No one likes to see players flop, but creating opportunities is part of the game.
Ask a soccer-hater what he finds ugliest about the Beautiful Game and he’ll likely bring up the fact that milquetoast European stars react to the slightest touch like it’s a Pacquiao punch. In countries that treat international competitions like religious revivals, leaders bristle at what is euphemistically referred to as “simulation" and, in America, fans often take pride in the national team’s perceived refusal to be dramatic. Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones, the thinking goes, play with broken noses, but they don’t whine because they are real men. That may be, but theatrics have become part of the sport – Arjen Robben’s performance against Mexico was almost moving – and the Yanks need to start diving if they want to survive.
Let’s differentiate diving and flopping before you smash your laptop. For the sake of argument, let’s say that a dive is an embellishment on an actual hit, not a complete simulation of a hit that never happened. A dive is what Robben did at the end of Sunday’s game when defender Rafa Marquez stepped on his foot. The contact was there and while Robben definitely sold it, he certainly didn’t fake it. A flop is what he did earlier in the game. Flopping sucks.
Soccer is far from the only sport in which athletes work for calls. Catcher frame fastballs. Wide receivers run routes designed to draw pass interference. Basketball players hit the deck when someone touches their wrist. And all those players are faking for small rewards: an out in baseball, a first down in football, two free throws in basketball – nothing as valuable as a goal in a contested soccer game. Is it more shameful to sell a play that results in one of a game’s three goals, as Robben did, or a play that gets your team two of 100 points, as LeBron does multiple times a game? From an audience perspective, diving is easier to stomach when the consequences are vague, but from an athlete’s perspective, soccer stars aren’t the ones sullying the game.
That gets us back to the USMNT. The Yanks, who play a fast game that all but guarantees contact, have done some diving, but they haven’t been particularly strategic about it. Dempsey, Bradley, and Jones are quick to pull the trigger in the box instead of putting in the added touches that lead to foul calls. Similarly, the team seems more interested in efficiently passing down the sidelines than using Fabian Johnson’s ball-handling skills to force defenders to commit. Given the Americans ability to capitalize on set pieces, there is no reason to not challenge backs to go for the ball without getting the man. It’s not cheating, it’s just good business.
To be clear: Americans should not start belly flopping on the pitch at every slight touch. But when those slight touches occur in the penalty area, it’s worth putting the decision in the hands of the referee (who may choose to punish the diver with a yellow card). When the reward is a penalty, a goal, a win, and national glory, it’s a risk worth taking. It might be un-American, but so is losing.