American-izing Major League Soccer, Without Wrecking It – Forbes
It ain’t broke, but let’s fix it anyway.
Although Major League Soccer has made enormous strides over the past two decades, some creative tinkering might woo an even wider American audience and ensure a greater cash flow. I’ve already proposed dumping the Brit-obsessed franchise nicknames, such as F.C. and United. What follows are four more ideas commissioner Don Garber should embrace to attract casual sports fans ― while not messing with the very soul of the beautiful game.
The changes might require FIFA approval, but the governing body seems only too happy to allow individual pro leagues like MLS to play the role of lab rat. This is not about altering the offside rule or making goals bigger. These are less intrusive adjustments that could make a big difference:
1. The stadium clock should keep the official time. There is no real reason why the referee’s wristwatch remains a well-kept secret from the crowd. Such confidentiality cheats viewer participation. Americans like to count down the final seconds of their sports events. They want to witness firsthand the race against a final whistle.
The scoreboard clock can still be controlled by the referee, who signals for it to stop during injuries, substitutions and whenever the ball goes out of bounds in the final 10 minutes (to prevent stalling by the team that is leading). There would be no added time, however, and no discretion by the ref if a team happened to be attacking when time expired.
College and high school games are already timed in this fashion, for the most part, although some insist on freezing the scoreboard clock in the final minutes. No need for that. If the game ends before a corner kick can be taken, so be it.
2. Video replay challenges. Video replays, for better or worse, are already taking over the game. Now it’s time to Americanize them by allotting each coach one unsuccessful challenge, or limitless successful challenges. The red flag has worked well for the NFL. It can also be effective for MLS and other professional leagues in America.
Goals could be automatically reviewed, without a coach’s challenge. All other issues would require a team challenge. This would inevitably speed up the game. In the long run, there would be fewer video reviews over the next five to 10 years.
3. The player who draws the foul in the box is the player who must take the penalty shot. Imagine this scenario in basketball: Kevon Looney, a 61.8% free throw shooter, gets hacked going in for a layup. But instead of Looney, Stephen Curry (an 89.8% foul shooter) steps to the line.
That would never happen. Yet for some reason, soccer has traditionally allowed the best penalty-kick taker to fire the shot from the spot, even if he had nothing to do with the foul. This not only makes the odds even tougher for the goalkeeper but also skews goal-scoring stats on the season. The scorer didn’t really earn this goal.
Hockey plays this the same as basketball: The fouled player takes the shot. It’s time to change the rule in soccer, if only so that scoring stats more accurately reflect what happened on the field.
4. Two-minute breaks midway through each half. This change admittedly isn’t beneficial for the game flow, but it definitely can improve the profitability of soccer in America.
Sometime around the 22nd or 23rd minute, when play is in a neutral position, the match can be stopped for what essentially amounts to a commercial break. This is not as dire, or precedent-setting, as it sounds. Matches have occasionally been interrupted for heat-related breaks when necessary.
If networks know these breaks are coming, they can sell commercial time. Plus, Americans with short concentration spans can go to the refrigerator to grab a beer without fear of missing David Villa’s winning goal. The matches can still be wedged into a tidy, two-hour time slot.
Make these slight alterations, and I guarantee two things for M.L.S.: a lot of complaining from soccer purists, and a substantial increase in television profits.
Last I checked, profits trump purity.