An American’s guide to soccer

Watching Team USA play in the World Cup? Read this first.

Let’s face it: even if you aren’t a soccer fan, you’re going to watch the game between the United States and England. It’s more than just a social event; it’s your duty as an American to cheer on Team USA. Non hockey fans across the country piled on the bandwagon behind the men’s hockey team during the Olympics, and non soccer fans will do much of the same for our World Cup team; even more so if we win.  

There’s a common misconception that you need to be able to juggle a ball 15 times off your head to understand soccer. Soccer is just like any other sport—you try to get the ball in the net. The only difference is that you can’t use your hands.  

There are some things, however, that are special to soccer. But don’t worry, that’s where I come in. This is a rundown of things you’ll hear during the game tomorrow (and the rest of the tournament) that may be foreign to you. They aren’t that hard to follow, and you’ll understand them more once you see a game in action. But before we start, there are three things to keep in mind:  

  • It’s harder than it looks. It might just look like they’re running for no reason and kicking the ball around for the heck of it, but to the trained eye, every run and every pass has a purpose. And those “first touches” they’ll be referring to… incredibly difficult. Those guys just make it look easy. Yes, they are THAT good.
  • You could NOT do what they’re doing. “Wow. The goalie dove for a shot that was right next to him and barely saved it. Piece of cake.” Not so fast. Everything they do on that field is 10 times more difficult than it looks, and those players are elite athletes in tip-top shape. Anybody can sprint full speed two minutes into the game. It takes a world class athlete to do so in the 85th. Oh and those headers, those hurt. We’re not trying to say we’re equal with (American) football on a physical contact level, but heading a hard kicked ball is the equivalent of a fullback hitting a linebacker in the hole. It hurts, it jars you… but you do it because you want to win. If you don’t go hard for the ball, you have no shot of getting it.
  • Yes, the net is big, but scoring is very difficult. The big box outside the net is 18 yards away from goal. The 18-yard box is a close place to shoot from for soccer players, and it’s still longer than a half court shot in the NBA. Keeping the ball low is no easy task either; hit it wrong and it will sail high and wide. 

Anyway, here are some things you may hear soccer people reference that you should be familiar with.  

A cap is a game. You will often see stats for a player’s international caps. That just means the number of games he has played with the national team.  

Fouls are different from basketball. A minor infraction is a foul and is signaled by a blown whistle. While record of fouls is kept, there is no number in which a player will be thrown out for accumulating. The fouled team gets a free kick of the ball at the spot of the foul. The ball must be still before it is kicked and opposing team must be 10 yards away from the ball. An indirect kick means the ball must touch another player besides the kicker before it goes into the net, and a direct kick means it can be kicked directly in. Direct/indirect is at the referee’s discretion.  

Should a yellow card be awarded (not in American use of the word; here “awarded” is negative), the offender’s name goes into the ref’s book. Two yellow cards turn into a red, which means the player has been ejected from the game and his team must finish the game a man down (reds can also be given directly without first being given a yellow). The same rules apply about kicking the ball to resume play as for a foul . If a player is said to be “carrying a yellow,” it means he received a yellow card in the game before, and is still at risk of it turning into a red/receiving suspension. A free kick is sometimes referred to as a “dead ball” opportunity.  

Offside is also different from hockey. At the moment the ball is kicked (NOT when it gets to the player), the man must be in front of the second to last defender; which includes the goalie. In English, this means that when the ball is kicked, there has to be at least one defender between you and the net (plus the goalie). If you are closest to the goal, you’re offside. If you want to think of it in terms of a blue line, you could say that the blue line moves and is at the feet of the farthest back defender. But unlike hockey, offside is ruled from the moment the pass is made, not the time it gets to you. There is also no offside on your side of half, so if the other team’s defenders push up and you get the ball before the half field line, you are good. To resume play after an offside, the ball is placed parallel with the spot the offside occurred at and the defending team kicks the ball.  

A ref shows a yellow card


Balls out of play are similar to basketball; the team who touches it last losses possession of the ball. If the ball goes out of the side it results in a throw in, where a player throws the ball over his head with two hands and must have both of his feet on the ground. If the ball goes out past an end line, things get slightly more complicated. If it was knocked out of the back by the attacking team, the defenders get a goal kick; a free kick when the ball is placed on (or inside) the smaller 6-yard box. Should the ball go out off of the defending team, the attacking team takes the ball to the corner of the field and takes a corner kick, where other members of their team stand in front of the goal and will try to put the ball in the net. These are very good scoring chances.  

Each team is allowed only three substitutions per game. The player coming in waits at the half field line and may come in at a stoppage of play when his team is awarded a kick. When he can come in gets confusing, but he must wait for the ref’s okay. If a team makes all three subs and a player gets injured… for lack of a better term they’re S.O.L. If a player is awarded a red card, he may not be subbed for and his team plays the rest of the game shorthanded.  

Formations change from team to team and half to half. The goalie is never listed. A common formation is 4-4-2, which means four defenders, four midfielders, and two forwards. Goalies are also called goalkeepers, but never goaltenders. Defenders are also fullbacks, and a sweeper is the last defender before the goalie. Midfielders can also be called halfbacks or middies, and have very different roles on different teams. Forwards are simply strikers, and are often the more well-known players. Teams are also referred to as squads or sides. Coaches have a number of different names in Europe, but you will probably just hear them referred to as coach. Boots are cleats.  

Other things you will notice that are different from other sports:  

  • Players will touch the referee. That’s grounds for suspension in baseball, but it is not uncommon to see in soccer.
  • People in the stands blow horns the entire game. That’s how you can tell real soccer players/fans apart from the newbies; new people hate the horns but for diehards, it’s music to their ears.
  • The captain is denoted by an armband worn on the upper arm, not a ‘C’ on the shirt.
  • They go down “hurt” a lot. Sad, but it’s a part of the game. Getting taken down certainly hurts, but just because they look like they are in pain doesn’t mean it’s all that bad. Soccer will always be the beautiful game, but this is one of the slight blemishes on its face. 

That’s all I have for now. If you have questions, leave a comment. Try to remember how special this is for Africa and the country of South Africa. If Nelson Mandela makes an appearance, it will be insane for them. He’s their George Washington and Abe Lincoln all in one. (That’s NOT Morgan Freeman.) I think USA will get out of their bracket, but I still think England has the more talented side. I could never pick against the States, so color me vanilla but I’m predicting a 2-2 draw.