer it is rare for any team to score more than a couple goals, and so even if one team does have an advantage it may not be enough to translate into much of a score difference (compare 200 points per game in basketball to two in soccer). But then, that is what makes it such a great game.
6.21.2006 3:08pm
poster child (mail):

Why have an "offsides" rule at all?

If you didn't, the strikers would just stand in front of the opponent's goal all game long, which would necessitate keeping all the defenders crowded in there too, which would result in two big clumps of players in front of the goals.
6.21.2006 3:11pm
BobDoyle (mail):
All I can say is that I enjoy reading about soccer statistics more than I enjoy watching soccer. However, I am going to do sojmething even more fun now — sit in the back yard and watch the grass grow!
6.21.2006 3:11pm
Broken Quanta (mail) (www):

What annoys me most about ABC’s statistics is that ABC posts them in full screen graphics that block out all the action on the field.

Don't worry, Chico. It's soccer; there isn't any action on the field.
6.21.2006 3:13pm
Chico's Bail Bonds (mail):
Broken Quanta, you must work for ABC.
6.21.2006 3:15pm
doctor dopamine (mail):
Broken Quanta:

Nothing's happening?

Perhaps the rest of the world just doesn't need to over-medicate themselves with amphetamine salts (adderrall) or other related drugs prescribed by overzealous doctors in order to "amp" up their "xxxxx-treeeeeeme" sports?

Doctor "Someone please get me a mountain dew, a canyon, and a BMX bike, this ritalin buzz is going to wear off in less than an hour" Dopamine, M.D.
6.21.2006 3:29pm
Jody (mail):
Keith - when I've played a man down in baseball it hasn't made much of a difference on defense (picnic games are only even strength about half the time).

In general you put one man in "left center" and the other in "right center" and leave the infield alone. It damages your ability to cover the lines in the outfield a little, but it's real hard to aim for the lines.

The key differentiator in my mind in defending a man down is whether or not the offense can choose its point in a way that exploits the weakness. And you just can't pick the spot where you're hitting the ball in baseball with much success. Specifically, I figure being down a man will certainly make an average team a bad team, but it won't be catastrophic.

Putting some numbers behind it. Last year the Orioles hit 980 singles (the hit most likely to be affected by being a man down in the outfield - HR still leave the park, doubles and triples still make it to the wall though triples may also become more likely instead of doubles). That's for 162 games or 6 per game. Assume half turn into doubles and that we get three more bases from extra hits and doubles extended into triples. That's six extra bases for an extra 1.5 runs per game (and that's being a little bit generous). If we apply the Baseball Pythagorean theorem to this and assume an average runs per game of 4.82, then we get P = [4.82^2/(4.82^2 + (4.82 + 1.5)^2)] = 0.367. In other words, if all else is equal, being down a man in baseball should cause you to go from being a 500 team to a .367 team. While that's a bad team, that's still better than the Royals or the Pirates. And as a quick note - giving up 6.3 runs a game is about 0.55 runs/game more than the White Sox are scoring per game this year (tops in runs/game). So this is not an insignificant effect, but I think only winning 37% of the time instead of 50% is not catastrophic as compared to the likely effects in basketball and football (where I would place odds of winning at less than 10%).
6.21.2006 3:30pm
NMates (mail):
I think a better way to encourage more offense would be something like basketball's "no over-and-back" rule. Basically, once a team takes the ball across midfield, they can't pass it to someone on their team who's behind the midfield line. Only the other team can move it across the midfield in the other direction.
6.21.2006 3:30pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
What's this about a world cup? I thought only girls played soccer.
6.21.2006 3:35pm
OK Lawyer:
I don't agree that being a man down in any "American" sport would cause that much of a disadvantage. In baseball, it's not 9 v 9. the offense has at most 4 men out there at once. So, it's already 9 v 4 anyway. Since a hall of famer only gets a hit 30% of the time anyway, the chances of that hit being to the one place that I am unable to cover on defense due to the shortage is also small. Plus, if the baseball players had the athletic ability of the soccer players, they could probably cover the gaps better, thus, further decreasing any advantage.

