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On Boringness: Soccer vs. Baseball

This summer, American audiences have gotten to channel-flip between the two sports that are most frequently called boring: soccer and baseball. Yet they could hardly look more different. Soccer is a timed game of nonstop movement in which players are in motion for 45 minutes at a time, and scoring is rare and highly random; baseball is an untimed game in which players are rarely in motion for more than a few seconds at a time, in which players can acquire nicknames like “The Human Rain Delay” for their facility at slowing down play. Non-soccer fans (I’m one of them) often complain that, in soccer, no one ever scores; non-baseball fans often complain that, in baseball, no one ever moves.

Of course, the World Cup has an added dimension beyond regular soccer: it’s a single-elimination tournament with excitement fueled by nationalism. It’s like March Madness, if the universities had armies and navies. It’s the only chance most of us ever get to watch a single soccer game in a packed bar surrounded by hundreds of other rabid fans. Major League Soccer has been hurt by the recession, but the U.S. men’s soccer team has probably never been as high-profile as it is now. Bill Simmons predicts that Landon Donovan’s winning goal over Algeria to send America into the Round of 16 was such a signal moment in American sports that it will, ultimately, cause soccer to take off in America.

Part of baseball’s genius is that, at its heart, it’s a game of individual matchups: each pitch is a moment frozen in time, the isolated product of mostly discrete and intelligible forces, handedness, true talent, park effect, and so forth. Each moment is a data point, each game a data set. It is the perfect playground for statistical inquiry. On the other hand, soccer is a game of flow. The clock never stops, the whistle never blows, and the action hardly ever resolves neatly, at least until the ball has hit the back of the net. FIFA keeps few statistics more advanced than pass completion percentage, and goals are so rare that — when they aren’t being waved off or ignored by the referee or mucked by the goalie — it seems mostly a matter of luck that any are ever scored at all.

The meaning of “luck” in baseball is hotly contested, of course, but over the course of a long season, controversial calls have a habit of evening out. That isn’t necessarily the case in a seven-game-series, let alone a single-elimination tournament. But while the best baseball in the world is played in America, that isn’t true of soccer. Among the major professional sports leagues in America, Major League Soccer is the only one that doesn’t possess the best players in the world who play its sport. Major League Baseball, the National Basketball League Association, the National Hockey League, and the National Football league all monopolize global talent in their respective sports; MLS mostly makes do with Americans who aren’t good enough to play elsewhere. That isn’t a problem with the rules of soccer, but a problem with the concentration of talent. If the English Premier League were moved brick by brick to America, like the London Bridge, it’s likely that Americans would watch.

I don’t expect I’ll watch much soccer after this weekend’s championship match — I’d probably rather watch Arsenal-Manchester United than Orioles-Pirates, but Comcast rarely gives me the option. I’ve spent a fun few weeks watching the best players in the world, but I’ll be happy to return my full attention to my favorite sport. After watching Spain play the Netherlands, I imagine that trying to watch DC United would just seem boring.