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Soccer Doesn't Need Matt Zencey

The Philadelphia Inquirer chose to publish an editorial by a former editor about soccer. It was bad. I respond.


Today's Philadelphia Inquirer had an op-ed piece in its Currents section that discussed soccer and America. The author decided to use his status as a former member of the paper's editorial board to bad mouth the sport and ramble on with retread reasons for dismissing soccer, while also failing to come up with a coherent piece.

Ignoring the fact that the writer, Matt Zencey, is best known for a book that covers the liberalism of Sarah Palin's time as governor of Alaska, fans questioned not only the foundation-less appeals of Zencey, while also wondering why the Inquirer would publish the article at all.

The following is a breakdown of the editorial, paragraph by paragraph.

This weekend marks the start of the region's pro soccer season, when thousands of fans flock to PPL Park in Chester to cheer on the Philadelphia Union. I will not be among them.

Based upon Twitter's reaction to this article, no one is worried that Zencey didn't attend yesterday's Philadelphia Union home opener.

To me, soccer is much ado about not enough. The teams run around for an hour and a half and if the fans are lucky, their team may - hold your breath! - score a goal or two.

Sometimes baseball players stand around for three hours for one run, football players hit each other and run around for three hours (even though in actuality it's all in just about 14 minutes of real play), hockey players skate around for an hour of play for one goal and basketball players run around and shoot for 48 minutes to not even score 100 points.

Every sport has that problem. It just fun for people in America to make fun of soccer, because we didn't invent the sport.

This piece is shaping up, at its beginning, to be a typical and tired bashing of soccer.

Yes, I know that along the way, you'll see impressive feats of foot-eye coordination. A star player can dribble the ball as if it's on a string attached to his foot. The stamina required to run nonstop for 45 minutes at a time is mind-boggling. After buzzing around on a soccer pitch for two or three minutes, I'd have trouble outrunning a three-legged beagle.

Compliments that are backhanded based upon the rest of this article.

But all that comes with a lot of nonsense. A soccer game offers some of the best acting this side of Broadway. To gain a breather, players will fake a catastrophic orthopedic injury - then bounce up a minute later as if they just received the miracle cure of Lourdes. Attacking players, feeling a defender's touch that wouldn't knock over your grandmother, fall to the ground, hoping to draw a penalty shot, which almost guarantees a goal.

There's flopping and exaggeration in every sport. Every. single. sport.

The knock on soccer comes from the fact that it seems to happen more often than in other sports, but the fact is that all of the sports we love to watch come with simulation to affect the calls of the officials who referee the games. That's why the NBA recently instituted anti-flopping rules to prevent players like Reggie Evans from affecting the game as much.

Hockey has Sidney Crosby to combat with Cristiano Ronaldo, NBA has Evans and Pau Gasol, the NFL has a bunch of players who do things to get the attention of refs and baseball has players like Derek Jeter fake getting hit by pitches to get to first base.

To capture my interest, soccer needs more scoring. Loosening the offside rule would help. It's a way to keep attackers from hanging around the other team's goal for easy scores. But many an exciting offensive rush has been annulled by the ref's judgment that, gee, the guy who is swooping in on goal was maybe half a step ahead of the last defender back when the ball was kicked in his direction. (Got that?)

The offside rule is in place so that the defense and goalkeepers have a chance to actually play a role in the game. Give any forward the opportunity to sit behind a defense beyond what is already allowed and you'll see a really bad game being played.

More goals, for sure, but a really lame game to watch. Lots of balls sent over the defense to guys lurking near the 18 and the goalkeepers are given no chance to save the ball.

As it stands right now, strikers are forced to actually be responsible and intelligent with how they make runs. It ups the play of the game, not downgrade it.

To speak of the scoring overall, it's such an American mentality to want scoring, even if it means lessening the quality of the product on the field. Fortunately for soccer fans, that mindset hasn't affected the way that the game is played.

The build up and the technical feats on display every game is what makes soccer fun to watch. Goals are there to cap if off and bring it all to a head, not to be the end all and be all of the action.

Soccer could rev up the action even further by allowing substitutions on the fly, as in hockey. Right now, to change players on the field requires an elaborate ritual only slightly less involved than getting married, and unlike marriage, there's a limit on how many times you can do it.

That elaborate ritual is the fourth official holding up a board with the numbers of the in coming and out going players and waiting for the player leaving the field to get off of it. Quite an "elaborate ritual" to have to watch up to six times (three for each team) a game.

The reason for the limit to how many can be made is that it forces coaches to have to make tough choices for a starting lineup, and also means that the game gets progressively more open as the players tire out in the second half. It also lets those coaches put energetic legs on the field in the second half to change the course of the game.

With 11 players on the field for both teams, having players running on and off of the field at any time is much more than just confusing for fans, it's almost impossible for the referees to handle.

Soccer fans like the lack of scoring, and the long, slow buildup that precedes any score, and they experience an incredible burst of emotion when it finally happens. If it happens only once a game, that's enough, thank you very much. (Kind of like another intensely popular human activity, involving a long buildup and a short, intense burst of pleasure . . . except soccer fans don't fall asleep after it finally happens.)

A bad analogy to sex that takes a rather misogynistic approach to the actions known as foreplay. The preceding sentences begrudge scoring in soccer because it takes too long, while ignoring how much this argument reeks in generality, especially after the fast paced play of the Union and Sporting Kansas City last night.

It's almost as though the writer is ignorant of soccer because he's used to watching only three-year-olds duking it out in massive bunches. That's not how soccer is played anywhere in the world, especially in MLS.

The league was described as all of the athleticism of Europe, with the speed of South America recently (can't find the source of this at the moment). The one detractor for MLS right now is that the technical skill is not up to Europe, but the gap is closing up every season.

I don't begrudge them their pleasures. Mine is baseball - definitely an acquired taste. It involves intense bursts of sometimes breathtaking athleticism, followed by much longer spells of squinting, spitting, glove-tugging, and standing around doing nothing on the field.

So, baseball is good for the same reason that soccer is bad? Contradictions all around!

I just hope U.S. soccer's growth doesn't unleash the same violent passions and hooliganism that sometimes erupt in Europe and Latin America. Remember the unfortunate Colombian defender who was shot to death not long after causing an own goal in the World Cup?

Now the discussion goes to violence and hooliganism, two things that don't occur in MLS games. The only violence that has happened within PPL Park itself was among Union fans and it was caused by someone tossing a bottle onto the field and getting angry that he was pointed out to security by fellow fans.

That Colombian defender, Andres Escobar, did score an own goal in a World Cup - the 1994 World Cup, which was held in the United States.

Ignoring that the own goal wasn't directly related to his murder, guess what didn't happen to him, or anyone else, in the United States? What you've described, that's what.

Violence is less than a worry for MLS and its teams than any other major league in America and any insinuation otherwise is a disservice to readers and fans of the sport.

Here in the United States, we have enough idiotic sports-related violence. One of our major sports, hockey, officially tolerates fighting among players as "part of the game." At least the lords of soccer are smart enough not to allow that.

Hockey allows fighting, but football is a completely violent game. Baseball has violence every so often when a batter charges the mound, or drunken fans assault an umpire - it's not limited to hockey, or any sport for that matter.

I think a tweet to @BrotherlyGame that asked how he was ever an editor for one of the biggest papers in America summed up his writing nicely.

To respond directly to Zencey, you can leave a comment on his article or email him at To message the Inquirer, E-mail a letter to or E-mail commentaries to