If the gamblers setting odds in Las Vegas are right, Team USA will play in only three of the World Cup's 64 games. That means that American fans will need an excuse to keep cheering when Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and all those soldiers' sons aren't on the field. The traditional approach has been to choose a second team based on affinity ("I love Belgian chocolate!") or heritage ("My great grandfather was conceived in Bosnia!"), but there is a better option: Make soccer into a fantasy sport.
The "Beautiful Game" is notoriously hard to quantify – Billy Beane (he of Moneyball fame) has been working on it for years with little success. As it stands, the only stats that are tracked reliably enough to satisfy fantasy fanatics are goals, assists, shots on goal, saves, and cards. What that means is that goal scorers and goalies are monitored while midfielders and defenders remain largely immune to sabermetrics. This would be a problem if goals were the least interesting part of a match. They are not.
Fantasy World Cup is all about picking up strikers, the most colorful group of players in the tournament. Draft Messi if you like artistry, Mario Balotelli if you like yelling, Luis Suarez if you like flagrant fouling, and Cristiano Ronaldo if you like looking at his girlfriend. There are roughly 50 elite goal scorers in the tournament, which means there are plenty of stars to support a draft. Want to make it a bit wilder? Give teams points for yellow and red cards. Spanish back Sergio Ramos, who is in the bad habit of mugging opponents, and Portuguese defender Pepe, who would rather kick his opponents than the ball, become viable draft choices.
It sounds complicated but isn't. The key is to play off European gamblers, who have helpfully placed odds on who will score the most goals in the tournament (look at oddschecker.com) and which teams will move forward. The decision of whether to build your team around great players whose countries won't advance or decent players bound for the finals is up to you. One word of caution: Draft a defense late at your own peril. The important thing is that – if you follow the rules below – you'll likely have a rooting interest in over half the games in the tournament. Watching the World Cup is way more entertaining when you're trying to beat your friends.
THE RULES OF FANTASY FUTBOL
Each fantasy team will have 6 players and 2 team defenses. Players and defenses are picked over 8 rounds in a snake order (i.e. whoever picks first in round 1 will be last in round 2 and vice versa). Competitors can pick players and defenses at any time. Whoever has the most points at the end of the tournament wins.
Individual player scoring
Goals (2 pts)
Headed goal bonus (1 pt)
Shot on goal (0.2)
Own goal (-5)
Man of the Match* (3)
Yellow Card (1)
Red Card (2)
Red Card for punching/kneeing/kicking someone in the crotch (5 pt bonus)
Team defense scoring
Save (0.2 pts)
Goal against (-0.5)
Clean Sheet (i.e. a shutout) (2)
*A completely subjective award given by FIFA to the best player in each game
Photos by Pavel Golovkin / AP / Corbis