Soccer and Uniformity Costs

William Birdthistle’s soccer dispatch today concerns the complex relationship between “national culture” and soccer stereotypes, both on the field and off.  For soccer fans, one of the beauties of the sport is the diversity of styles of play represented in international tournaments under the umbrella of a uniform set of rules, that is, laws, administered by the international federation:  FIFA.

In an earlier post, William wondered whether that uniformity produced costs on the pitch.  Perhaps some local experimentation with the rules might endenger productive reforms that could be adopted more broadly?  On that point, I want to raise a note of caution.  Heterogeneity has its costs.

Exhibit A in this regard is the old North American Soccer League (NASL), which had its heyday in the late 1970s and 1980s.  My family were season ticketholders from the first season of the original San Jose Earthquakes to their bitter NASL end.  I even went to an Oakland Stompers game or two.  I got to see some extraordinary players — Pele, Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Best (not at his best, believe me), Eusebio — and a lot of not-so-extraordinary ones, players who had worn out their welcome in England’s Second Division.

And I also got an up-close look at rules experimentation.  The NASL was obsessed with making soccer “fan friendly,” which meant:  more goals.  So it moved the offside line from midfield to a line 35 yards out from each goal.  It invented the “shootout” to resolve tie games during the regular season (not to be confused with the misnamed “penalty kick shootout” in use in cup play everywhere else in the world).  It invented a standings scheme that factored in “goals scored.”

Aside from the conflicted feelings prompted by watching fabulous international soccer stars play a game that closely resembled soccer, the rule changes had some more subtler but ultimately more important effects:  They marginalized US soccer on the international stage.  And international soccer, of both club and national team varieties, is where the action is, both competitively and financially.  College soccer in the US, which had different rules variations, only made the situation worse. 

Through the early 1990s, the US national team was composed of collegians, a handful of Americans playing in the NASL, and the occasional oddball with a limited amount of international club experience.  On the field, when those teams competed internationally, their lack of international experience was compounded by the fact that they were accustomed to playing by different rules — literally.  Off the field, the US lobbied long and hard before being awarded the 1994 World Cup, the event that was supposed to launch a new era of American soccer.  It succeeded only when the US agreed to play by international soccer norms.  Among the conditions imposed?  Organize a Division One professional soccer league — and one that played by FIFA rules. 

Major League Soccer hasn’t knocked off anyone’s socks financially, but the league is basically stable and, more importantly, it’s a credible source of players both for the US national team and for clubs in other countries looking for talent.  Playing by FIFA rules, among other things, has helped make American soccer part of the international soccer community.  Without question, subscribing to international soccer uniformity has helped to make American soccer more competitive at all levels.

UPDATE (5/17):  William Birdthistle has some interesting comments in response to this post.

3 thoughts on “Soccer and Uniformity Costs

  1. So it’s true that MLS has done better for the US Soccer program than the NASL did. But is this because MLS is more compliant with FIFA rules? I’m not so sure. The NASL didn’t produce good American talent because it wasn’t really aiming to do that. It was a commercial venture that tried to turn a profit by bringing over big names from Europe or South America and trying to turn soccer into a major spectacle like the NFL. (An effort that, with the limited exception of the NY Cosmos, failed.) By contrast, MLS was designed to be both a form of entertainment and a place for US soccer talent to develop–hence each team is limited to three foreign internationals, and the league has (until now with Beckham) hesitated to bring over big Euro names for big salaries.

    Nor is MLS completely FIFA-compliant. At the outset of the league there were some truly weird innovations like the shootout (and later regular-season overtime) but this didn’t stop MLS from being a great place for young US players to develop. MLS is still far from FIFA-compliant, with the summer season and lack of single-table league format. Admittedly, these changes aren’t as foundational as the NASL’s hockey-style offside rule, but I think it’s much more MLS’s intentional focus on US player development and not its relatively more conservative approach to innovation that has made the league successful (in its own way).

    Other sports worth considering by way of comparison are hockey and basketball. The NHL screws around with rules all the time, adding and subtracting points for overtime losses, changing the offside rule and the implications of the goalie crease. Yet it can because it’s by far the world’s leading league. Same with the NBA, which adds little variations to their rules all the time without any concern for how the rest of the world does it, and for the same reason. The international versions of each of these sports continues to develop independently, and to some extent that affects the ability of our domestic players to adapt to the international game, but since Olympic hockey or the FIBA Worlds are mere specks compared to the spectacle of the World Cup, it’s hardly an issue anyone is concerned about.

  2. True that MLS has been great for the development for US Soccer, but can this be attributed to the extent of its compliance with FIFA regulations? I’m not so sure. NASL was terrible at developing American soccer talent, but then again the league wasn’t designed with that end in mind. The conceit of the NASL was to create a major cash-cow soccer super-league on par with the NFL by bringing over major talents at any cost (an experiment that, with the brief exception of the NY Cosmos, failed). By contrast, MLS has development of US Soccer as one of its primary goals, hence the limit of three foreign internationals and the resistance (recently overcome, it appears) to importing superstars from abroad at major cost.

    Nor has MLS been entirely compliant with FIFA’s rules. The league started with some really weird innovations, including the shoot-out to break regular-season ties, but this didn’t stop it from being a great proving ground for US talent from its inception. The league still isn’t fully compliant with FIFA’s rules, as the summer season and lack of single-table league structure illustrate. These deviations from international norms aren’t as major or substantive as NASL’s hockey-style offsides line, but nor are they irrelevant (for example, the league plays during the World Cup, which sets it apart from pretty much every other national football association).

  3. I wasn’t suggesting that MLS’s rules were, themselves, responsible for the relative success of US Soccer over the last decade, but I do think that they’ve been a factor. (You’re right that the summer season and the lack of a single-table structure are both inconsistent with international norms and negatively affect the US in international play — but neither is an on-the-field “laws of the game” issue.)

    I do remember, though, that US Soccer made a specific and deliberate decision to abandon rules experimentation when launching MLS, as part of a conscious choice to play by international norms. MLS was, in other words, a FIFA initiative as much as it was a US Soccer initiative.

    NASL became a galaxy of overpaid stars, but before Pele arrived that league, like the NPSL before it, was in fact an effort to grow US soccer success both nationally and internationally. Remember Kyle Rote, Jr.? Rick Davis? Jeff Durgan? They were, pre-Pele, the Landon Donovans of their day — the men who would lead US soccer onto the world stage with the experience that came with playing daily alongside professionals trained abroad. (The effort continued even after Pele, et al. arrived; remember that the USSF tried to constitute the national team as an NASL franchise called “Team America.”) The NASL was terribly ill-conceived, both competitively and financially, partly because (at a competitive level) the Americans insisted that they knew how to do this themselves and partly because (at a financial level) the league attempted to emulate larger, established professional sports (who can forget the “Soccer Bowl”?) — even before Warner and the Cosmos went on a shopping spree.

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