Monday, April 1, 2013

A Game of Almosts in a Land of Absolutes

I just don't know how I feel about ties. Obviously, the 0-0 tie the USMNT pulled out last Tuesday against Mexico in Mexico City is a great result and significantly bolsters our chances to qualify for the World Cup in 2014. Azteca is one of the most hostile home stadiums in worldwide sports, between the barely-breathable air and the sheer number of incredibly hostile fans they manage to pack into the place, it's no wonder that the most cheerful description offered of the place was given by former National Team starter Eric Wynalda when he simply called it "hell." And the Mexican team doesn't do anything to make it any easier on opponents, continually justifying the daunting 68-1-6 record in World Cup Qualifiers played in Azteca heading into last Tuesday night's match.
The tie is great by all American accounts. It puts us in the driver's seat in regards to our World Cup future, and it puts the most difficult part of our qualifying campaign behind us, without leaving too many bumps and bruises. But then again, it's a tie.
Soccer is the only major sport in America where ties occur frequently. Only 18 ties have happened in the NFL since the sudden-death overtime rule was implemented in 1974, the NHL eliminated ties in favor of penalty shootouts in the flurry of rule changes implicated in 2004 which have helped the sport's resurgence in popularity since then, and basketball and baseball traditionally have never ended in ties. The case of the NHL is particularly fascinating, as they eliminated ties in an effort to appeal to more American fans, and succeeded.
In America the adage remains that "a tie is like kissing your sister" (a local chapter of The American Outlaws posted in response to the match that this one was indeed like kissing your sister "if your sister is Kate Upton and you were adopted"). Americans simply dislike ties. We want a winner and a loser just like we want a good guy and a bad guy. We're a nation of extremes. You're a Democrat or a Republican, young or old, hot or not. We're a binary nation, with no room for the middle.
Most would suggest that some ties look like wins and some look like losses. Tuesday's match is a perfect example. The American media outlets heralded it as a massive achievement, beating a team who might just be better than us in a stadium they usually win in. Mexican papers profiled it as a loss, immediately calling for the job of the Mexican manager. But something deep inside us, put there by our upbringing and maintained by our shared culture of things that are "American," wants to see us keep playing until we win, or lose trying. Who cares if they outshot us 19-1?? We're the USA! We can do anything!
Maybe this is one of the reasons that Americans have a hard time latching on to the beautiful game. If you ask most Americans what they learned about war in history class, they'll say we won both of the World Wars, but lost in Vietnam and Korea. They don't know what changes were affected at the end of these engagements, or why specifically we actually got involved. We just know a win or loss.
Could one of the reasons that so many Americans come to the sport during a World Cup and abandon it after is because after a few quick group stage matches, there is a clear winner and loser in each match? Do you think that ties hamper the sport's ability to attract an audience here in America? Do you think this is a uniquely American way of thinking about the sport, or do even the more established soccer countries sometimes have these feelings of doubt?

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