In football any advantage would depend on the specific rule. If I lost a lineman, and could pull a widereceiver off and replace the lineman, I would be okay. Still a disadvantage, but not as pronounced. If I could not switch players around, then it might be more of a problem.

The thing in soccer is that all players on the field of play are required to have some skill in all phases of the game. So, a forward can drop back to help defend, which helps negate any advantage. The sports that specialize, like football, would suffer the most, but not necessarily an insurmountable one.
6.21.2006 3:36pm
Anon1ms (mail):
I would suggest that those people who do not enjoy soccer not watch it.

I do not enjoy hockey, and do not understand lacross, so I don't watch them. However, I am smart enough to know that there are many people who do enjoy to play and to watch those games, and that after well over a hundred years of play, games have probably evolved to the point where they are played in a manner satisfactory to the players and fans.

Same goes for soccer.
6.21.2006 3:43pm
In many co-ed softball leagues, if there are not enough women, the team must play with one person less (is that -1/9 times as many less fewer people?). When the "blank" comes up in batting, it's an automatic out. *That* handicaps the offence quite a bit.
As for the comparison to basket ball (multiply by 200), your off by a factor of 2. Soccer games are twice as long, so there really should be more scoring to be interesting.
Why not do what they do in hockey and just make the goal bigger. (or weigh him down with pads... he he he.)
6.21.2006 3:48pm
KeithK (mail):
An offsides rule is needed, for the reasons that poster child mentions. A game with nothing but cherry-pickers is no fun to play or watch. On the other hand, I think soccer would benefit from an off-sides rule more similar to that used in hockey, where the entire offensive zone is opened up once the puck enters. The would allow players to cut to the net, independant of the defenders.
6.21.2006 4:11pm
KeithK (mail):
Jody, I like your analysis. But I think you're over-looking a bigger factor - the number of catchable balls that would drop in for hits. Whether or not hitters are aiming, there are usually quite a few balls that are in spots where a LCF or RCF couldn't get to. That's extra bases and extra outs that could translate into a lot of runs.

Too bad we can't ever try this as an experiment. I'd love to test it with the 9-man Royals going against the 8-man Yankees and see what we'd get.
6.21.2006 4:16pm
Eh Nonymous (mail) (www):
Is anyone here disputing that "Spot" is an eloquent troll?

Well, I'm saying it. Troll, troll, trollity troll. Come on a post about soccer, and then make inane and argumentative comments about soccer being an inferior sport to ... baseball? It is to laugh. Ha. Ha. Ha ha.

Tierce: Amazing that nobody did. Threads are for error-correction at least as much as for venting (see above). Why is the VC and VC Community so bad at correctly identifying sources? I refer here to the recent post about the USA Today contribution by Feige, which was (inevitably) misidentified as a NYT op-ed. Why? Because someone commented without having read it, probably.
6.21.2006 6:03pm
Errr-- troll? I never said that Soccer was inferior to baseball. I have nothing on here talking about how great a game baseball is- just that a team would get murdered if they had to play with only 2 outfielders or 3 infielders. I said the balance between offense and defense was incredibly out of balance in soccer and the biggest evidence for that was the fact you could play man down for a significant period of time without getting slaughtered. I don't think that any organized sport has ever tilted the rules so far in favor of the defense. Even Hockey at the pinnacle of clutching and grabbing on defense wasn't as bad. And when there is a stat emphasizing how few teams are able to overcome a 1-0 deficit it just reinforces for me how ridiculously imbalanced the rules are. You are absolutely free to like a game where the rules are tilted incredibly in favor of the defense. Many people are much happier watching football or basketball when the rules get tilted far in favor of the offense. But I don't at all see why it is a trolling statement to just come out and admit that it might be a flaw in the rules where a team could be man down for an entire game without the defense being at too much of a disadvantage.
6.21.2006 6:31pm
Broken Quanta (mail) (www):
Three things:

It's a little weird that the person I aimed my little joke at took it well, while someone else felt the need to respond with vitriol. I confess that your Adderal remark has rendered me speechless, at least insofar as I cannot respond because I have no idea what in the world you're talking about. What exactly did I do to you, Mr. Dopamine? (And if it's going to be mailce, and if we really must snobbishly insist on titles, well, I'm "doctor", too.)

