Here are four things that could be done to make the sport much more interesting the U.S. fans:
- Instant replay. Not for everything or even most things, but certainly for determining if a goal has been scored. Americans won't accept a sport that consistently lets non-goals count and denies goals where the ball clearly crosses the goal line. Hockey saw the light and now uses replay for questions on goal scoring. Soccer could easily do the same. Ask England if they'd like a little instant replay.
- Accurate clock. Stop the clock for when the ball goes out of bounds or when a player is rolling around on the ground after presumably getting injured...say after 20 seconds. Restart the clock when the ball is back in play or, in the case of a potential injury, when the player either gets up or is escorted to the sideline. This will reduce fake injuries and eliminate the need for the "guess-timate" of stoppage time at the end of each half that seem so subjective. To the degree that all this might make each game a little longer, I don't think American fans would care. Remember, they are used to watching football games that last 4 hours, b-ball games that are more than 2 hours, baseball games that can last...well, as long as they take. Adding somewhere around 20 minutes onto the overall game experience would be minimal.
- No ties. They are distasteful to American sports fans. I get how it all works now, the points system, etc., etc. I like it and can appreciate it, but most Americans don't and will always cite that as a major problem with the sport and why they don't want to watch or care. So, eliminate ties. If regulation time ends in a tie, play a short overtime period and then do PKs if needed after that. Yes, that would probably mean the end of a points system, but that would be OK with me if it broadened the appeal of the game overall.
- Don't reward acting. "Diving" is a hallmark of soccer. Players fake being fouled and then fake being injured to either 1) kill clock, 2) in hopes of being awarded a free kick or 3) to get an opposing player a yellow or red card. The reason this behavior persists is because refs reward it. This should stop. If a player goes down and cannot get up within a certain amount of time, say 20 seconds, the clock is stopped. This takes away motivation #1 above. It would also help refs make a decision on if the player was really fouled. As in, if the guy is still down after 20 seconds, it's more likely that he was really fouled. The would help sort out situations #2 and #3 above for more accurate calls by the ref.
Ultimately, however, none of these changes to make soccer more palatable to Americans would be as effective as the U.S. making it into the later rounds of the World Cup or winning it. Now THAT would put soccer on the map here. But I don't think it'll happen any time soon. Until top US athletes start choosing to play soccer, we'll not be able to compete at the very highest level.
Put it this way...what if LaBron James, Adrian Peterson, Duane Wade, T.O., Derek Jeter, Reggie Bush, Kobe Bryant and other top caliber athletes went into soccer and played in the MLS or European leagues instead of football or basketball. You think the US would be beat very often in the World Cup? You think MLS would have to play second fiddle to premier leagues in England, Germany, Italy and Spain? No. We would be big time players internationally. But for now, top athletes in the U.S. have no conceivable reason other than personal passion to go into soccer because it just dosen't pay like the other American sports. Our best won't chose soccer because there isn't the same abundance of big money contracts for loads of players as is the case American football, baseball and basketball. Throw in that we have our own traditional sports and big change seems unlikely. So, my guess is that we'll always be in that Top10-15 teams in the world, but never a serious contender to win a World Cup.
So where does that leave us? I'd like to see some American rules for soccer in the MLS. I think if that league is going to grow and thrive, and I'd like to see that, it's going to need to do some things to draw in more than hard core soccer fans. Changes such as the ones I suggest above might help in that effort.