Monday, July 10, 2006

World Cup

Since I play goalkeeper in an indoor league, I find myself rooting for the keepers. I was particularly excited when the Portugese keeper found his way to the French penalty area for a corner kick in the final minute of the semi.

Like “football in the groin”, “France losing” falls into the “never gets old” category.

I have envisioned my ultimate career ending like Zidane’s did, head down in shame after getting fed up with a cheating D hack and letting him have it. That would suck.

The "problem" with soccer isn't that the refs suck or that the players cheat, it's that the system causes the refs to have too much importance and provides huge incentives for the players to dive in hopes of getting a call. I couldn’t find the stats in a minute of googling, but I’d estimate that 1/3 of the World Cup goals came on penalty kicks, 1/3 on corners and direct free kicks, and only 1/3 on what most people (including diehard fans) think of as soccer, the free-flow attack and counterattack. (I don’t really mind the corner kicks much, since it seems that they are almost entirely earned by good play, and the conversion rate is low enough that you would not waste a decent scoring opportunity just to get a corner kick, whereas you might take a dive for a foul call rather than continuing to play the ball.)

It seems that a player has a better chance of scoring by drawing a foul call than by beating the defenders, and the number of goals in a game is small enough that every goal opportunity can be the gamewinner. It is said that ultimate players are more likely to make questionable or petty calls when the going gets tough. Economically speaking, this makes sense. At 0-0, a goal is only about 3-4% of the remaining scoring for the game, so a bad call then might change a team’s winning percentage from 50% to 53%, and who wants to risk their integrity for that little, especially when the other team can then make up for it with their own bad calls? At 14-14, game to 15, it’s a game to 1, and having possession might change your probability of winning from 25% to 75%, with no chance for rebuttal. In essence, every minute of a soccer game is double game point.

Changes to increase scoring from this year’s 2 goals per game (for both teams combined) to 3 or 4 would still retain the feeling that goals are stingy but not so much that a team plays conservatively with a 1-0 lead after 10 minutes. The obvious solutions (change offsides, wider goals, fewer players, more substitutions) have obvious problems, but why doesn’t someone try it out? How many leagues are there with something approaching world-class play? The MLS would be a perfect testing ground.

But the real problem isn’t that games are 1-0 or 1-1, but that the one goal that is scored can be a random award. A covered player in the penalty area with the ball might have a 5% or 10% chance to score but can change that into an 80% chance by drawing a foul call. What if instead of tinkering with the rules which some feel are essential to the game, we simply changed the penalties? The penalty shot in hockey is only awarded when there is a clear and good scoring opportunity. None of the (admittedly few) penalty kicks that I saw awarded in the World Cup would have qualified by this metric. Make it at the referee’s discretion whether a foul in the penalty area or on a breakaway is worthy of a penalty kick. Alternatively, move the kicking spot back so that it’s a 25% or 50% shot (and you could easily change the distance for lower levels of the game to retain that 25% or 50%). That way, it would be in the player’s interest to continue after a loose ball after some incidental contact in the box rather than doing a swan dive.


Edward Lee said...

It seems that any sport in which the penalties for fouls are not roughly commensurate with the actual fouls, and where the reward for a team exploiting the rules is enough to swing the game, is going to have these problems.

In basketball, a guy like Dwyane Wade has no problem throwing his body into a defender over and over throughout the game in order to draw cheap foul calls -- he might have earned 5 or 10 points that way, which is enough to decide a lot of games and did decide Game 5 of the Finals.

There are a couple (less likely) such scenarios in American football. One would be a team chucking up 50-yard passes regularly and trying to draw pass interference calls, given that NFL refs have gradually been favoring receivers in recent years (credit goes to Bill Simmons for this one). Another would be a defensive team facing 4th-and-epsilon in a big spot and making several attempts to jump the snap count. The maximum risk is a epsilon/2 backup, while the reward might be a turnover in a game that is usually decided by fewer than 7 points. (The referee might be empowered to eject players or award a TD if it happens repeatedly, I'm not sure. If not, he should be.)

I agree that soccer has these problems to a larger extent, but it's a problem with a lot of sports.

Jim Biancolo said...

I dunno, I kinda like the existing rules that makes it very dangerous to even touch the O player once he gets into the box. Soccer is low-scoring enough! I'd rather the refs started handing out penalties for frivolous dives. Of course, there's enough penalties already, and it doesn't solve the "refs have too much importance" problem.

Edward Lee said...

In the first post, "4th-and-epsilon" should read "4th-and-goal from the epsilon-yard line", of course.

