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Notes from the North End: Frustrations with time-wasting

The dark arts have a long history in soccer.

Austin FC v Seattle Sounders FC Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

It’s been a while since the last Notes from the North End. Let’s just say that I took the international break with the players. Yeah. That’s what happened…

This month I dive into time-wasting on the pitch, discuss Coach Schmetzer’s “next man up” philosophy, watch some television, and read some texts from my mom. Let’s get to it.

Frustrated with time-wasting

I cannot remember being as frustrated watching a match as I was watching expansion side Austin Whatever They Call Themselves dive, flop, roll, and basically try to waste a full 90 minutes of game time to steal a point from the Sounders at the end of May. After the match, my voice completely shot from booing Cecilio Dominguez for 90 minutes, I decided to look into the issue of time-wasting in soccer. The journey did not disappoint.

The running clock in soccer is one of many aspects that set it apart from other sports, especially in America. Football and basketball are governed and managed to the second (sometimes tenths of seconds). There are timeouts coaches and players can use to halt the action to regroup, substitute players, and discuss strategy. In soccer there are very few opportunities to legally halt a game, so players and coaches find ways to intentionally slow the game down and bleed seconds from the clock, especially on the road or when defending a lead.

Aside from issuing cards for time-wasting, the only mechanism referees have for combating time-wasting is the “threat” of additional time, aka “stoppage time,” added to the half. The added time number is usually a palatable 2-5 minutes, which in addition to giving an attacking team more opportunities to score before the final whistle, also has the stress-inducing effect of not knowing when the clock will expire. It is admittedly great theater for the fans. Here is an excellent overview of added time from SB Nation.

Players waste time when it is in their favor all the time. And they do it because it works.

The folks at Five Thirty-Eight did an excellent analysis of actual vs. awarded added time in the 2018 World Cup.

Here’s the thesis: awarded stoppage time is grossly out of step with actual time wasted in any given match. Teams know this, even if they don’t know quite to what degree. So if they manage to waste 10 minutes of playing time by noodling over an inconsequential free kick or receiving aid from the medical staff when none is needed, they know the referee will only add 3-4 minutes to a match. The time-wasting team has effectively shortened the game by 6 minutes. Study after academic study shows that expected stoppage time is on average twice the actual stoppage time awarded. The 538 research suggest it was about half as much as should have been added.

It’s strategy, and every team does it. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. With the lead at home or nursing a tie on the road, goal kicks take a little longer. The walk to the touchline is a casual stroll. Those knocks on the ankle “hurt” a little longer. Time-wasting is a bit of an art. A player has to milk as much time off the clock as possible without appearing to be “unsporting” and drawing a card from the referee. As one writer put it, “people behave dishonestly enough to profit but honestly enough to delude themselves of their own integrity.” Somewhere in that continuum is where most soccer players fall. Intentional time-wasting is always against the rules, but there is no clear way to know where the line of acceptability is.

Like most persistent trends in soccer, there is a deep history to time-wasting, and scholars have been studying it and writing about it for as long as the sport has existed. Laws dealing with time-wasting came to be after an infamous match between Aston Villa and Stoke City in 1891, when the Aston Villa goalkeeper punted the ball all of the way out of the stadium in order to kill the remaining time and secure a 1-0 victory. By 1897 new rules were established to quell excessive time-wasting, and the core of today’s FIFA laws on the subject are not all that different from what was introduced back then.

Leagues have tried numerous strategies to stop excessive time-wasting, and in the modern sporting landscape much of the effort is driven not by an idea of fairness to the game itself, but by the idea that modern sports fans are increasingly intolerant of “downtime.” As professional soccer grows in the United States, our leagues are looking for ways to attract new fanbases, and one of the main knocks against soccer is the “flopping” or “diving,” both of which can be (but aren’t always) part of a time-wasting strategy.

Like many “quirks” of the modern game and as frustrating as it is when it is used against your side, time-wasting is, well, a time-honored part of the game. It is part of the strategic landscape of a 90-minute match, and taking it away takes away control of the game from the players. It is part of the beauty of the beautiful game.

Brian Schmetzer building coach of the year resume

I know this is obvious by now, but if I told you in March that the Sounders would be at the top of the table a third of the way through the season without Nico Lodeiro, Stefan Frei, Jordy Delem, and Jordan Morris, you would never believe me.

Schmetzer admits that he was reluctant to change formations and that it was his staff that convinced him to try it. It appears that the change (are we still calling it a 3-5-2?) not only toughened up our central defense but also created a system in which a variety of players can thrive. We knew Josh Atencio was a good player, but who saw him coming in for Nico and earning Team of the Week honors? Who had Kelyn Rowe pegged as an instrumental utility player? Who would have guessed Brad Smith would be the second-best goal scorer on the squad? Who knew Stefan Cleveland would rock?

This is coaching, pure and simple. Yes, these are all good players and professional athletes, but they have to work in a system and environment where they are put in the best spots to succeed. If the Sounders are able to win the Supporters’ Shield, Brian Schmetzer is the Coach of the Year. And he will defer to his coaching staff, because that is what he does.

What to watch

By the time you’re reading this, the second season of Ted Lasso will almost be out on Apple TV. Devour that.

In the meantime, I’ve been watching the “All or Nothing” series from Amazon. These all-access shows are a fantastic look inside the workings of some top-flight organizations. The Tottenham Hotspur series is especially fantastic. We follow the team during the chaotic and pandemic-shortened 2019-2020 season and get some serious José Mourinho moments along the way.

These “embedded journalist”-type shows are not without their critics or problems. Sport and television critics rightly point out that the documentarians often seem too connected to the subject matter to be objective and that we are spared much of the negative portrayals of the club, but for American fans looking to dive into Premier League soccer, I can’t really think of a better way to start your education.

Mostly, however, you should be watching soccer. There are compelling international and MLS matches on seemingly every day this summer, and it is glorious.

Texts from my mom

My dear mom is a football person. She’s a rabid Husky fan and is still bitter that my late father made them give up their Seahawks tickets years ago.

But I’m a Sounders fan and she’s my mom, so she started paying a bit of attention to the club, mostly to have a shared experience, I imagine. It started simply enough. She would watch games that I was attending and I’d get a text every time we scored (“Yay! A goal!”) or were scored against (“Darn!”). When I was traveling and watching games online, I had to start muting my phone because I’d get a “Yay!” text and then 10 seconds later Ruidiaz would score on my computer screen.

Then a funny thing happened. She became a soccer fan. She started watching international games, got to know the U.S. Women’s National Team, and then the texts started flying. Now when I’m at Lumen Field and there is a play I couldn’t quite see, she automatically texts me (“Before you ask, that wasn’t a penalty”) or (“That should have been a corner!”).

I was prepping dinner before the US Men’s National Team game against Martinique the other night when I received the following out of context text message:

“I would not want to be Martinique’s goalie.” Good call, mom.

But my favorite of the season goes back to the Austin FC match here in Seattle.

“That No. 10 needs to get up and play soccer.”

Fully agree, mom. Fully agree.

Follow me on Twitter @gregvanbelle

See you on the North End. Go Sounders.

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