If we believe that soccer could stand some improvement with a few changes here and there to the laws of the game, how would we go about testing new proposals? The ingenious system of federalism in the United States allows us, within certain limits, to wander into any willing laboratory to experiment with new regulations without heaving the whole system into chaos. The big challenge with sports, of course, is that unlike, say, parking meter policy, the playing and viewing public has a greater desire for uniformity. If we are to have a grand finale to determine the world champion at anything, presumably the world needs to play by the same rules.
On the other hand, different systems of baseball in the National and American Leagues haven't ruled out the World Series. Basketball and hockey also live with different sets of rules for international play and the North American leagues. So, it seems, a certain degree of variation in the rules can be tolerated.
Would it be a good idea to encourage various leagues to test-drive new rules and, if so, could we do it? FIFA comprises several regional football federations (UEFA, CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, &c.), which in turn comprise all the national football associations, so we certainly have plenty of potential laboratories. But would it be a good idea?
Professor Michael Madison of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law points out that heterogeneity has its costs, citing the old North American Soccer League (1968-1984), which experimented unsuccessfully with several ways of increasing the number of goals in the game. Evidently, the American players brought up in such a system suffered at the international level for their lack of experience with the "real" rules. I agree that a country like America, which did not have a sterling football pedigree at the time, might not be the best place to create a soccer secessionist movement.
But perhaps Professor Madison's example suggests that footballing federalism should move down a level, to the lower leagues within countries. If a nation as a whole does not want to be handicapped in international competition, perhaps the experimentation should occur in places like England's League One and Two (which were the Third and Fourth Divisions before the authorities began subscribing to the accreditation inflation that afflicts resumes everywhere and the cup sizes at Starbucks). Or perhaps certain secondary tournaments (Olympics, Under-21 World Cup, &c.) could experiment with the new rules, which would subject each competing nation to the same level of inexperience and confine the scope of the experiment.
So if we have the desire and locales, could we do it? One additional limitation that soccer faces more than the North American sports is its comparative lack of statistics. Free-flowing games are inherently more difficult to measure and quantify. The joy, such as it is, of baseball, football, and (increasingly) basketball games being divided into individual plays of just a few seconds in length is that statisticians and advertisers can deploy their full talents. Soccer simply doesn't lend itself to the kind of dissection that would allow observers to measure the full effects of any experiment with the rules. Perhaps with the technological increases that some teams are beginning to use to track the specific movements of the ball and their players, the sport will develop a large statistical library in the future.
Comparisons between sports and other subjects can go only so far, of course, but it is interesting to consider how creeping centralization (antifederalism?) in corporate law is viewed in many quarters as an impoverishing, not an improving, development. With each passing corporate infelicity (Enron, et al., mutual funds, option backdating, &c.), new laws and rules regularly come down from our federal legislators and regulators. And one effect -- at least with respect to mutual funds -- is that the players (mutual fund advisers) appear to be playing more and more to the referee (the SEC) than to the audience (retail investors) by churning out ever more complex and lengthy prospectuses that no individual investor could reasonably read and comprehend.
Now, to conclude with today's visual entertainment, I include below a friendly rebuttal to Professor Madison on the quality of the NASL via one of the best goals scored anywhere (and I'm not just saying that because George Best is an Irishman):