As for "why don't we just not watch", well, that's an entirely reasonable solution. However, sports fans are not well known for our reasonableness. We have these arguments like Soccer vs. Baseball for the same reason we have arguments like Williams vs. Musial: because we like to. These arguments, like the sports themselves, are fun and distract us from our real problems. So, hey, what the heck: if you don't like these discussions, just don't read them.

What all this man-down/who-scores-first stuff goes to is soccer's overarching problem with signal-to-noise ratio. In sports where it's way too hard (soccer, hockey, baseball) or way too easy (basketball) to score, there is a problem with signal to noise. (In low scoring games, this is because the signal is very weak; in high scoring games, it's because the noise is very strong.) Which is to say, in these sports "fluke" outcomes are very common. Even the soccer fanatics here have griped about that, mentioning various contests in which the better team didn't win. This doesn't appeal to the American (by which of course I actually mean "my", and then generalize wildly from there) sense of justice. So hockey, baseball, and basketball have all come up with a solution to the signal to noise problem: extremely long seasons followed by playoffs in series format. Soccer doesn't use this format, and so seems to continue crowning undeserving winners.
6.21.2006 6:44pm
CJ (mail):
The North American Soccer league of the 1970s (the one with the New York Cosmos — Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia) used a 35-yard line for offsides that worked the same as the blue lines in hockey. Soccer purists hated it. Back then, soccer was said to be the game of the future, just like it is today :^)

The idea of borrowing from field lacrosse to prevent teams from "packing the box" is an intriguing one. Would the existing offside rule still be in effect? I fail to see the attraction of the defence being able to put the offence offside, but then I'm not a manic soccer purist. I wouldn't want to see soccer games where the teams scored a dozen goals; if a typical close game ended maybe 4-3, that would be great. If there were more goals, there might be less of the penalty hunting dives that appall North American sports fans. Pro hockey did itself a major favor this year by making rule changes that ended the stifling of the offense by clutch-and-grab, neutral zone trap defences.

Since I'm observing this World Cup from Canada, here's the most bizarre thing about soccer USA. Many American soccer enthusiasts regard the sport as the world's game, a sort of United Nations-approved exercise in planetary citizenship. Meanwhile, every other nation goes into a chauvinistic frenzy. American exceptionalism indeed.
6.21.2006 10:59pm
"If you look at soccer and the way that it's played, whether it's in the men's game or the women's game, it's fascinating. We're moving a ball up and down with our feet." US women's soccer coach

Yeah, so fascinating.
6.22.2006 12:11am
Shane (mail) (www):
I hardly think that the stat is "meaningless." The stat should be meaningless to the team that is playing, but for the observer at home, it is a good indicator of what the final result of the game will be.

The quoted text is ridiculous - the team that scored the first almost always scores the second goal as well. He uses his own calculations to distract himself from the fact that if the viewer DOES turn off the television with the assumption that the team that he saw score will win over 80% of the time will be absolutely correct in his assumption.

Also ridiculous is the fact that I just wasted 2 hours calculating stats about who wins when which team scores goals in which order to confirm my point.
6.22.2006 1:05am
glangston (mail):
Sell soccer for what it is but remember, we're just finishing up the NBA Finals, the NHL Finals, enjoying the middle of the Major League Baseball Season and of course getting our fantasy league football teams sorted out. Not to mention school's out and family's are hitting the road.

If those gratuitous insults were meant to be humorous, well, all I can say is that columnists like this must actually prefer ignorance to experience. Gun folk love their dogs.

I'll continue to be amused at how hard some people try to sell Soccer as if it's perhaps a sign of maturity and civilization or fine taste. Really.
6.22.2006 1:22am