While all of England is railing against Robert Green’s horrible mistake on Saturday and demanding more of Fabio Capello as a manager, many of my American friends are coming to me — because, y’know, I’m the “soccer guy” now — and asking me the same question:
Why was this game allowed to end with the score tied?
Soccer games can be won, lost or drawn, and the drawn part constantly trips up American sports fans. We expect every game to have a winner and a loser in this country. We play overtimes and extra innings to determine winners. When there are no winners or losers, we all get confused. Who was the better team?
America, it’s time for a teaching moment. Here is the thing you need to understand about soccer: winners and losers aren’t determined by each individual game. They’re determined by all of the games put together.
I know. This tripped me up at first, too, but once you adjust your mindset to this, the competition becomes much more interesting to follow.
Pretty much every soccer league, from the Premier League to MLS to your local rec league, works like this: a team gets 3 points for a win and 1 point for a tie, or draw. League standings are determined by points, and the prizes, whatever they might be, are awarded at the end of competition based on how many points you’ve amassed.
Thus, the point of each individual game is not to determine a winner, but instead to determine how many points each team earns for its results. Each individual game serves the structure of the entire league season. The league is the thing, not the game. The game is not the main competition itself, but it’s just one chapter in the narrative of the league season.
In the World Cup Group Stage, which we’re in now, that narrative is only three games long. The Group Stage is basically 8 tiny leagues of 4 teams each. In each group, everyone plays each other once, and the two teams that have the most points at the end of the Group Stage advance to the Knockout Stage, which is the survive-and-advance bracket portion of the World Cup — the part that Americans can figure out more easily.
So why does this make draws valuable? Let’s take a closer look at Group C. England and the USA both got a point for that 1-1 draw, while Slovenia beat Algeria 1-0 on Sunday. So the standings look like this:
Slovenia 3, England 1, USA 1, Algeria 0.
Now let’s say England beats Algeria and the USA beats Slovenia in Friday’s 2nd round games. The standings now look like this:
England 4, USA 4, Slovenia 3, Algeria 0.
That point the USA got over England now puts them in a much better position than they would have been in if Robert Green’s hands hadn’t turned into Teflon. Take away that one mistake by Green, and the table would look like this:
England 6, USA 3, Slovenia 3, Algeria 0.
In that scenario, England only needs a draw against Slovenia to win the group, while the USA has to hustle a little harder against Algeria to ensure it advances to the Knockout Stage. Because of that one mistake by Green, however, it is England who has to work harder to win the group.
Why is winning the group important? Because the runner-up in Group C has to play the winner of Group D, which is very likely to be Germany. Y’all saw what Germany did to Australia today, right? Good. Keep that in mind as we go through this.
Now let’s go back to the table as it is now and look at what happens if the USA only gets a draw against Slovenia on Friday, while England beats Algeria:
England 4, Slovenia 4, USA 2, Algeria 0.
Thus, a draw for Slovenia against the USA feels very much like a win, because now Slovenia controls its own destiny going into the 3rd and final round. The USA could still get through to the Knockout Stage, but it would need help. In this scenario, if England beats Slovenia and the USA beats Algeria, the final tally looks like this:
England 7, USA 5, Slovenia 4, Algeria 0.
End result: England and the USA are through to the Knockout Stage, but the USA has to face Germany.
On the other hand, if England and the USA both get wins against Slovenia and Algeria, here’s your final table:
USA 7, England 7, Slovenia 3, Algeria 0.
Who gets stuck with Germany in the first knockout game is then determined by tiebreakers — goal differential, total goals scored, and so on. If the USA wins its last two games by a greater margin than England does, then the USA wins the group, and its chances of advancing in the Knockout Stage increase dramatically.
That’s why that draw was so damaging to England, and why the back page of the New York Post looks like this:
It’s not because the USA managed to get a draw against a higher-ranked opponent. It’s because the USA has put itself in a position to win the group and get a much more favorable draw in the Knockout Stage, which it could really use. This game was only one-third of the entire competition. The other two-thirds will determine what’s next for the USA.
Most American sports fans, however, don’t see this. They just see the final score of this one game and wonder why there’s no winner or loser. “All that running around for a tie? Lame!”, they declare. Brian Phillips wrote about this mindset a while back, explaining the “logic of competition” with the “logic of finitude.” The former requires a winner in every game. The latter requires that each game last a set amount of time, and if there’s no winner, well, so be it.
America has bought into the logic of competition, and so we have overtime and extra innings. Soccer has bought into the logic of finitude. Results still matter, of course, but the results are given their own values. Winning every game becomes secondary to amassing the most points in the overall competition. One game can impact the big picture, of course, but it’s only a small part of the big picture.
You would have thought Americans had learned about the importance of big picture after the 2007-08 NFL season. The New England Patriots won every game in the regular season, but they didn’t win the game that mattered the most — the Super Bowl. The point of the NFL season isn’t to win every game, but to win the last one. Winning the last game brings the trophy. The Patriots didn’t win that last game. So what good were the 18 wins before that if the Giants get to take home the prize?
In the Premier League, though, there’s no playoff at the end to determine the winner. There’s only the point tally, and when it’s all counted up after 38 rounds, 4 teams get to play in the UEFA Champions League the following season, and 3 teams get relegated to the next league down, where the TV money isn’t nearly as good. So if a team at the bottom of the table manages to get a draw on the road against a stronger team, that’s one more point toward staying in the Premier League for another year and making all the filthy lucre that comes with it.
Likewise in the World Cup, every point that every team earns matters in the Group Stage. In fact, those points matter a little more, because there are only 3 games to determine the winners of this stage. Would it have meant more to beat England? Of course. That doesn’t mean, however, that a draw was a bad result for the USA. It is merely the first chapter in the overall narrative.
Once Americans grasp that concept, they’ll begin to grasp soccer. It’s not the sort of game that we’re accustomed to watching, no, but once we grasp how it really works, we’ll begin to see just how much fun it can be.