What are most casual U.S. soccer fans typing into search after the tie with Portugal? Probably “U.S. soccer World Cup tiebreaker.” Sure, the USMNT can move into the knockout round with a win or tie versus Germany, but that may be difficult against one of the top teams in the world. Most people watching know head-to-head is not the first tiebreaker; it is goal differential. If you asked most casual fans what the second tiebreaker is, they would most likely respond with head-to-head result. That is where they would be wrong: It’s goals scored in group.
So, why does this matter?
The U.S. could lose to Germany 1-0, and if Ghana beats Portugal by a score of 2-1 (or 3-2, 4-3, etc.) Ghana would advance from the group, even though the USMNT beat them 2-1. Points would be equal, goal differential would be the same, but Ghana would have the advantage in goals scored. That may be tough for the casual U.S. fan to accept.
Soccer has made major inroads in the minds of the U.S. sports fan. The U.S.-Portugal match was a huge ratings success. Every time the World Cup comes around, the discussion about whether soccer has gained more respect and a larger following always seems to come up. U.S. fans have issues with soccer. The flopping, the ties and no playoffs doesn’t match the American sports fan psyche. NBC played off this with its humorous commercials for the EPL
Now try and explain that even though the USMNT beat Ghana head-to-head, they wouldn’t be moving on. It just creates another reason casual fans can use when determining whether to continue following soccer.
The MLS has made some of the necessary changes to make soccer more appealing to American fans. There is a playoff (unlike most other major soccer leagues) for the MLS title. The league has imported stars, albeit aging ones, who have a name brand that may resonate with the casual fan who has watched the World Cup. However, they may not be able to take advantage of fan momentum if casual fans become disenfranchised with soccer because of the wonky World Cup tiebreak rules.
NBC, and whatever other company bids on upcoming club soccer TV rights in America, may also be a victim of the casual fan leaving. The World Cup enthusiasm might not carry over to EPL/MLS in terms of TV viewership if casual fans feel that soccer rules and tiebreakers are stupid and make no sense since head-to-head doesn’t matter.
Soccer, though growing in popularity, is still a niche sport in the United States. The World Cup has been a great ambassador and educator to the casual fan. It would be a shame to see all the goodwill that has been built go to waste. Of course, none of this matters if the USMNT ties or wins against Germany, so let’s hope for a positive result.
Michael Colangelo is Assistant Director at the USC Sports Business Institute and Senior Editor of The Fields of Green.