Michael said...

I've recently been wondering about a somewhat similar situation, which is whether top level ultimate (which I don't play) has "too few" turnovers. Clearly a sport where the offence has a 100% chance of scoring isn't worth playing, but I get the impression that for top ultimate teams have an O that scores 95% or so of the time.

You'd think this would lead to a situation where boring/safe/conservative offence prevailed (it's a puzzle that this *isn't* the case) in contrast to soccer where the top 10 goals of a tournament are usually incredibly speculative (but spectacular) efforts that had a maybe 5% chance of success. Imagine what ultimate were like if it were legitimate to sometimes throw passes with a 5% completion rate!

Has O got more effective over time? Is this becoming a "problem"?

gcooke said...


I find myself, when watching top level Ultimate, viewing breaks with the same importance and excitement as a goal in soccer. While I agree that it can be boring to watch an O going through a D with efficiency over and over (and, even in the best games when this type of situation is described in hindsight there is always the disclaimer that the D played was great and/or real), I find the potential of a break to be great from a spectators point of view.


Anonymous said...

I think the following article is interesting about the woes of the US national team.


In sum, the US youth system has too much structure and too few opportunities to develop the creativity that it needed at the top of the game.

Following up on Michael's point, is creativity even needed in ultimate anymore? Isn't safe the boring the way to go when an offense is expected to score on 80%+ of their possessions?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, here is the link


parinella said...

A team trying to time the snap risks giving a free play if the play isn't stopped. And Wade could expect about 1 point under normal play and maybe 1.5 if there is a foul call but maybe 0.5 if there is no call (lucky shot or offensive rebound). So maybe those aren't the best examples.

Michael and George,
It's fairly rare that an elite men's offense scores significantly more than 50% of the possessions (but more of the points, of course)against an elite defense, although when it does happen, people notice. A typical number of breaks per team in a game is 4. In a 15-10 game in calm conditions, the winner might be broken only once or twice.

Justin R said...

This topic is similar to an issue that has been debated in the field of environmental law and the shift from command and control regulation (i.e. penalties) vs. the market approach (i.e. creating incentives for compliance).

There are a couple of points that can be taken from that experience that have some value in looking at the game of ultimate.

* Keep a level playing field that does not create advantages for non-compliance (and even creates a disadvantage for non-compliance).

In soccer, the reward of a penalty kick is a ridiculous incentive for dives by the offense. In ultimate, there is a decent balance except for maybe the low-stall count foul by the marker which remains largely unpunished.

* Reduce the cost of compliance will take away the advantage for violations.

This is a more difficult analogy to bring into sports, but essentially what it is saying is that a system should allow the regulated community to find ways to achieve the intended result as inexpensively as possible.

I think here part of the problem is that an ultimate player that does not use a hard mark (or actually uses a 10 second stall count) will be at a disadvantage. But this analogy is a bit of stretch and is probably better analysed under the "level playing field" example.

Anyways, I am a little off topic at this point. But I agree that the recent world cup is a good example of why the system of relying on one ref to call penalties that are often very arbitrary and harsh does not work.

I like the idea of moving the penalty kick back but that would only be a partial fix. The intentional dives occur all over the field, not just the penalty area. Even with that limitation, however, a penalty kick is WAY to harsh a punishment for a minor foul, or even no foul at all (e.g. Australia vs. Italy game). Deciding games on penalty kicks is even worse. It's like playing a game of ultimate to the universe point, then deciding the winner by playing disc golf.

Edward Lee said...

A team trying to time the snap risks giving a free play if the play isn't stopped. And Wade could expect about 1 point under normal play and maybe 1.5 if there is a foul call but maybe 0.5 if there is no call (lucky shot or offensive rebound). So maybe those aren't the best examples.

If it's a defensive lineman who's trying to time the snap, he'll either succeed or can an opposing offensive lineman, forcing the ref to call the play dead, right? The latter is what makes it especially objectionable if done repeatedly, but it could be highly effective if done selectively.

And the EV of a basketball possession might be 1 point at the beginning of the shot clock but be much less at the end of a possession or the end of a quarter. I guess maybe it's not such a big problem in most games, but in Game 5 I think it was.

Memphis Steve said...

I don't know about you, but I find "football in the groin" gets old really fast. Another thing that gets old fast is "player kicks defender in groin while taking dive to draw penalty." Related to that, "defender kicked in groin goes to hospital" got really old for me in a hurry. Also old, "incompetent ref stops defender going to hospital to award yellow card."