Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Soccernomics: Size Matters

An interesting blog post from Steve Goff, the Washington Post soccer reporter, on the DC United win in Portland (which was a dismal affair with almost no quality soccer to speak of). For a while I have been raising the issue of the tiny field at Jeld-Wen, and mostly being chided for worrying about it. But my point - that a small turf field is not conducive to beautiful soccer - is being echoed now by those who are covering and playing the matches.

First, here is Goff himself wondering why (as I have) the field cannot be expanded by a couple of yards in all directions:
On Jeld-Wen Stadium’s narrow pitch, two assists came off throw-ins (by Chris Pontius and Jeremy Hall) and the Dejan Jakovic penalty came off a throw. On United’s final goal, Bill Hamid could’ve been credited with a secondary assist. The dimensions are listed at 110 yards long, 70 yards wide. Oddly, there seems to be ample room to expand the playing surface to a more suitable size. The Timbers have conformed well to these tight quarters, but the matches lack elegance.
"Lack elegance" is one (nice) way to put it... A couple of yards sounds like nothing right?  But the difference between 70 by 110 and 74 by 114 is 10% more playing area.  The international standard right now for new stadia is 75 by 115, I think Portland should work with the league to allow for slightly less room behind the goals and out of touch or else this type of ugly ping pong and punting soccer is going to be the norm. Here is Goff quoting DC United coach Ben Olsen who mentions the field:
“It was about dealing with set pieces, and that’s what this field is about. Unfortunately, that’s what it is. It’s not fun to come here and play because it’s tough to play soccer. It’s about getting the balls into the box, but that’s the reality when you come here. Historically, we have lost when the field is small, when it’s turf, when it’s a real gritty game. The guys today were fed up with that and showed that they can compete physically with any team in the league.”
The emphasis is mine. Note that he doesn't say it is tough to come and play against the Timbers or in front of the Army, but that it is tough to actually play the game: control, passing, movement.  Instead what we get is a lot of punting the ball.

Ajax last wednesday showed that with players of enough quality you can play good soccer even on a small plastic field, but MLS is not up to this level yet and won't be for a long time.  I think this is a real potential problem for the business that is Portland Timbers.  Folks are not going to continue to spend money and time going out to the stadium and watching the match on TV if the game is going to be so sloppy and dull.


Cameron Mulder said...

I will admit that i am not a true Soccer fan and have only watched a few games.

But in watching the DC match i was surprised by how ugly the play was, but how watchable the game ended up being.

When i have watched European games the field feels huge and something about that makes it less exciting although the teams are playing the game better.

With the Timbers, who i have only watched a handful of games, the game feels faster and more frantic. Which holds my attention more.

Now i am not what anyone would consider a Soccer or even a sports fan so i'm not sure how much my opinion should count. But it was something i noticed.

Danny said...

A small field is perfect for the team Spenser put together. He may have even requested the smaller dimensions. A British coach with a classic English number 9 in Cooper next to a speed-merchant in Perlaza; I don't think there's any question what style of play Spenser was aiming for. Not everyone can be Barcelona, and they've won a few games with the route 1 approach.

And it is possible to play the "beautiful game" on a narrow field. Arsenal at Highbury under Arsene Wenger.

Patrick Emerson said...

Both interesting points. I had not thought about the appeal to the soccer neophyte nor had I thought that the filed might be small by design. If so, that suggests that the field dimensions might change with the quality of the team.

I will say that the north and west stand walls are very high off the filed, so they have to preserve sight lines. But from my vantage point in the West stand, they have plenty of room to work with.

I agree absolutely that the team is built around route 1 soccer: kick a high ball to the big tall target man who can glance it up to the speed merchant or lay it off to the midfielders. And I also agree that with the level of player in MLS, this is probably a good strategy. But even so, you can play this route 1 style on a bigger field and the punters get to see a little more possession and passing.

As an aside, Alhassan is a good enough ball handler that he should probably go to Europe to develop, because he won't as much in the US.

jaypee said...

I don't know a great way to explain this idea, but this is the internet, so here it goes. I hate watching games that don't reward mastery. In a good game, there are good strategies that are based on the rules. In a bad game, there are successful strategies that are based on real life conditions like randomness, home cooking (refs), and small sample size (variance). Games where any neophyte can win against a world class player are terrible in principle, and terrible for the spectators. Now the question is, does a smaller field really create this kind of situation?

In the NBA all of the first round playoff series used to be best of 5, in baseball they still are. I don't know anyone who argues that a best of 5 is really better to watch, and I think this has a lot to do with reducing the variance, and allowing skill to be the factor in determining who wins. Look at what the NCAA tournament has devolved into if you really think single elimination is reasonable.

In poker, I think, we see the most stark contrast in tournaments vs cash games. In a cash game, there is a set level of blinds/antes that will last as long as the game does, while in tournaments the levels (blinds/antes) increase every hour at least, and much more frequently most of the time. Both games are still poker, but in one, you have to outrun inflation, and in the other you actually get to choose your spots.

I don't know that much about soccer, but from what I've heard EPL is all about the use of smaller fields and they breed a more physical game. While the rest of Europe and South America tend to have larger fields, which rewards more cardio/athleticism. Basically, my feeling on other sports is that variance ruins otherwise good games, and I'm really curious as to weather or not you think field size DOWN = variance UP.