AC Milan and FC Bayern Munich squared off within the Soldier Field confines in a well-attended, well-matched international friendly this past week. There was no major reward awaiting the victor, AC Milan, who finally won in a penalty shootout. The Italian club didn’t secure a spot in the World Cup or earn top seeding in the next Euro Cup. The friendly–an exhibition put on as part of the International Champions Cup–meant as much as the NBA All-Star game or NFL Pro Bowl. Yet the play on the pitch was worthy of the over 44,000 mostly Bayern Munich fans attending the match.
I’m not a super soccer fan. I looked over the starting lineups before the match kicked off and didn’t recognize more than a handful of names. I don’t go to Chicago Fire games and I’m not glued to my seat for every Premier League or UEFA championship. Major League Soccer was founded in the early 90s when my fandom was already interwoven with baseball, basketball as well as American football making it hard to latch onto another sport, especially one that’s so low scoring. But here’s the thing: soccer is exciting and those of us that don’t give it enough attention are missing out on world-class events.
Soccer matches, even exhibitions, are thrill-a-minute (well, thrill-every-few-minutes) chess matches from kick-off to final whistle. Much like hockey, the low final scores aren’t a good representation of the 90+ minutes of action I saw as the stars of Bayern Munich and AC Milan traded goals until the very end. Well-placed corner kicks, powerful headers, sharp passes, outside the box strikes and even near misses brought the crowd to its feet time and again. Fans of soccer follow the game with a passion, for a good reason.
Advanced analytics and deep statistics have drawn a new fanbase to baseball in recent decades. Numbers, and the challenge of extrapolating them into stories and predictions, have brought younger fans to baseball when Major League Baseball needed them most. The folks attempting to establish soccer as a thriving American sport are bringing that level of numerical depth to Major League Soccer with tools like the Audi Player Index1. If successful it will bring thousands of new data points to fans’ fingertips. The index comes with lofty goals–rating nearly every on-pitch player action to define a unique score per player. This kind of info will help casual fans get who’s most impacting the match. If enough people dig into the details we’ll see an expedited fan migration to the world of American soccer over the next few years.
Exciting goals and heartbreaking misses coupled with digestible data can make soccer a truly compelling sport. The last World Cup captivated the US audience, international friendlies are filling up stadiums across North America and Major League Soccer attendance is growing2. Soccer hasn’t cracked the big four of American sports quite yet but more fans are realizing the pitch is perfectly suited for action-packed entertainment.